“The Sheets!”: Kary Wayson’s Way with Words
“The delight not only of etymologists, but of any spirit threatened with tedium … is to discover an astonishment hidden in, or underneath, the usual.”” – Heather McHugh
“A poem is a room into which we enter,” declares Kerry Wayson in the title poem of her latest collection, The Slip. The slightly formal inclusion of “into which” in the line, rather than “a poem is a room we enter,” is one of many ways that shows us the world these poems inhabit is a world where everything is a little askew. The black and white cover art of a woman in a 19th century dress with a mask (think Catwoman or a surreal bat) sitting next to an owl, wearing its own miniature version of the same mask, also gives it away— this is a delightful book about an off-kilter, sometimes troubling, world, and the poet invites us to share in her confusion, joy and celebration as we navigate it with her.
The Slip is full of things – specific images, of course, but also the word “thing”. Williams assertion of “no ideas but in things” is turned on its head here, as the speaker in many of the poems wonders what exactly is a thing, what separates it from another thing, and how exactly does perception work? The speaker in these poems is often witnessed in the act of thinking, and we get to experience her bafflement at the way the world comes at us. In “ I wore the dress”, describing yellow tulips, she writes “like any thing, they resist description/though my failure/first is one of attention.” The poem “More plural, less plural” includes the assertion, “A thing makes a thought and a singing.”
In “Unfaithful God” she writes,
I’ve learned it well. To do all I can
to sit still, to try
not to think – or think just-
things. The sheets!
in “Poem called Margaret,”
the season, a melon of seeds, the
was a thing.
The line breaks, sound and syntax in these poems contribute to a charged up sense of defamiliarization. In a post on the website for Hugo House, a Seattle literary center where she sometimes teaches, she mentions “I agree with whoever said that line breaks are the poet’s biggest tool. The line moves out while the sentence moves down: I do know that much is true.” An example of this sort of line break can be found in “’twas mistaken:”
to wait at the window, mis-
taking another turn. Be-
draggled fits, and under-
beloved. Now just another
and in “My subjects:”
there are three
ing in a lake.
The deliberate unhinging of words across line breaks often gives the reader a jarring surprise and reinforce the sense that not only is language constantly shifting, it’s also malleable, under the poet’s control, and something to be explored and celebrated.
One of my favorite poems in this book is “Because of the Paper Cut”, which bounces from metaphor to metaphor, with “the day” as its tenor. In it, ‘the day comes forward/like a color,” and later in the poem:
The day comes forward
a forward-coming thing-soft
younger- a small white body, a pillow
in a case on a clothesline pulley.
Wayson follows that up with “The day comes forward like a witness/with evidence,” and finally, the day is “a stolen-back sweater on the bedroom floor.” The metaphors accumulate in a kaleidoscopic way and linger; I think it will be a while before I stop thinking about what it means for days and colors to “come forward.”
There is more happening in this book than thoughts about things, startling descriptions and wild language. As if that weren’t enough! There are several relationships – mother, daughter, father, ex and current loves – all connected to a speaker on the move between different times and places, bringing those people along, sometimes becoming those people. As we find in many poetry collections, there’s a quest for self happening here. As she writes in “Ever You Are,” “Any human contact/brings news of me to me/any information is news.” In “There’s Joy,” the speaker writes, “I don’t have a daughter. Except for my behavior.”
I quoted Heather McHugh at the beginning. Wayson is a former student of McHugh’s and she mentioned in interviews Mchugh’s influence as a teacher/mentor/fellow traveler in poetry. Like McHugh she playfully interrogates how we perceive the world and how well language can bear witness to this perception. Like McHugh, she moves language around, highlights its malleability, makes parenthetical remarks that undercut her assertions. At the end of “the Circle” Wayson says: “Now the dog is dead./No he’s not.” In “Enter Extraordinary Clouds” these lines recall McHugh’s voice:
Lush (luscious) think (lit) and (silverly lined) ,
the sudden shifts of (shafts of)
changed my mind with sleights of color, then sugar
changed my mind a
Although there are similarities to McHugh’s work, the speaker in Wayson’s poems seem more vulnerable, sometimes more tentative in her assertions; the uncertainty never seems inauthentic. The book ends on a hopeful gesture, a gesture to the reader, with the poem “If You’ve Lived Alone:”
if you’ve lived for long, you’ve learned:
life loves most those moments where all
is: actually, lost:
the head of
the heart of
especially “love.” In those moments
if you can find a way to love without hope
for what, till then, you’ve taken as happiness,
then one afternoon you might meet it
Himself, standing in the frozen dirt, holding out a blue necklace—
Who knows if you will, from the back of your hood, say
yes I hope you say yes.
Love in quotation marks, a colon used like a dash, a blue necklace. The book ends on you, the reader. An invitation – I hope you say yes.