Kay Ryan, "Sharks' Teeth"

I know people who must keep the television and radio on. Who must always be on the phone. Noise and noisiness, a way of life.

Kay Ryan, "Sharks' Teeth"

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Kay Ryan, "Sharks' Teeth"

“Everything contains some / silence,” Ryan declares, and I wish I had the courage to write the dissertation for that thesis.

Hers is a Presocratic statement, not unlike “all being is one,” or “you can’t step in the same river twice,” or “water is the origin of all things.” I confess I look at these statements skeptically, even when they make sense. Asserting that change is the truth underlying the universe, for example, has certain purposes.

But the boldness they demonstrate is more than mere advocacy. Or provocation. Maybe someone wants to find out the truth of a proposition by devoting their life to it. Nietzsche and Heidegger spend considerable time musing on the Presocratics on account of this, and I don’t think they’re entirely wrong about that much. Nowadays, when a quasi-religious, pseudoscientific, overly bold proposition is advanced, it tends to be about power. Bullies thrive on being perceived like cranks, because it helps them dodge responsibility for their behavior (“he doesn’t mean to be rude, he’s just mistaken”). But in the context of Greek thinking, it does seem like something different is happening.

Of course, “Everything contains some / silence” is not an idea from Ancient Greece. We associate other things, other ages, with “silence.”

Sharks' Teeth (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Everything contains some   
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark's-tooth
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it. An hour   
of city holds maybe   
a minute of these   
remnants of a time   
when silence reigned,   
compact and dangerous   
as a shark. Sometimes   
a bit of a tail   
or fin can still   
be sensed in parks.


“Everything contains some / silence,” and the proof lies in noise. Why is noise lively? Or shocking? “Noise gets / its zest from the / small shark’s-tooth / shaped fragments / of rest angled / in it.”

“Noise gets…zest.” Zest. A brief inhalation of freshness from citrus peel. Where juice was, where a body pressed.

The “small shark’s-tooth / shaped fragments” of rest sound dangerous. “Zest,” too, is lively but ominous. I know people who must keep the television and radio on. Who must always be on the phone. Noise and noisiness, a way of life. The time and effort to formulate a thought, incomprehensible.

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Silence can be awful. But I don’t think it’s the primary problem. Noise threatens to drown out everything, including itself. It’s only because of a little rest, a little silence, that a noise can even be identified.


Where are the “shark’s-tooth shaped fragments,” exactly? Ancient atomists had this problem: they said the atoms were colorless, that color wasn’t real. The only thing that was real was a mass of swirling atoms. Some were temporarily organized into machines like our senses, generating our perceptions and ideas when other atoms interacted.

Fine. But that just moves the goal posts. How do corpuscles of a certain shape interact with other corpuscles of another shape to produce what we see? That needs to be answered before any determination about the reality of color.

By contrast, Ryan points definitively to what she means. Another idea of civilization hides within the way we conduct ours. “An hour / of city holds maybe / a minute of these / remnants of a time / when silence reigned, / compact and dangerous / as a shark.” Even in a city, even in a mass of noise, you find space and time meant for silence. A church bell calling for prayer; a news bulletin that gets every pedestrian to stop; a plaque memorializing a part of history.

William Deresiewicz talks about silence and contemplation among the medievals and Romantics. How the very concept of “social media” would be anathema. A “timeline” wherein one was asked to comment on every single event a “friend” announced would be obvious manipulation to them. I’ll go a step further. Social media can take full advantage of our egoism. The want to comment on the neighbors is made real through the “timeline,” the groups, the Slack chat, etc.

I’m not saying silence is perfect. There have been times in my life which have been far too quiet. But Hopkins’ “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame” has a memorable line for the thought I’m trying to articulate: “Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, / Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”


“Sometimes / a bit of a tail / or fin can still / be sensed in parks.”

Photo by Taisiia Shestopal / Unsplash

Parks—a common good, one featuring gardens.

I don’t want to go back to the Middle Ages. I know plenty who do, who want to bring back the Crusades. Who want butchery, racism, superstition, sexism, homophobia, and arbitrary, lawless governance in the name of “God.”

Our world is crazy. It’s near impossible to argue for public, common goods. They seem inconceivable. Some people really think society only exists for others.

It’s strange to think that an age with monasteries, stories of dragons and monsters, an approach to government centered on rings, alchemy, and single-digit literacy rates could have something to tell us about civilization.

But it actually does, and it has only a partial relationship to religion and to silence. Once upon a time, listening was valued. Not necessarily as obedience, not just as a way to pass time, but as something worthwhile in itself. What a danger: to insist we make ourselves worth listening to, to ask that we value listening.