A Hundred Bolts of Satin

All you
have to lose
is one
and the mind
all the way back.
It seems
to have been
a train.
There seems
to have been
a track.
The things
that you
from the
abandoned cars
cannot sustain
life: a crate of
tractor axles,
for example,
a dozen dozen
clasp knives,
a hundred
bolts of satin—
perhaps you
more than
you imagined.

In Kay Ryan’s poem, “A Hundred Bolts of Satin”, she describes the unfolding of one’s mind through the metaphor of a train. She uses separate train cars to portray the compartments of our mind, which are useless if not properly connected. The objects that are held in these train cars, such as “a crate of/ tractor axles, / for example, /a dozen dozen / clasp knives, / a hundred / bolts of satin” (ll 20-26), also no longer serve any obvious purpose, just as the thoughts and knowledge in the mind are rendered useless when the mind becomes unraveled. Ryan elaborates on this idea by saying that the “things /that you /unpack /from the /abandoned cars /cannot sustain /life” (ll 14-20), meaning that we cannot live without a properly connected and functioning mind. After considering this idea for a while, I decided that Ryan uses “life” metaphorically, because people can technically sustain life with mental illnesses and disconnections, but their lives may not be a fulfilling or enjoyable as that of a mentally healthy person.
The short lines and lack of rhyme scheme or consistent meter add to the theme of disconnection. The choppy and inconsistent rhythm created by these free verse elements almost make it seem as if the speaker is struggling to produce these coherent sentences due to their own mental shortcomings.
Ryans wraps up this poem by making the accusation, “perhaps you/ specialized/ more than / you imagined” (ll 27-30). These four lines carry a lot of meaning. It seems as if Ryan is saying that although humans consider themselves to be far more complex than a series of train cars, we are really not and can come undone just as easily. She looks upon specialization in a very negative way, suggesting that it can lead to the downfall of one’s mental health. She seems to believe that by trying to organize everything, including our minds, into neat compartments, we set ourselves up for failure when that organization falls apart.


If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth's
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon.
Make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.

I found Ryan’s poem, “Blandeur”, to be interesting because while most poetry is written in admiration of nature, this piece is asking God to tone down elements of nature and make them less impressive. The title itself is not a real word, but rather one the Ryan created by combining the words bland and grandeur, which suggests that she would prefer that the earth’s landscape be less grand and more bland. In the poem, Ryan pleads with God to relieve her of the overwhelming impact of nature by limiting the extreme natural elements, such as fissures, glaciers, and the Grand Canyon. I don’t entirely understand Ryan’s unconventional approach to nature, but I found this unique view to be very intriguing.
Once again, Ryan uses free verse with no consistent rhyme scheme or meter, except at the very end of the poem, where she rhymes “hearts” and “parts” in the final lines. The lack of rhyme and rhythm gives the poem a flowing and natural feel that creates a conversational tone. This conversational element is important because the speaker is talking to God in a sort of rhetorical conversation. The diction of this piece is all interesting; in the sense that Ryan’s word choice may say more about her attitude toward nature then her actual request. She asks God to “unlean against our hearts” (l 18), insinuating that the extremity of nature actually puts a physical pressure on her. The pressure is most likely a metaphor for the sensory overload that Ryan gets from nature and considers unpleasant. She also asks that He “remand” and “silence” the “terrible glaciers” (ll 11-13), as if the glaciers are unruly subjects of God. Overall, I still do not know quite what to make of this poem and Ryan’s attitude toward nature, but I remain intrigued by her unique perspective.

These are photos of The Grand Canyon and Eiger Mountain in the Swiss Alps. Both famous landmarks are reference in Ryan's Poem, "Blandeur".

The Grand Canyon
Eiger Mountain

Flamingo Watching

Wherever the flamingo goes,
she brings a city’s worth
of furbelows. She seems
unnatural by nature—
too vivid and peculiar
a structure to be pretty,
and flexible to the point
of oddity. Perched on
those legs, anything she does
seems like an act. Descending
on her egg or draping her head
along her back, she’s
too exact and sinuous
to convince an audience
she’s serious. The natural elect,
they think, would be less pink,
less able to relax their necks,
less flamboyant in general.
They privately expect that it’s some
poorly jointed bland grey animal
with mitts for hands
whom God protects.

Poetry Foundation Reading
In her poem, “Flamingo Watching”, Ryan investigates the topic of standing out versus blending in. She uses the flamingo, a very bright, strange bird with some awkward tendencies, as her symbol of something that truly stands out. She goes into great detail when describing the bird, analyzing all of its characteristics, actions, and mannerisms. In this description, Ryan uses specific diction to emphasize the unique and awkward traits of the flamingo. Words like “vivid”, “peculiar”, “flexible”, “sinuous”, and “flamboyant” all contribute to the imagery of the strange animal that Ryan is trying to portray.
She begins the poem by saying that the flamingo brings “a city’s worth/ of furbelows” with her, wherever she goes. I did not know what a furbelow was at first, so I looked it up. Dictionary.com defines furbelow as “a ruffle or flounce; any bit of showy trimming”. Ryan uses the exaggeration of “a city’s worth” to convey the excessive showiness of the flamingo’s appearance. However, Ryan does not imply that this extravagant look is necessarily a good thing. She says the bird must bring it with her wherever she goes, which seems to insinuate that it is more of a burden than a blessing. She goes on to describe the same bird as “unnatural by nature” and “too vivid and peculiar/ a structure to be pretty”, which confirms the idea that the flamingo’s vibrant dress is not a positive trait. Next, Ryan uses the metaphor of a performer to describe the flamingo, saying that “anything she does/ seems like an act” and she cannot “convince an audience/ she’s serious”. I think this act metaphor further emphasizes the awkwardness that the flamingo represents because its appearance traps it in a permanent spotlight of sorts. From a grammatical and structural viewpoint, Ryan uses free verse throughout the majority of the poem, and does not coordinate the line breaks with the end of sentences. This style give the poem a more casual and conversational tone, because there is no real rhythm.
Once again, Ryan uses the final sentence of her poem to make a broad and thought-provoking statement, saying “They privately expect that it’s some/ poorly jointed bland grey animal/ with mitts for hands/ whom God protects.” This subtle and last-minute religious reference is confusing and seems somewhat out of place with the rest of the poem, but I believe Ryan did this intentionally to make the reader think about what has said about the flamingo on a larger scale and relate it to themselves. The main point that I drew from this poem is that people that standout and occupy the spotlight also have flaws and insecurities and are equally deserving of sympathy and compassion.


All You Did

There doesn’t seem
to be a crack. A
higher pin cannot
be set. Nor can
you go back. You
hadn’t even known
the face was vertical.
All you did was
walk into a room.
The tipping up
from flat was
gradual, you
must assume.

In her poem “All You Did”, Kay Ryan describes a very ambiguous situation using the metaphor of rock climbing on a steeply vertical surface. Amongst her description of the surface and climbing terminology, the sentence, “All you did was/ walk into a room” stands out because it does not fit with the rest of the poem, which focuses on climbing the surface. This sentence tells the reader that wall-climbing theme of the poem is really a metaphor for whatever situation the person encountered when they walked into the room. However, no details are given about the situation, so it left completely up to the imagination and interpretation of the reader. One common theme in Ryan’s poems is thought-provoking simplicity, meaning that although she says very few words in her poems, they challenge the reader to think more deeply on the topic. This poem and this sentence in particular, is a great example of this element of Ryan’s style.
Rock climbing is clearly a major theme of this poem. Ryan does not directly state that this is the topic, but she says that “There doesn’t seem/ to be a crack. A/ higher pin cannot/ be set”. After introducing the topic, she adds “Nor can/ you go back”, which implies that the metaphorical climber is stuck, unable to move up or down. Relating this back to the realistic side of the poem, the person that has just walked into the room feels trapped by whatever they encountered. The reader can assume that the situation that the person walked into when they entered the room was unexpected, because Ryan tells us “You/ hadn’t even known/ the face was vertical”. This sentence tells us that the person was surprised, and also indicates that the rock-climbing is just a metaphor, because a climber would clearly be aware that the wall or cliff that they were climbing was, indeed, vertical. Ryan closes her poem like she always does, with a deep and challenging statement. Her final sentence reads, “The tipping up/ from flat was/ gradual, you/ you must assume”, which opens up many questions and gives hints about what the person encountered when they walked into the room. As I stated earlier, we are never directly told what is happening or what the person encounters in the room that they walked into and this poem can obviously apply to a wide variety of situations, so it is left up to the reader to interpret and decide what is going on.