Erratic Facts

Erratic Facts by Kay Ryan
by Kay Ryan
ISBN: 9780802124050

I came across this interview with Ryan — I forget who originally pointed to the link — and was immediately intrigued.

Not being up on the latest news from the contemporary poetry scene, I didn’t know she was named poet laureate… in 2008. (So now you know more about how much I don’t know about contemporary poetry.) She seemed, according to this interview, pretty low key about it: “Being named poet laureate has granted Ryan a new degree of visibility in Fairfax. But, she says, ‘Nobody’s letting me cut in line at the post office or anything.'” The part of the interview that sparked my interest in reading her work was this:

People have trouble with my work because they want to say it’s humorous the way Billy Collins’s poetry is humorous, and that it’s witty. But there’s something else, this cartoony thing. When I read my poems to any audience there’s a lot of laughing, but I always warn them that it’s a fairy gift and will turn scary when they get it home.

Her style is what I expected from the way the interview talked about her work: short, clear, lingering. From early in this collection:

New Rooms

The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms—just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes
aren’t where
the windows
went.

From later in the book, this:

Eggs

We turn out
as tippy as
eggs. Legs
are an illusion.
We are held
as in a carton
if someone
loves us.
It’s a pity
only loss
proves this.

I had to return my copy to the library. I’ll continue to read more of her work.

Buddha

Buddha by Karen Armstrong
by Karen Armstrong
ISBN: 9781407233710

As one of my goals this year is to learn more about Buddhism, it made sense to read this not quite traditional biography by noted religious scholar Karen Armstrong. As she points out in various places, there isn’t the evidence or proof that many contemporary academics rely on, but “we can be reasonably confident that Siddhatta Gotama did indeed exist and that his disciples preserved the memory of his life and teachings as well as they could.”

Armstrong divides the story of Buddha into six sections, always providing context for elements of his story, from the existing religions of his day, to the political realities, to forces shaping changes in society. Armstrong isn’t a Buddhist, so while she does have opinions, she doesn’t seem to be presenting the historical Buddha, or the content of his teachings, from a particular school’s point of view. She has a knack for summing up: “Religious knowledge in India had one criterion: did it work? Would it transform an individual, mitigate the pain of life, bring peace and hope of a final release? Nobody was interested in metaphysical doctrine for its own sake.”

She explores the likely path Siddhatta Gotama took from privileged prince to wandering monk to becoming “the Awakened one” and from there, to the extent possible, how he probably lived the rest of his life. She separates out probable embellishments (often offering explanation for how they likely came to be) from more probable reality. While he may have been an extraordinary person, the Buddha was always a human being, as Armstrong reminds us.

If you are interested in the Buddha as an historical figure, or are interested in knowing more about how Buddhism as a religion/philosophy/practice came to be, I recommend this book.