Kay Ryan’s “Chop” with a note on inner form
by Kay Ryan
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
each step makes
a perfect stamp—
smallish, but as
sharp as an
goes the emperor
down his wide
the sea bows
–from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, (2010) p. 224.
Kay Ryan’s small poems expand in the mind of the reader to become maps of a world we barely recognize yet feel compelled to explore. Her style of fabled conciseness (Emily Dickinson is her cousin) seems to be governed by an extra awareness of what goes on beyond words. The process the poems enact seems allied to ascetic processes of meditation, and also to basic artistic form. I call this pattern “inner form” since it has no “surface markers” but inheres in the whole experience of the poem that points beyond itself.
Inner form, a pattern of experience before it is a verbal construct, begins “in” the world of things – “The bird / walks . . .”. The attention “follows” the object deeper into its world, and such attention prompts curiosity or even love. Call this stage the “other.”
The next phase of the pattern is the middle. The middle of inner form is “dialectical” since it involves the self in an exploration of its relationship to and with the other; this phase results not only a more complete knowledge of the other but also self-knowledge. To wit: “the glazed edge” is the observer’s note to herself; “the last wave” is a point in time for the observer.
“His each step” – we are following! – “makes a perfect stamp — “perfect to us, perfect for us! We are amused, and amused at ourselves to find such perfection. (“Perfection” is based on judgement so draws on our subjective values.) And so we create a metaphor that emerges from the thing itself: “smallish, but as/ sharp as an / emperor’s chop.” How happy we are to be able to say that phrase: “emperor’s chop”! How cool we know about chops, those seals used by emperors and . . . Japanese poets and artists. And the idea of “seal” is part of the original world of “selfhood” as experienced: a signature, a self.
The figure takes over: “Stride, stride” – do we mock it? – “goes the emperor”! How we feel his self-awareness, his sense of his being the emperor of all this wet sand! But of course HIS “self-awareness” is a double of our own.
We follow! He goes “down his wide / mirrored promenade” – and well, yes, we are watching ourselves in the glistening mirror, for surely the bird knows nothing of mirrors . . .
So we identify, as it were, with this bird.
As a continuing process with no fixed goal or end, this phase involves “self-transcendence”—the direction is away from the self towards an unknown X. In Ryan’s poem, the attention is now turned to the source of all this glistening stuff: “the sea bows” (we have read that somewhere, oh yes, Emily Dickinson’s poem about taking her dog to the beach–#656, “I started early, took my dog”). “The sea bows / to repolish.”
Those “chops” or “seals” of the emperor disappear as each wave travels up the gradual slope toward us.
Note comparisons with meditative processes of “emptiness.” As movement away from the solidity of the initial situation, this process is a “via negativa” – the kind of knowledge learned as this phase continues is marked by an increasing loss of certainty about the self. Our self changes during the poem from an everyday observer of the normal to a curiosity to metaphor-builder to an awakening to our own limits and the illimitable “sea.” (For Emily Dickinson, Ryan’s cousin, the sea is a favorite figure for death.)
But it’s the poem we love, the pattern that led us on. We are such suckers for that! The pattern itself, as “inscribed” or “fleshed” in the poem becomes a kind of knowledge. Not exactly self-knowledge, either, knowledge of an X we may call “transcendence as other” only because we don’t know what to call it. We have no name for the referent in the image of the sea which “bows” (ironically!) to “repolish” this surface which the emperor bird of our self keeps marking (up) as his own.