Kay Ryan, "Patience"

Kay Ryan does not bring us to the landscape, but the land itself.

Kay Ryan, "Patience"

Kay Ryan does not bring us to the landscape, but the land itself. We "once envisioned" patience, but now we're there. It is "wider" than originally conceived. It holds long, twisty rivers, far-away mountains, and tasks. Tasks "undertaken / and finished" by natives "in their native dress." The geography she presents is thorough as tradition is thorough. Tradition, a form of patience? That's a bit funny. Some of us are well aware of how quick to judgment and anger those espousing traditional views can be.

Kay Ryan

Patience is
wider than one
once envisioned,
with ribbons
of rivers
and distant 
ranges and 
tasks undertaken
and finished
with modest 
relish by
natives in their 
native dress.
Who would 
have guessed
it possible 
that waiting
is sustainable—
a place with 
its own harvests.
Or that in 
time's fullness
the diamonds 
of patience
couldn't be 
from the genuine 
in brilliance
or hardness.

Of course, tradition does not only appear in scriptures and strictures. Often it is not seen at all, but dictates how we see. It silently surrounds us, acting as the unquestioned value of our environs. A context other than lyric poetry is illustrative here. Machiavelli works to break tradition, revealing "new modes and orders," by speaking of geography. He could be an explorer, traversing an undiscovered country. Or an artist. Below, I've quoted a passage from his Epistle Dedicatory to The Prince. He's talking to a despot about where knowledge of politics comes from. Since the despot is high above, he knows the people, but by the same token, the people see him clearly from below:

Nor do I want it to be reputed presumption if a man from a low and mean state dares to discuss and give rules for the governments of princes. For just as those who sketch landscapes place themselves down in the plain to consider the nature of mountains and to consider the nature of low places place themselves high atop mountains, similarly, to know well the nature of peoples one needs to be a prince, and to know well the nature of princes one needs to be of the people. (1)

Machiavelli brings us to a revolutionary joke. Those in low places know the nature of a prince. If everyone below a prince readily sees him for who he is, the right to rule is theirs alone. It does not matter that a prince knows "the nature" of a people. Machiavelli's simile puts them on nearly equal footing. He is not in a position to easily manipulate them.

I can't help but feel that Ryan's sly humor is key for how geography and tradition relate.  She tells us that the land of patience is filled with "tasks undertaken / and finished / with modest / relish by / natives in their / native dress." Her description indulges silliness. "Modest relish" and "natives in their native dress" certainly are ways of envisioning patience, but they do not by themselves convey the seriousness of her thinking. We realize how much is at stake when we think of how much patience has defined certain customs and those dedicated to those customs. Something like iconography, say, where the works of past masters are studied, emulated, reproduced, and inevitably changed. Tradition demonstrates the patience of progress when seen over the largest timeline. The natives in their native dress know of their ancestors. They are not them, not beholden to their writings, but rather exemplify an adaptability and virtue essential to their spirit.

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Again, it is strange to speak of tradition this way. As if patience constituted a land and its inhabitants. As if it spoke to progress more than obedience. But Ryan looks out at the land and sees that "waiting / is sustainable — / a place with / its own harvests." Sustainability and harvests strongly imply growth. It does seem that bullies who use tradition as a compendium of answers are dedicated to a most impatient world. The land Ryan describes cannot be theirs. There is none of their insecurity. Instead, patience/tradition creates diamonds as brilliant and hard as any other. One thing missing from mention of these diamonds is any sense of pressure.


Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince. 2nd edition. Translated by Harvey Mansfield. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 4.