Kay Ryan, “Album”

Kay Ryan starts some of her works with thesis-like statements. Consider “Lime Light”One can’t work by lime light, or “Sharks’ Teeth”Everything contains some silence. When I’ve read these poems, I’ve treated what comes afterward as a demonstration or dissertation, a proof of the statement.

Death has a life of its own.

See how its album has grown.

Sometimes even I forget that a thesis, a contention about what is, is set forth to give us pause:

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.

I think about one photo in particular quite a lot. It’s of someone who recently became a mother wearing a winter coat while in a church parking lot on a gray day. From her arms, a plastic grocery bag filled with stuff dangles as she holds a baby who seems to be taking in something to the side, paying attention to anything but the photographer or his mother. The mother smiles brightly, like nothing could destroy this moment, like everything is as it should be.

Death has a life of its own and an album that grows. It builds this album from my memories. It feels like it steals life, though we are told it has a life “of its own.”

It certainly works in parallel with me. As I collect memories, I bear witness to how its album has grown in a year. I see more clearly what can be lost because I have gained.

And then, in the images that are my memories, the snapshots already a degree removed from moments lived, a curiosity. How the sharp blot of it has softened till those could almost be shadows behind the cherry blossoms in this shot. Death has a “sharp blot”—what a strange phrase. At once, “sharp”—something striking, something piercing, like accidentally coming across an item beloved by someone beloved and departed. A detail one can’t forget, like cherry blossoms. And also, at once, a “blot”—more spill than detail, it is both ambiguous and overwhelming.

This “sharp blot” softens. I’m looking at the photograph more closely; my feelings aren’t dying but rather changing. I’m imagining again. The softness makes me think those could almost be shadows behind the cherry blossoms in this shot. There is a light being cast, the object isn’t just an image in two-dimensions. Death has a life of its own—something within death feels very much like life.

In fact you couldn’t prove they’re not. Not that the mind plays tricks on us, such that we cannot tell what is waking or sleeping, life or death. But that memory comes loaded with more emotion than anything like a search for clarity: the “sharp blot” is emotion pulling us toward and away from detail. Details themselves have a wonderful ambiguity. Maybe it was a shadow that I hadn’t seen before. Maybe I didn’t understand what I truly lost, and an after-life is possible in simply looking through an album and trying to remember. I’m not sure if there were cherry blossoms in the church parking lot, but I remember them all over my hometown, especially along long walks I used to take.

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