Kay Ryan, "Cloud"

Ryan, like Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop, is also a poet of “existential horror.” She extends hope, but her lyrics terrify if attended properly.

Kay Ryan, "Cloud"

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There’s so much to share. Ruth Chan’s beautiful little comic “But I’m just like you!” is worth a thousand words. (I feel so sorry for the steamed fish with an X for eyes, despite the fact I love fish.)

Also, World Whisky Day occurred recently, and this person’s enthusiasm is quite contagious.

One of the best reads I can share with you is discussed a little bit below. My reading of Kay Ryan’s “Cloud” engages some ideas of Willard Spiegelman’s. His “Kay Ryan’s Delicate Strength” is an incredible work of criticism. I have 5 pages of notes on it—I felt like every paragraph of his gave homework. It’s not just that he knows lots about lots of different poets. He shows how they create a self through their style, how they represent the problem of self-knowledge, how they confront the terribleness that everyday life manages to conceal. It’s impressive to watch a scholar account for what he knows in this manner.

Kay Ryan, “Cloud”

In the forest, the sun hides, somewhat. Its light defines the floor, frames the branch, enlivens the green.

You’re there. The “deep pile of the evergreens” gives the air a distinct freshness. Green not just a color, but a force for or of life itself.

A cloud blocks the sun. “A blue stain / creeps across.” A blue from blocked sunlight landing on the greens. An intense and weird effect, creating ominous uncertainty. As if the end of light and warmth will be heralded by a bluish-gray.

Cloud (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

A blue stain
creeps across
the deep pile
of the evergreens.
From inside the
forest it seems
like an interior
matter, something
wholly to do
with trees, a color
passed from one
to another, a
to which they
submit unflinchingly 
like soldiers or 
brave people
getting older. 
Then the sun 
comes back and
it’s totally over.


Willard Spiegelman in “Kay Ryan’s Delicate Strength” opens with a quip from Marilyn Monroe describing my own practice. “I read poetry because it saves time.”

Ryan’s short, riddling poems don’t save time in an obvious way. Only after reading fifty or a hundred pages on a theme and realizing you’re not convinced that it matters at all—well, that’s when Ryan’s musings make themselves felt. She thinks hard about large subjects like death and self-deception. This results in her addressing debates which emanate from them, such as the presence of nihilism or the possibility of an afterlife. She illustrates what’s at stake and does not lack emotional resonance.

Illuminated woods
Photo by Steven Kamenar / Unsplash

Spiegelman goes further. Ryan, like Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop, is also a poet of “existential horror.” She extends hope, but her lyrics terrify if attended properly.


“Cloud” illustrates his point. “A blue stain / creeps” foreshadows but not much more. However, “From inside the / forest it seems / like an interior / matter, something / wholly to do / with trees” has a quiet drama. You’re looking at the forest turn blue, and your first reaction is denial. Nothing is wrong here; everything is normal; this has nothing to do with me. “An interior matter,” indeed.

The fear of the unknown becomes a revelation. The weird light initially disturbs because of the complete loss of control. You weren’t even where you thought you were. And then, there’s sincere wonder about other lives. The trees. Denial becomes a hypothesis, and is transformed.  Maybe the trees pass “a color… from one to another.” Maybe they hate it—perhaps it hurts them—but they “submit unflinchingly.”

I remember once feeling abandoned. I remember telling myself that lots of people had it much worse yet were doing much more. It didn’t console me, but I do believe perspective slowly brought me to other things. Very slowly—the mind tugs back. To recognize the sacrifices of others with sincerity can be a challenge.

My mom and her protectress, i love them …
Photo by eberhard 🖐 grossgasteiger / Unsplash

A necessary challenge, to be sure. For a moment, you might see strength as nothing but confronting paralyzing fear. Confronting one’s deepest ignorance. “Like soldiers or / brave people / getting older.” They were just trees, but now, a vision.


“Then the sun / comes back and / it’s totally over.” Ryan’s informality obscures a possible allusion. Compare with the last lines of Yeats’ “The Second Coming:”

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The sun returns in Ryan’s poem, but if a change in lighting provokes such a profound fear, then what optimism, what comedy, was ever there?

The main difference seems to be in the scope of their visions. Ryan’s is individual. The trees stand like soldiers, like the aging, in the face of death. Yeats enlists history, a nearly cosmic perspective. “Twenty centuries” and a demonic birth in Bethlehem augur the end of everything.

I believe there is more similarity at play here than difference. One has to be specific about what “The Second Coming” entails. It isn’t simply about the end of time. More pertinently, religions and moral orders can change dramatically. The advent of Christianity overturned pagan traditions in a rather short time. When things shift so much, it’s not only difficult to see good or bad, but to grasp how one would even approach the question. Perspective itself seems an impossibility.

When I put it that way, Yeats and Ryan can be said to explore the same theme. We can conclude this: an individual crisis of faith, of confidence, can be credibly mapped onto phenomena like moral panic or eschatological thinking. One can argue a child could have told us that, but that’s not true. Those of us who’ve watched people in our lives collapse into apocalyptic ranting wonder if the person we knew is there any more. It’s hard to believe they’re trying to “submit unflinchingly,” but maybe they are.