“Repulsive Theory” by Kay Ryan, published in the November 2003 issue of Poetry, captured my attention immediately with its opening phrase, “little has been made.” Much has been made of the phrase “Much has been made of,” and this opening plays off of my familiarity with that phrase. However, the opening line by itself makes a bold declaration “little has been made” This seems false on the face of it, and I expect the poem to support it or subvert it. While the line belies the syntax (or vice versa), both are integral to the understanding of the poem. Looking to the next non-prepositional line, we see that “nothing has been made” is juxtaposed with “while much has been,” an interesting juxtaposition, that makes a certain amount of sense.

I particularly enjoy poetry that makes use of tropes traditionally belonging to the realm of the scientific, a realm that has on occasion (through the branch of linguistics) attempted to subvert or at least control the critical response to poetry. I am fascinated with both mathematics and speech, with both physics and rhetoric, with both science and soul, and this poem satisfies both cravings. We have the hard facts of “magnets reversed” and the “principle of repulsion” followed by the art of “doily edges” and the abstract “arabesques of thought.” The imagery of the poem is obviously reflective of repelling magnetic fields, yet it transforms it to a criticism if you will of traditional thinking with regard to mankind’s need for connection, offering alternatively the truth of mankind’s need for separation, all of this of course, without resorting to such mundane exposition.

In fact her imagery is enchanting, especially in the combination of the concrete with the abstract. Things like “oiled motions” and “pearly convolutions” produce specific images in my mind, but they are attached, in the text, to abstractions like avoidance. Anyone who has watched the rapids of a stream understands the concept of an eddying vacancy. Something normally abstract is made concrete by placing it within a context that defines it by what it is not.

The end of the poem, gives me a little pause because it seems to me to attempt to over extend the metaphor, or rather, it defies the metaphor by taking it out of the personal, where it has worked so well, and attempting to apply it to the cosmological in a way that doesn’t really add anything to the meaning of the poem, at least to my mind. On the other hand, the final three or four lines seem to bring it back to the personal and tie it together, I’m just not sure the jaunt to the cosmos was necessary for them to work.

Finally, to address the question posed in the opening with regard to the making vs. being of much, it seems that the poem bounces between these two tropes, in its own form, and its position on its subject, negative and then positive. In the end, is their any reason that we must make and not simply be?

2 thoughts on “Poetry: “Repulsive Theory”

  1. Liked the poem very much—I have a few of Kay Ryan’s books. She is so brief, so hit-and-miss, that sometimes I find it hard to read her. I think the selected poem is very good, an example of how poised and controlled she can be.
    I didn’t have quite the same reaction that you did to the point where the poem pulls away from the Earth. Early in the poem, she is already contrasting the “self” with the “not-self.” For instance, the principles of attraction and repulsion both to the ocean and to thought. To extend that into space, into “cosmological sense” doesn’t seem such a great leap. That the principles of repulsion extend “FAR” beyond the personal is important…and how far can you get from the personal than space, in all its enormity?
    Plus, down there is where you get the great “set up by fending off,” which I think is what prompted your own note about “the truth of mankind


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