I am not in the mood for Kay Ryan's "Salvage."
"The wreck / is a fact. / The worst / has happened." These are not statements I want to make. I do not want to think about a wreck and what/who might be pulled from it. I do not want to feel relief while experiencing tragedy and loss.
Of course, this poem is fundamentally untimely. There is never a good moment to think about its subject matter. We have to, though.
–Well, maybe we don't. Some people never want to deal with loss or letting go. They might hoard every object conceivable. Or rage about the tiniest changes. Or pretend like the people they miss never existed.–
If we want to better understand how we deal, we've got to confront "Salvage." First, I want to talk about Ryan's illustration of the "salvage trucks" and the "salvage men." She presents us with a picture that seems too happy. People are represented at work, but is their work our actual state of being? Second, I want to look at her phrases "extractable elements," "periodic table," and "unthought." Is her poem slyly promising a negation of pain, and for what purpose?
Salvage (from Poetry) Kay Ryan The wreck is a fact. The worst has happened. The salvage trucks back in and the salvage men begin to sort and stack, whistling as they work. Thanks be to god—again— for extractable elements which are not carriers of pain, for this periodic table at which the self-taught salvagers disassemble the unthinkable to the unthought.
Once again, "The wreck / is a fact. / The worst / has happened." Part of what makes these lines so evocative is their vagueness. Was the wreck fatal? Or did everyone walk from it intact? There's no way to know. Of this we can be sure: if we were involved in it, we'll blame ourselves in one way or another.
You could read the poem as combating the guilt of a narrow miss. You watch the "salvage men" leave their "salvage trucks" and whistle as they work. You think about how some things can be saved from the mess. There are "extractable elements" that do not hold pain. It's like the world is simplified for a moment, reduced to things that cannot do any more damage. "[T]he self-taught / salvagers / disassemble / the unthinkable / to the unthought," letting us breathe, not weighed down by questions of control which might have maintained more safety.
I think that's a fair interpretation, but I'd rather travel a more radical route. The "salvage men" will sort and stack and whistle after the blood and guts have been cleaned. They should do what it takes to get their job done well, no? Not every moment for everyone can be overwhelming grief, can it? The outstanding question is whether our routines and need for normalcy can do justice to the actual pain our lives hold. It's not hard to imagine those mangled or killed by an accident whistling at the job site at the end of their commute.
Ryan may be offering her readers a challenge not unlike Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts." There's no way to read that poem and not become enraged at everyone in the paintings of the old masters, the various artistic inhabitants turning a blind eye to extreme suffering and sacrifice. The old masters dare you to assert your humanity, to try and resolve the tension of humanity depending on something more fundamentally inhuman. We have to try to respond to the injustices and tragedies we face, but no one can respond to them all, and even the best of us have to pick our battles. To illustrate this further: Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals talks at length about the need to forget. We spend all this time pretending to be rational, but that so clearly depends on forgetting being a powerful faculty. A kind of irrationality, if not anti-rationality, underlies our will to reason.
I'm not sure what to think at this juncture. After showing us whistling salvage workers, "Salvage" turns to words describing them as... angels? Co-Creators who could renew the universe? Take a look at the relevant lines:
for extractable elements
which are not
carriers of pain,
for this periodic
table at which
to the unthought.
These lines are too clean. Sure, what is left of the cars become "extractable elements / which are not / carriers of pain." The scene is a "periodic table" and the "unthinkable" merely becomes "the unthought." Someone can read these lines and actually sigh and say "Thanks be / to god." I know people like that. People who hate the idea others are in pain as it might meddle with their conception that they are the center of the universe.
All the same, it is true we do not use every waking moment to relive tragedy. Except when we do. Lots of us live in grief, not paralyzed but challenged by it. Challenged to keep the memories of those we loved alive, challenged to not forget we are loved. There is no "periodic table," no "extractable elements." The complexes of elements are human beings. I tend to believe that Ryan ultimately wants to explore how close the rhetoric of the near-miss is to that of dismissal. You can't think about the "what-ifs" all the time, but if you don't grapple with some of them, you invite catastrophe and an inhuman indifference into your life.
I do feel like there's a practical solution to at least part of the problem. I'm thinking of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," where she's talking about having to take care of the old man because no one else will. The subtext isn't subtle. It isn't clear the old man even likes their child, let alone their child's choices or sexual orientation. There are liberatory projects, times where we don't have to focus on every single thing which could go wrong because we're truly focused on what's right:
Thank you for reading.