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By Kay Ryan

Surfaces serve

their own purposes,

strive to remain

constant (all lives

want that). There is

a skin, not just on

peaches but on oceans

(note the telltale

slough of foam on beaches).

Sometimes it’s loose,

as in the case

of cats: you feel how a

second life slides

under it. Sometimes it

fits. Take glass.

Sometimes it outlasts

its underside. Take reefs.


The private lives of surfaces

are innocent, not devious.

Take the one-dimensional

belief of enamel in itself,

the furious autonomy

of luster (crush a pearl—

it’s powder), the whole

curious seamlessness

of how we’re each surrounded

and what it doesn’t teach.


Kay Ryan, “Surfaces” from Elephant Rocks: Poems. Copyright © 1997 by Kay Ryan. Reprinted with the permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Source: Elephant Rocks (Grove/Atlantic Inc., 1997)

Poet Bio

Born in California, Kay Ryan is the author of several books of poetry. Her unique brand of tightly compressed brilliance has earned her the status of one of the great living American poets, and led to her appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate in 2008. Maintaining a career outside the mainstream poetry circuit, Ryan teaches remedial English in California’s Marin County, where she has lived for the last 30 years. Ryan has said that her poems do not start with imagery or sound, but rather develop “the way an oyster does, with an aggravation.”

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