Kay Ryan, “Album”

Album (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Death has a life
of its own. See
how its album
has grown in
a year and how
the sharp blot of it
has softened
till those could
almost be shadows
behind the
cherry blossoms
in this shot.
In fact you
couldn’t prove
they’re not.

Comment:

How does death have a life of its own?

It certainly seems to have an album that grows with time. The speaker is specific about the time: a “year.” By saying “year,” she has implied all four seasons. This album does not just catalog the dead, it catalogs the cycle of our lives. We go through the years and leave moments behind, moments that have parallels with other moments but are always unique in themselves.

You would say that’s not quite death: we need the specific pictures of those we’ve lost. We would need their names, to account for what exactly has been lost. So she moves to “the sharp blot of it.” There’s the album and now also the “sharp blot.” Right away, one thinks “ink blot,” like death is written or spilled. That “sharp blot” is an oxymoron helps this reading, as writing is a likely candidate for something that could be smudgy but still legible. Newspaper obituaries can “soften.”

And yet that metaphor can’t be quite right, either. The album, at least, has the courtesy to grow, be a collection of our losses. The “sharp blot” that softens, on the other hand, sounds like us forgetting not just the sting but even what those we lost said to us and what we said to ourselves about them. How can these two things be reconciled? There’s more than a tension between them; at this point, they flatly contradict.

The two metaphors end up getting jammed together. The shadows are “almost” the softened blots, the writings in memory of another. Those shadows are “behind the cherry blossoms,” one picture in an album. It tempting to think the cherry blossoms, to speak in metaphor, are a combination of shadows and album, words and seasons. The shadows and album frame a vague space in which an image appears. This sounds too beautiful to be true and it is. Cherry blossoms are symbolic of the ephemeral as they so quickly blossom and wither. If those shadows are indeed what we thought about another, then what is most scary is how the picture of cherry blossoms contains nothing but our forgetfulness. Remembrance is really trying to remember, finding something that may or may not be the person we loved. “You couldn’t prove they’re not:” we can never say for certain that what we think we remember is wrong, so we cannot be right about them either.

Ryan’s poem prevents that dark a cynicism. Death does not have a life of its own because we forget as time goes on, losing even our memory of those we loved. The cherry blossoms were natural and are not now an image: we have what we think is an image of them. Death has a life of its own because, somehow, we eventually come to terms with it. I am speaking almost glibly, with no real way to convey the pain involved in these things. We recognize the natural as greater than our attempts to grasp it. Those who are lost are unique and irreplaceable, like those blossoms. We know nature is not final, hoping its incomprehensibility justifies the hope of rebirth.

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