Blue Mistaken for Sky
Autumn House Press
Reviewer: Maria Rouphail
Let me confess (to my chagrin) that before I was invited to submit this review of Blue Mistaken for Sky (forthcoming from Pittsburgh’s Autumn House Press), I’d never read the work of award-winning poet, Andrea Hollander. Let me also confess that having sat thoughtfully with the poems in Ms. Hollander’s latest collection, I am captivated by them.
To call Blue Mistaken for Sky a poetic or spiritual memoir may be to overdefine it. Nonetheless, taken together as Hollander has arranged them, the poems appear to be the mature fruit of a smart poet’s process of discernment, an exploration of personal loss and disillusion. Honest and authentic come to mind as apt adjectives, despite the current overuse of those descriptors. The fact is that the poems are proof of the poet’s dogged internal work, and for Hollander to have translated this journey into such graceful and relatable poems is stunning.
“A Story about the Heart” is one of many instances of Hollander’s clean lyricism and accessible autobiographical style put to the purpose of navigating the devastating betrayal of vowed love. The speaker moves fluidly between postulation and narration. There is plenty of drama in this poem. But it is controlled, without hyperbole, even as it draws a shocking analogy between a broken human heart and the broken body of an owl:
In the beginning I trusted
its fearless turning
and I followed.
But the heart thins
with each disappointment,
twists in on itself.
Then it flies out like the owl
that slammed into the windshield
the evening I was at the wheel
bearing his silence again.
The last line of this excerpt refers to the speaker’s husband who has withdrawn from her into his modus operandi of icy silence. The poem is an illustration, by means of simile and antithesis, of death by estrangement. The thudding sound of the owl’s collision with the windshield stands in relief against the cruel silence of the man in the front passenger seat. The owl is the signifier of the speaker’s heart, fated to die violently in this accident on the road. “A Story About the Heart” and other poems explore such existential mysteries, and they mark the terrain of an (emotionally) mature poet who is both brave enough to explore the darkness and skillful enough to formalize the experience into art.
Distributed almost evenly into three numbered (and untitled) sections, the fifty-five poems in Blue Mistaken for Sky deal mainly with the destruction of a marriage, the “other woman,” the wrenching process of dismantling a household, moving across country, and living (and sleeping) alone. As well, there are poems that reprise childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. All are organically interrelated.
The poems ask the big How and Why. At the same time, they remain grounded in the natural world and in the physical particularities of old and new domestic spaces. Blue percale bed sheets, for example, are important, as are the speaker’s favorite green couch and the gray-brown hills between Arkansas and Oregon.
I was especially moved by the retrospective pieces in Section 2. “Evening Meal” thematizes a child’s impotence before a man who habitually manipulates his wife and children with cold silence and violent anger. The speaker remembers the family dinner hour with her parents and brother as a time of humiliation:
I had talked back, angry
at him, but also disgusted
with my mother for letting him
use silence as a weapon again…
The father has raised a hand to strike the daughter who has intervened on her mother’s behalf:
Answer her! I shouted,
believing the words
of a twelve-year old girl
could force open the locked door
of a grown man…
One of the most perfectly wrought images (and there are many) in the entire collection is housed in this poem, and it constitutes a harrowing statement of the father’s rage and alienation:
…My father’s face
was white, its door slammed
against all three of us.
Positioned virtually at the center of Section 2 (and, therefore, of the collection), “Evening Meal” is the thematic core of the collection. This poem, and the immediately preceding “Against Silence,” are together the Rosetta Stone for deciphering the habit of the adult heart to seek what the child has been trained to know as the way of love – which is not love, after all. At least, not the life-giving kind.
There is risk in attempting such intimate projects as this. In lesser hands, an overwrought treatment of the perennial topics of death, abandonment, and betrayal (of the parental role, of the marriage bed, etc.) is a common result.
But Hollander has mastered these themes, ostensibly as she has put powerful emotions, very personally experienced, into the harness of well-crafted form. There is strong but controlled energy in her expressions of anger, sadness, bemusement, and even wonder.
There are also hard lessons learned, especially in the “Against” poems, six pieces whose titles begin with the word Against, as in rebuttal. Here is a sample from “Against Detritus”:
Some mornings I sit on a bench
beside the water. I try to be still,
release myself from what I know.
No matter where I sit
I’ve got the same job
of trying to clear my mind.
I don’t want to think anymore
about what happened or why.
To empty myself, I write.
“Against Detritus” is a formulation in breve of the insights shared by the world’s major religious contemplative traditions: that to know deeply and fully, one must relinquish binary certainties of cause and effect, all self-justifications and ironclad categories. In this ascetic practice, one enters a “cloud of unknowing,” an internal space of deep silence where the core self is encountered and embraced. This apophatic self-emptying becomes, in time, the cataphatic prayer or song. Or, in Hollander’s case, a beautiful poem.