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Spring 2016

On the Miniature

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Kay Ryan

“To be miniature is to be swallowed by a miniature whale.”

This is wisdom I gleaned from experience. And when I say gleaned I mean picked up off the ground after the commercial harvesters had come through. This is wisdom nobody much wanted; I surely didn’t. Of course, much wisdom is things we never wanted to know. (Itself an additional piece of wisdom, again demonstrating how discouraging wisdom is.)

But to return to the question of the miniature, we find imbedded in this prescient line the design flaw inherent in the impulse to miniaturize: all in the world you wind up doing is changing the scale of everything. If you manage to make yourself small (I was thinking about trying to have a very small life to escape the interest of, say, fate), you only excite a small whale to swallow you.

The stories of the miniature go down and down and down; small becomes the new large, over and over. In The Third Policeman, the great Flann O’Brien gets the last chest the policeman makes so infinitesimally small that it took him “three years to make and it took…another year to believe [he] had.” As with all processes, there is no end. The contemplation of the miniature is therefore destabilizing, dizzying, sickening. There isn’t any size that’s the “real size” after awhile. (O’Brien could have gone on.)

I remember when Carol and I were riding our mountain bikes along the White Rim Trail in Utah for four days. To get down to the edge of the Colorado River where the trail was, we had to descend hundreds of feet of steep cliff. But then the trail was again at the edge of a steep cliff, below which toiled the muscular Colorado. After a bit of time we came to think of our level as ground level, and of the carved cliffs above us as mountains. Only at the end of the trip when we were again up top did we remember the “real” mountains that you see from up there.

Thinking, in general, so quickly becomes canyons inside canyons.

Of course, it is tempting to go where the great Walter Benjamin went, that is, adoring two grains of wheat with the whole Shema Israel inscribed on them because of their smallness, their compactness, how they embodied the most in the least space, and since the tiniest thing contains everything (Benjamin believed), the grains of wheat were the most excellent available token of that truth—though of course immense, crude, and partial by O’Brien’s policeman’s standards.

We do feel magic in certain small things. Perhaps because we imagine that operations in an unimaginably tiny dimension would work…better? …differently? In any case, by changing size, so that we can’t get in there anymore, generating rooms too small to actually occupy, we give ourselves the possibility of everything turning out otherwise than it does here. We loosen an imaginative space that gets larger as it gets smaller.

All we’re ever doing is messing with brain operations. Isolating such things is a fundamental ambition of the artist William Kentridge. He is fascinated with how art fools the eye and tries to isolate that place where the mind is both making a pattern and being patterned. He calls it a “membrane,” in Six Drawing Lessons, the book of his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. It can be drawing paper. It’s any scrim that reveals the extreme vitality and flightiness of, what shall we call it, knowing?

A little poem is as fine a demonstration of this membrane as Kentridge’s drawings of a black cat or rhinoceros or his scraps of black paper that can be scooted into an irresistible horse. We know the horse is scraps of paper and we also know—cannot resist knowing—that it is a horse. Not an “outside” horse, not a horse up on top of Utah on top of the White Rim Trail, but a magic horse. As the products of miniaturization are magic.

The poem occupies the same place; it is made partly by the poet (scooting words toward each other, words which may themselves be self-attractive) and partly by the reader when the mind cannot resist the horse. Employing the tastes of Walter Benjamin, I will argue that the poem that is closest to the size of two grains of wheat will hold the most magic.

And this is the magic I’m interested in: not the astonishment kind, not the how-did-he-do-that kind, but the release kind. You are not made to feel large and clumsy by comparison to the exquisite tiny thing; you are invited to eat the magic bean. You laugh. You feel…right-sized.

So the miniature: it can go two ways. It can make you kind of sick with its destabilization (the chest within the chest within the chest, dimension called attention to and forever unfixed, little becomes big becomes little). Or it can make you feel kind of well with its destabilization: you find yourself comfortably inside of and just the right size for someplace you can’t be.

Kay Ryan's most recent book of poems is Erratic Facts.

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