Review of Lucille Lang Day’s The Curvature of Blue
Cervena Barva Press (2009), 90 pages, $15
Simplicity is typically a quality we think of as desirable, especially, perhaps, in poetry. Emerson said, “To be simple is to be great;” Whitman that, “Simplicity is the glory of expression.” They were wise, admirable men; surely they got it right. Simplicity is a word we associate with poetic concepts like beauty, clarity, and purity. Stevens said, “Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself.” We might think of haiku and the apparent simplicity of imagery stripped of commentary as what Stevens had in mind. But then, haiku often has two images, the juxtaposition of which complicates things a great deal. We are compelled to seek the significant relationship between these two images, and as we pursue that relationship, we discover a nearly limitless range of possible “interpretations” of the images themselves; we discover a variety of “ideas” that cling to these “things,” demonstrating that what Stevens proposed was not, in fact, simplicity, and that simplicity is simply not possible. The problem is that inherent in the concept of simplicity is the idea of singularity, the condition of being uncombined, uncompounded, and unambiguous, and none of those conditions exist to a significant degree in human experience.
This is why Lucille Lang Day’s recent collection of poetry, The Curvature of Blue, conspicuously avoids and even demonstratively denies the existence of simplicity. Perhaps not surprisingly, Day’s scholastic and professional background features as much science as poetry, and few arguments for simplicity exist in the world of scientific research. Coming from such a background, Day’s poems not only avoid simplicity but seem to be about complexity more often than anything singular theme, seem at times to joyfully wallow in the compoundedness of things.
The first poem in The Curvature of Blue is a perfect example and a poem I absolutely love. It is called “At the Museum After Closing,” and Day’s bio will confirm that she does indeed work at a museum, but what makes the poem effective is the way she uses that experience as a metaphor for a book of poems, for this book of poems. Not that Day ever mentions poems in this poem–that would violate Stevens’ directive–but assuming the speaker of the poem to be the poet, it’s a short leap to seeing the museum as being the collection (book) of exhibits (poems) “created” by the curator (poet), and we’re off and running with a wonderful conceit. Greater complexity occurs when the speaker points out that she, like the exhibits (poems), but not an exhibit, is also inside the museum (book of poems), visible by but separated from the museum’s patrons (readers) by her glass office walls (limitations of language).
Metaphors are inherently complex, and this seems a particularly apt and fresh metaphor for poetry. We come to it for the poems, but we always find in addition the poet laboring there, looking back at the reader through glass walls of words, visible, but never quite within reach, both drawn more powerfully towards one another and towards creating significance by the frustrating nature and promising potential of such proximity. Of course, this metaphor also captures the emphasis on complexity that exists at the core of these poems. The speaker-curator’s somewhat awkward duality as exhibit and worker, as subject and object, her existence as seer and seen, her being here and not here, being real and not real, her simultaneity, her “andness” belies any suggestion of simplicity and frames the primary significance of these poems as it reveals itself in various surprising and epiphanous ways here and in other poems.
One of the most prevalent oxymoronic coexistences in these poems occurs in what may be the cleverest poem in the book–clever because it appears to be a fairly simple thing: a love poem. This, however, is a love poem whose primary vehicle for expressing that emotion is the language of science, a detailing of colors, plant species and statements about the universe. Right away, then the simple notion of separation between art and science, emotion and intellect, love and logic is called into question by the presentation of one in the language of the other. Day’s speaker continues her blurring of simplicity by using colors synaesthetically, claiming to “hear cinnabar, / olive, raw umber, magenta, / violet and chartreuse,” and then saying, “when you hold me, I feel / a surge of indigo, amethyst / and tangerine.” But the compounding won’t stop there. Having begun with the premise that “The universe is beige” (an apparently singular color), Day’s speaker (channeling Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”) ultimately concludes:
. . . . Suddenly
stippled, mottled, streaked,
I don’t care if the universe
is the color of buckwheat
because iridescence spills
from you and me.
Thus it continues throughout this remarkable collection of poems, things we commonly think of as simple laid bare and revealed to be inextricably compound, intricately ambiguous, undeniably complex, shown in their truest light, as if Day’s motto came not from Emerson and Whitman but Whitehead’s injunction to, “Seek simplicity and distrust it.” Even such an unquestioned concept as contemporary apathy is challenged in “Letter to Send in a Space Capsule,” when the speaker writes to her post-apocalyptic audience, “It may sound strange, / but most people cared deeply about the planet / and each other.” One thing is clear: Lucille Lang Day cares deeply enough to look at things honestly, to admit complexity, and to never tire of exploring the bright, colorful, and infinitely varied and complicated fabric of human experience.