Winter 2005–2006

Colors / Cyan

Lyn Hejinian

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

Cyan (pronounced SIGH-ann) is the color that emanates from a calm sea not far offshore on a clear day as the blue of the sky is reflected in salt water awash over yellow sand. You can see it for yourself in postcards mailed from coastal resorts or, if you are at a resort, from a vantage point somewhere above the beach—from a cliff, say, or lacking cliffs, from atop a palm tree. Various shades of cyan form the background to the ad for Swarovski (whatever that is) on page 13 of the April 2005 issue of Gourmet magazine. To create a highly saturated cyan on your own, you might pour 1/4 cup of Arm & Hammer’s Powerfully Clean Naturally Fresh Clean Burst laundry detergent onto the whites in your next load of wash (presumably Arm & Hammer adds the pigment to its product in order to provoke association with what we imagine to be the pristine purity of tropical seas). Also, you might search for “cyan” at, where a resplendent rectangle of the color is on display, along with a succinct definition: “Cyan is a pure spectral color, but the same hue can also be generated by mixing equal amounts of green and blue light. As such, cyan is the complement of red: cyan pigments absorb red light. Cyan is sometimes called blue-green or turquoise and often goes undistinguished from light blue.”

Cyanea Lamarckii, commonly called the Bluefire or Blue Jellyfish, photographed off the waters off the coast of Britain. Photo Keith Hiscook.

You can trick your mind into seeing cyan where it doesn’t exist by forcing your mind first to see everything as red. Hold a red filter (candy wrapper, red glass, etc.) to your eyes so that your entire field of vision (including peripheral vision) is colored for a minimum of one or two minutes—the longer the better. Then remove the filter and quickly look at a piece of white paper.

In addition to being the name of a color, cyan (from the Greek kyanos: dark blue, blue) can combine linguistically with other terms. According to Webster’s Dictionary (online at, in medical terminology, for example, we find “cyanopathy” (“disease in which the body is colored blue in its surface, arising usually from a malformation of the heart, which causes an imperfect arterialization of the blood; blue jaundice”) as well as “cyanosis” (“a bluish or purplish discoloration [as of skin] due to deficient oxygenation of the blood; cyanotic”). Cyanosis can be figurative as well as literal; in Margaret, a mid-nineteenth century novel by the Reverend S. Judd (an American Romantic in the mode of James Fenimore Cooper), a character remarks, “His love for me produces a cyanosis.”1

Taking their name from cyan, the Cyanea form a genus of jellyfishes, the most famous of which is the Cyanea capillata or Lion’s mane jellyfish, classed among the world’s “dangerous animals” because of the painful (though rarely fatal and sometimes even “innocuous”) stings it can inflict; specimens of Cyanea capillata as much as 8 feet wide and 1000 feet long are not uncommon along the coast of the North Sea, and are also frequently seen in the waters around North Sea oil rigs. Despite the cyanic prefix, Cyanea capillata is not blue but generally yellowish; in the same region, however, Cyanea lamarckii flourishes, a true blue jellyfish, also known as the Bluefire.

The first appearance of cyan as a combining form in English occurred around 1838, in T. Thomson’s Chemistry of Inorganic Bodies, and it now functions in the names of various chemicals and chemical processes. Thus cyanin is the name of “the blue coloring matter of flowers; —called also anthokyan and anthocyanin”; cyanogen is “a colorless, inflammable, poisonous gas, C2N2, with a peach-blossom odor, so called from its tendency to form blue compounds, among them pigmented paints, inks, etc., labeled Prussian blue”; and cyanide is “the name of a poisonous compound whose ingestion can be fatal, since it inhibits tissue oxidation (causing cyanosis—which is to say, the victim turns blue).”

An Egyptian papyrus in the Louvre mentions the “penalty of the peach,” an apparent reference to intentional (perhaps judicially mandated) cyanide poisoning, using oils pressed from bitter almonds. Almond-scented breath is a notable symptom of cyanide poisoning; however, approximately eighteen percent of men and five percent of women are unable to detect the smell.2 Cyanide is also present in cherry laurel leaves and in foodstuffs such as cabbage, spinach, cassava, and (as amygdalin) in apple pips, peach, plum, and cherry pits, and, of course, almond kernels. In the kernels themselves, amygdalin seems to be completely harmless as long as it is relatively dry. However, the seeds contain an enzyme that is capable of releasing cyanide when the seeds are crushed and moistened (as happens, of course, when they are chewed). Exactly this occurred with dreadful results in mid-March of 2005, when children at an elementary school in the Philippines ate a snack of inadequately prepared cassava; twenty-seven died and a hundred others became severely ill.

Hydrogen cyanide is present in some insecticides and it is often used as a pesticide in the fumigation of ships, large buildings, houses, trains, and airplanes. Automobile pollution-control devices with malfunctioning catalytic converters generate cyanide, as does burning wool, silk, horse hair, and tobacco, as well as modern synthetic materials, such as polyurethane. Hydrogen cyanide gas is the gas of the gas chamber; Hitler used so much of it that the walls of his death-camp shower rooms were permanently stained blue.

Among the possible antidotes to cyanide poisoning is hydroxocobalamin, a reddish powder; this has at least been shown to be an effective antidote for experimental cyanide poisoning in mice, guinea pigs, baboons, and dogs. Treatment for severe cyanide poisoning has its own risks, however, among them methaemoglobinaemia (a condition in which the iron normally present in haemoglobin is oxidized, leaving enzymes in the blood incapable of utilizing it). As an antidote to this condition—as an antidote to the antidote, as it were—either one of two blue dyes, toluidine blue and methylene blue (“a dark green, almost odourless, crystalline powder with a bronze-like luster”), can be effective. In effect, then, a blue poison can be counteracted with a red compound which, however, can itself be a poison, which can then be counteracted with a blue compound.

Cyan is the first name of an oyaji character in the Final Fantasy VI video game. He is a 159-pound, 5-foot-10-inch tall, 50-year old samurai, who has survived the poisoning (by cyanide gas?) of the castle of Doma, though it kills his wife Elayne and son Owain; his fullname is Cyan Garamonde. Cyan’s special ability is Sword Tech (SwdTech), in which, according to the game’s manufacturer, Square Co., Ltd, we can identify eight specific techniques. These include: Dispatch (“A randomly targeted single-strike attack”); Retort (“No immediate effect, but if Cyan is hit before his next turn, he will counterattack for huge damage”); Slash (“Halves enemy and causes seizure status [like Poison but with no cure]”); Quadra Slam (“Four randomly-targeted attacks”); and Stunner (“A fullscreen attack”).

Six cyan (though not Cyan’s) samurai swords were on auction on eBay on 21 December 2004; bidding on each began at £29.99, and they were timed to be sold off every ten hours or so.

Because cyan is one of the three main pigments used in CMYK color reproduction (magenta and yellow being the other two, with black added in to sharpen contrasts and deepen shadow—black is responsible for the K in the CMYK, though why a K rather than a B is not clear), on any given date on eBay, an enormous number of cyan print-heads, toner cartridges, plates, inks, etc., are available. Among the other cyan commodities for sale on eBay on 25 November 2004 were: Rare Chinese Cyan Jade Culture Genitals ($5.99): a Three Dog Night Cyan LP ($19.47); a Three Dog Night Cyan CD ($1.49); a pair of red/cyan 3D viewing glasses ($11); a pair of brown/cyan ski goggles ($99); a number of medium-sized cyan Julius Peppers Carolina Panthers Reebok Jerseys ($39.99 each); and four 100% cashmere cyan pashminas ($8.99 each). More pashminas at the same price were available on 21 December 2004 and on Easter Sunday of 2005, along with a Cyan Glazed Dragon Handle Ruyao Pot (twelfth-century China) ($5.80); a Sexy and Stunning cyan lingerie set (AUS $19.99); a set of 350 loose cyan-blue Czechoslovakian seed beads ($2.49 for the lot); several more copies of Three Dog Night’s 1974 Cyan LP, one of them signed by “Chuck Cory Danny” (who would be Cory Wells and Danny Hutton, who are still with the band, and Chuck Negron, who was apparently kicked out of it) ($19.99), and one not signed (99 cents). On Easter also, one could buy a Cyan Lycra Spandex Zentai Unitard Catsuit, available in four sizes: small ($20.50), medium ($12.50), large ($26), and extra-large ($57). One can’t help but wonder what determined the price variations. The extra-large Cyan Catsuit cost more than twice what the large cost, suggesting that it must contain more than twice the amount of lycra spandex fabric (it must, in other words, be huge as well as blue) and/or it must represent more than twice the amount of “time-congealed labor” (and have been exceedingly tedious to put together).

The whole world of color is a world of light—and of mind. Lighting designers play with both by adding and subtracting colors to and from each other so as to trick the mind into seeing what it should see. As Jan Kroeze of JKLD ( describes it:

Because the relevant part of the brain, which for convenience’s sake we call the eye, tries to see white light (an extremely relative term), it will add any missing colors to the least saturated surface. To wit: Most theatre and other lights are produced by heating a tungsten filament till it glows—this is true for most light bulbs (it will not be true in five years). The light generated by this method is almost entirely red, even though the eye sees it as yellow (let’s not go there). Under normal circumstances the eye deals with this—a sheet of white paper will look white under tungsten light. However in theatre there is a tradition of using colored gels to provide mood, suggest location, etc., and there is a tendency to use a warm color, such as pink, on the actors to make them look prettier, more sympathetic, whatever. When that happens the red bias in the light is reinforced and the eye has to take charge. Striving to see white light, the eye adds the missing colors—in this case cyan—to the least saturated surface within the focal area. This is often the actor’s skin which, as the ever more desperate lighting designer adds more and more pink light, turns ever blue/greener. To solve this problem, one simply aims a cyan-colored light somewhere close by on the set. The eye is then satisfied, colors are balanced, and the actor suddenly looks ten tears younger.

The word “cyan” appears nowhere in Shakespeare’s works nor in the Bible; it doesn’t appear in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, nor in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Usage generally suggests that the color is more a chemical or technical than an aesthetic (or experienced) blue—and literature, after all, derives from experience (whether real or entirely fantastic). Cyan, nonetheless, is the proper name of the color that a parrot might see over Tortola, or a parasailor who will artfully discover (in the words of “the exhilarating experience of floating in the air over the cyan sea.” Alas, that cyan sea is heating up and, thanks to dirty rain and human run-off carrying substances like Arm & Hammer’s Powerfully Clean Naturally Fresh Clean Burst laundry detergent, it has been a long time since the cyan of the sea has been pristine.

  1. I can’t take credit for discovering this; the citation is given in the OED.
  2. See Publication No. EUR 14280 EN of the Commission of the European Communities, Dissemination of Scientific and Technical Knowledge Unit, Directorate-General Information Technologies and Industries, and Telecommunications (Luxembourg). This lengthy publication is available online, and is the source of virtually all of my information on cyanide poisoning.

Lyn Hejinian’s most recent books of poetry are My Life in the Nineties (Shark, 2002) and The Fatalist (Omnidawn, 2003). Other projects include “Qúê Trân” with music by John Zorn (available on New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands, Tzadik); two mixed media books created with the painter Emilie Clark, The Traveler and the Hill and the Hill (Granary Books, 1998) and The Lake (Granary Books, 2004); and the award-winning experimental documentary film Letters Not About Love, directed by Jacki Ochs. She teaches in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley.