Newsletter #140 April 2023

Newsletter #140 April 2023
November 6, 2023 Christina Mullin

Franz Marc, The Foxes, 1913

April, 2023

Welcome to Plume #140

April –and, as another birthday approaches, out for a run this morning Turing’s famous observation accosts me: “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done”. Why this sudden – and generally uncharacteristic — optimism? Those of you reading these words probably will understand my answer:  after a long silence, I have begun writing a poem. One that holds some promise, I think, but who knows? Nor does it matter. And isn’t this one of the wonders, the little salvations, of our art? How, in  the mind, and then as it emerges on the page, one needs to see only that “short distance” – as far as the next word, the next line, the next stanza – to be filled with, yes, hope? Is there a more profound pleasure than that calm buoyancy of inspiration; to have before one again “ plenty that needs to be done”?


Let’s turn now to Brian Culhane, recalled here by popular demand after his essay in issue #138’s newsletter on Frost’s “The Woodpile.” Below, Mr. Culhane takes on Kay Ryan’s ‘frustrating , tantalizing’ “Say Uncle”.

Through the Keyhole: Kay Ryan’s “Say Uncle”

I’ve long been a fan of film noir, and recently rewatching The Third Man, I especially enjoyed the cinematographer’s use of canted angles—those created when a camera is purposely tilted, making for a visual field that’s askew, as the horizon is no longer perpendicular to the side of the visual frame: a staircase looks off-kilter, a bombed building slants weirdly to the side, a face hovers off-center. The effect of such heightens the genre’s typical atmosphere of confusion, anxiety and desperation. It’s not much of a leap to see how particular poets, too, influence how we see things, oddly narrowing or tilting the field of vision and so constraining our perspective, to accord with their artistic sensibility. The late Charles Simic immediately comes to mind, as does the subject of this essay, Kay Ryan, a former poet laureate, whose intricately-reasoned poems can be as baffling as they are intriguing. Ryan’s work doesn’t give us a source of instant gratification; she isn’t especially interested in whether we can relate; nor does she seek a too-easy intimacy with her reader, refusing to offer personal details about her life. Instead, she presents us with a way of seeing the world, one which requires usto align our sight to her peculiar optics.
To read a Ryan poem is like trying to make out a room’s interior, not by opening a door and walking through it, but rather by approaching the door, bending over, and looking through the keyhole. A miniature illuminated scene unfolds: a woman’s hand lifts a hairbrush, a mirror in the background glints with light coming from an unseen window, a man crosses the room (a bedroom?). Some domestic drama appears to be going on, but the keyhole permits only a tightly contracted perspective. Yet, if given the chance, her subjects do gradually become clearer, until the aperture of the keyhole seems to open wider, revealing different order of magnitude: images, though still constricted, loom larger; our bafflement, unlikely entirely to vanish, lessens. By the third or fourth reading (her poems are short, generally a page or two), we begin to realize—and, if you’re like me, deeply admire—the intelligence at work, the consummate skill that creates her strange mode of apprehension. What do we begin attending to? Line-breaks that interrupt and over-turn ordinary phrasing; plain language revealing reverberant depths; and rhymes (often near-rhymes) binding words together, frequently in unusual, surprising, and witty ways. Indeed, to an exceptional degree, Ryan has wit, whose interlaminating qualities Merriam-Webster defines as “the ability to relate seemingly disparate things so as to illuminate or amuse; clever or apt humor; astuteness of perception or judgment.”
Here’s the title poem from Ryan’s fifth collection:

            Say Uncle

Every day
you say,
            Just one
            more try.
Then another
day slips by.
You will
say ankle,
you will
say knuckle;
why won’t
you why
won’t you
say uncle?

There is a question asked at the end of the poem, though we might begin with a couple of our own: Who is being addressed and under what circumstances? There seems to be an implied plot, whose unraveling might help us better understand the context of the question posed at the poem’s end. Say uncle is a command, after all, usually demanded of an opponent in some kind of contest—on the order of a wrestling match, not a war—and it means to admit defeat, to give up. We can readily understand why saying uncle would be harder than saying some of its slant-rhymes mentioned by the speaker: ankleknuckle. But let’s backtrack. The poem begins with the speaker addressing an unnamed person identified as (faulted for?) continually saying “Just one / more try.” Perhaps that phrase means something like: “I’m going to give it [i.e., something attempted but not accomplished] one more try.”We also learn that the person addressed repeats this same phrase “every day, “implicitly indicating a daily failure, a series of efforts[endeavors? struggles?] that have never succeeded and most likely never will. We have no idea what this attempt particularly pertains to. Is it a specific contest of some kind? Or perhaps, it’s the repeated phrase of someone who, broadly speaking, hasn’t much succeeded in life, yet nonetheless keeps trying, even as“… another / irrecoverable / day slips by.” Either this kind of effort is doggedly persistent and praiseworthy; or, which seems more likely, simply evidence of numbskull obtuseness.
The most intriguing lines of the poem, for me, are those that are oddly structured: the reiterated phrase

why won’t
you why
won’t you

forcing by its line-breaks a halting enjambment, a comic insistence: You say ankle and knuckle easily enough, don’t you, don’t you? (In fact, these lines suggest an ironic response to the received wisdom, “If you don’t succeed, try, try again.”) Which brings us back, perhaps now somewhat less confused, to the title and just what saying uncle—giving up, yielding—in this context might mean. Maybe the person addressed in the poem should yield to an inevitable defeat, but even so, what would that mean, exactly? Presumably, a cessation of unsuccessful attempts, but what beyond this? Would his or her future resemble a Beckett stage, with its tragicomic scenes of immobility, resignation, and entropy? The poem’s meaning lies—frustratingly, tantalizingly—just out of reach. It could be that Ryan wishes us, her still perplexed readers, to simply give up trying to discern clear incident, motive, plot—all the usual suspects in narrative art, from film to verse—and much like her poem’s protagonist end by admitting the contest is over and we must, ourselves, say uncle. Through a strange turn of perspective, we’re also the person so admonished. Or, to put it differently, suddenly we’re the riddle under scrutiny (fittingly, the etymology of riddle links the word to the act of reading).
In Ryan’s art, we often witness such wry mini-dramas, and if multiple readings do illuminate aspects of the espied scene, the poet’s narrow stanzas typically hinder our full gaze. Hers is a willful unwillingness to make definite what she wishes to keep implicit. While such may displease those who prefer their puzzles have neat endings, to others, like me, her wholly original poems tactfully keep their distance, offering clues and intimations, keyholes without keys.

To read a Ryan poem is like trying to make out a room’s interior, not by opening a door and walking through it, but rather by approaching the door, bending over, and looking through the keyhole – exactly so, no?

For more on Kay Ryan see her page at the Poetry Foundation’s website.

What else?

Ah – congratulations to Vinod Kumar Shukla, a Plume contributor, winner of the 2023 Pen/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. And thanks to Leeya Mehta for curating the feature in which his work appears: 21 Contemporary Indian Poets.

Also, we’re pleased to note a number of poets/essayists/translators who have been nominated for a Pushcart prize for work originally appearing in Plume, all of which can be found in our archives or in the print anthology Plume Poetry 10.

Danisha Lameris            “The Boxes”
Daisy Fried                     “The Deposition”
Llyod Schwartz               for the translation from the Bengali of “Lover Rain”                                                       by Jahangir Hossein
Fox Henry Frazier           Essay, “So I Would Move Among These Things:                                                           Maya Dern and the Witch’s Cradle”
Alexis Rhone Fancher    “When My Son is Dead”
Daniel Meltz                   “Cataclysmic Paternity”
Cathy Coleman              “The Fear Circus”
Karen Kapoor                 “The Table”
Dean Young                    “Last Poems”
Cassandra Atherton,       “Pre-Raphaelite Triptych”
Celia Woloch                  “The Wars Between the Wars Between the Borders                                                      That Were Not There”
Safiya Sinclair                 Mirabilia”

Our cover art this month is Franz Marc’s The Foxes, 1913.  For more information on the artist, a good start might be made here

Finally, as usual, a few recently published/forthcoming books from Plume contributors:

Mark Irwin                                  Joyful Orphan
Jennifer Franklin                        If Some God Shakes Your House 
Monica Youn                               From From: Poems
Jorie Graham                              To 2040
Ron Slate                                     Joy Ride
Judy Katz                                    How News Travels
Deborah Landau                        Skeletons      
Campbell McGrath                    Fever of Unknown Origin
Marilyn Hacker                          Calligraphies: Poems

That’s it for now — I hope you enjoy the issue!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume