Take a Break and Read a Fucking Poem: "The Walking Stick Insect" by Kay Ryan squib

by Rich Smith
Imagine if the legs were replaced with antennae. kuritafsheen / GETTY IMAGES

Right now a lot of people are telling a lot of other people to "hang in there." Lord (and Gmail) knows I am.

But given my ignorance of other peoples' lives, the cliche phrase is already beginning to feel offensively hollow. Eventually I'll need to find some other words to carry the emotional weight I intend. That work, however, is difficult. That's because language, as my old poetry professor Rick Kenney says, is a digital way to describe an analog world. Images do better. Music does better. Moving pictures do best. Plain words are the worst. Good poetry can create images or moving pictures or music in our head, but it's hard to create those things with words, which are mostly dead metaphors.

Lately, when I've been reaching for a good sign-off, the only relevant thing that pops in my head is the image of the bug in Kay Ryan's poem, "The Walking Stick Insect," which you can find in her book, The Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed, available at your local bookstore.

A few notes:

• Ryan published the poem with four others in The Paris Review, and though the site cuts off the other four, you can still read the whole walking stick poem there. It's short.

• Vocab time: This poem is an example of an epic simile, which just means that the entire poem is a metaphor for something. In this case, the metaphor is trauma.

• Though Ryan tends to write short little poems with short little lines, the line lengths in this case reflect the all-antenna-walking-stick's slow, painful, inching forth.

• The insect—and the speaker who is so clearly identifying with the insect—in this poem reminds me a little of the speaker in Mary Ruefle's poem, Kiss of the Sun. In Ryan's poem, the speaker is "appalled by / everything's / intensity," whereas the speaker in Ruefle's poem did not know how to touch anything on earth because it was "all so raw." The tones in both of these lines, though, are meaningfully different. As the unemployment numbers continue to spike off the charts, I fear we'll all start to feel more like the war-weary bug than the charmingly anxious poet at the end of time-space. But signing off emails with a photo of a walking stick may be funny enough to pull us out of the doldrums. We can only hope.

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