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About this poet

In 1946, Michael Ryan was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He received a BA from the University of Notre Dame, an MA from Claremont Graduate University, and both an MFA and PhD from the University of Iowa. While studying at Iowa, he was the Poetry Editor of The Iowa Review.

Ryan's poetry manuscript, Threats Instead of Trees (1974), was selected by Stanley Kunitz for the Yale Series of Younger Poets and was a finalist that year for the National Book Award. His second collection of poems, In Winter (1981), was a National Poetry Series selection. Since then, Ryan has published two other collections of poetry, God Hunger (1989), which received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; and New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), which received the 2005 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.

About Ryan's work, the critic William H. Pritchard said in The Nation: "Unlike too many poets who tumble into print at the first twitch of feeling, Ryan takes time to listen to himself, and such listening contributes immeasurably to the subtlety of his address to the reader. [He] reminds us on every page that poems can be about lives, and about them in ways most urgent and delicate."

Ryan is also the author of an autobiography, Secret Life (Pantheon Books, 1995), which was highly acclaimed and became a New York Times Notable Book. He has also written a memoir, Baby B (Graywolf Press, 2004), excerpted in The New Yorker, and a collection of essays about poetry and writing, A Difficult Grace (University of Georgia Press, 2000).

"Ryan shows himself to be a superior formalist—" the poet David Baker said in The Kenyon Review, "that is, subtle, effective, various—for whom formality is less a quality to flaunt than a necessary means of articulation and control, whose best work is severe and taut, and whose gift is to be able to turn the apparently personal into the public and important."

Ryan's honors include a Whiting Writers Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. He has taught writing at the University of Iowa, Princeton University, the University of Virginia, the Warren Wilson College MFA Program, and the University of California, Irvine, where he has been a Professor of English and Creative Writing since 1990.

He currently lives in California with his wife, Doreen Gildroy, and their daughter, Emily.

Sex

Michael Ryan
After the earth finally touches the sun,
and the long explosion stops suddenly
like a heart run down,
the world might seem white and quiet
to something that watches it in the sky at night,
so something might feel small,
and feel nearly human pain.

But it won't happen again:
the long nights wasted alone, what's done
in doorways in the dark by the young,
and what could have been for some.
Think of all the lovers and the friends!
Who does not gather his portion of them
to himself. at least in his mind?

Sex eased through everyone,
even when slipping into death
as into a beloved's skin,
and prying out again to find
the body slumped, muscles slack.
and bones begun their turn to dust.
Then no one minds when one lover
holds another, like an unloaded sack.

But the truth enters at the end of life.
It enters like oxygen into every cell
and the madness it feeds there in some
is only a lucid metaphor
for something long burned to nothing,
like a star.

How do you get under your desire?
How do you peel away each desire
like ponderous clothes, one at a time,
until what's underneath is known?
We knew genitals as small things
and we were ashamed they led us around,
even if the hill where we'd lie down
was the same hill the universe unfolded upon
all night, as we watched the stars,
when for once our breathing seemed to blend.



Each time, from that sweet pressure
of hands, or the great relief of the mouth,
a person can be led out of himself
Isn't it lonely in the body?
The myth says we ooze about as spirits
until there's a body made to take us,
and only flesh is created by sex.
That's why we enter sex so relentlessly,
toward the pleasure that comes
when we push down far enough
to nudge the spirit rising to release,
and the pleasure is pleasure of pure spirit,
for a moment all together again.
So sex returns us to beginning, and we moan.



Pure sex becomes specific and concrete
in a caress of breast or slope of waist:
it flies through itself like light, it sails
on nothing like a wing, when someone's there
to be touched, when there's nothing wrong.

So the actual is touched in sex,
like a breast through cloth: the actual
rising plump and real, the mind
darting about it like a tongue.
This is where I wanted to be all along:
up in the world, in touch with myself. . .

Sex, invisible priestess of a good God,
I think without you I might just spin off.
I know there's no keeping you close,
as you flick by underneath a sentence
on a train, or transform the last thought
of an old nun, or withdraw for one moment alone.
Who tells you what to do or ties you down!

I'd give up the rest to suck your dark lips.
I'd give up the rest to fix you exact
in the universe, at the wildest edge
where there's no such thing as shape.

What a shame I am, if reaching the right person
in a dim room, sex holds itself apart
from us like an angel in an afterlife,
and, with the ideas no one has even dreamed,
it wails its odd music for pure mind.



After there's nothing,
after the big blow-up of the whole shebang,
what voice from what throat
will tell me who I am? Each throat
on which I would have quietly set my lips
will be ripped like a cheap sleeve
or blown apart like the stopped-up
barrel of a gun. What was inside them
all the time I wanted always
to rest my mouth upon?

I thought most everything
stuck dartlike in the half-dome of my brain,
and hung there like fake stars in a planetarium.
It's true that things there changed into names,
that even the people I loved were a bunch of signs,
so I felt most often alone.
This is a way to stay alive and nothing to bemoan.
We know the first time we extend an arm:
the body reaches so far for so long.
We grow and love to grow, then stop, then lie down.

I wanted to bear inside me this tender outcome.
I wanted to know if it made sex happen:
does it show up surely in touch and talk?
does it leak from the mind, as heat from the skin?
I wanted my touching intelligent, like a beautiful song.

From New and Selected Poems by Michael Ryan. Copyright © 2004 by Michael Ryan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Michael Ryan

Michael Ryan

Born in 1946, the poet Michael Ryan's works have been selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award

by this poet

poem
My sick heart and my sick soul
I'd gladly fasten in a bag
and drop into an ocean-hole
to float in darkness as a rag.

Would it learn to make its light?
Maybe in a million years.
A million years of constant night
in which it can't stop its fears

flaring their nightmare tentacles
and bioluminescent eyes
as cold
poem
The rich little kids across the street
twist their swings in knots. Near me,
on the porch, wasps jazz old nesting tunes
and don't get wild over human sweat.
This is the first summer of my middle life.
I ought to be content. The mindless harsh
process of history; with its diverse murders
and starvations, its
poem
The dead thing mashed into the street
the crows are squabbling over isn't
her, nor are their raucous squawks
the quiet cawing from her throat
those final hours she couldn't speak.
But the racket irks him.
It seems a cruel intrusion into grief
so mute it will never be expressed
no matter how loud or long the