Review by David E. Poston
Under the Music of Blue
FutureCycle Press, 2017
Ah, that siren, Dede Wilson. Her new collection, Under the Music of Blue, pulls one in with beautifully rendered sound and imagery. Its beauty comes from mastery of craft: command of the vowel register, fluent pacing and repetition, facility with echoes and nuances. Under this lovely music, though, are complex currents of imagery and memory presented with wry wit and poignant insight. By the time one reaches the penultimate poem, “Leaving the Vineyard,” the collection’s thematic arc has clearly emerged:
Far from tender vineyards
where vines, sharply pruned,
weep with fruit, I tilt
my glass, turn the page.
A child, smiling in the sun,
appears between the lines,
spirals toward the margin.
I don’t mind.
Grapes are rolling over the sympathy of my tongue.
I’m pouring the years into wine.
The opening poem, “The Ecstatic Man,” presents several motifs: the synaesthesia indicated by the title, the intersection of visual and musical art, reverence for Chinese masters such as Basho and Li He. The speaker first addresses the reader, then Basho, then—perhaps—herself; that shifting of addressees happens throughout the collection. “Three Green Pears in a Blue Pottery Bowl,” the poem which provides the title, establishes how painting, and music will illuminate memory. It begins
a little bluer, please,
Liszt is whispering
to his court musicians.
The speaker invites us to
Imagine a shallow bowl
with three green pears,
the clay-cold edge
blue against his mind.
My grandmother lifting
a blue enameled bowl
to catch the beat of rain.
The clarity of rainwater
she saved to wash her hair.
The poem circles back to Liszt, the bowl, the pears—images become vessels for memory.
Section I starts with a child waking from “the shawl of darkness” and “the collar of grief,” waking “to branch and birdsong/the measure of bells.” Though grief threads through this collection, there is also a powerful call to wonder. In “The Girl Who Danced on Her Hands by the Sea,” as she runs through the dunes, through “the salty breath/of the sonorous beast…”
light hides, rising behind
a sum of exhalations,
while on and on
the vastness reels, the beat
of her feet, the sand at her heels,
the roll of the sea, greedy,
steamy, myth-riddled sea
her pulse repeats, deceived
by grief, residual and deep.
Just for a breath the water sleeps.
The grief is embodied in the weight of old sweaters in “Seasons,” with its concluding allusion to the erstwhile childrearing bible, Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, and to the pain and regret that all parents carry:
We let her cry, that is the pain of it,
something we’d read somewhere.
The low points, as in “A Day’s Failed Silence,” find the speaker hearing
Nothing of God, nothing
but this pesky honeybee
hymning around my knees.
“Still Morning” ends with the repeated cry
of the gull
ease of a dive
Yet, even in those low moments, there is still surprising beauty in the details. The first section ends with the poem “To Sleep,” calling for sleep “rapt in moonlight” as an escape from “ash and residue” and “the lily’s fallalery.” In the middle of this plaintive poem, though, we see the image of
the yellow gorse crushed by Goliath
in the valley of Elah.
The poems of Section II are more discordant in tone and imagery, filled with gnawing, grinding, blazing and charring, smoldering bones, gnats, scarecrows, wreckage. In “The Sun Rides on Its Own Melting”
I am sitting on splinters, dusts of shell and sand.
My wry glass on the rail. The parched lips of leaves.
This day a body too withered to hold.
Squirrels are chewing their tails, pine voles
choosing cool chambers. The cat on the sill,
fiddling with twigs, chill as a fossil in amber.
The speaker in “Chameleon” prays
Our Father, who are in inner space,
spare me the wraiths
of your wretched garden.
Make me chameleon.
Yet there are also moments of joy and youthful expectation, as in “Happy Hours,” when the speaker’s father
tilted the kettle and offered a toddy
hot to soothe and confuse
oh so good to feel it
nothing like the vanilla extract
I drank in the pantry with my best friend
all one afternoon
for something to change…
Often, at powerful moments in these poems, the speaker seems to address herself; as in “A Day’s Failed Silence” and in the last few lines of “I Speak to My Son of Old Excesses,” when the speaker seems to lose herself in the memory:
…We ate and ate, more
than our bodies could carry, stumbled
out to the porch, swimmy
in ears, swaying like honeysuckle
weighted with bees.
There are indelible characters and stories here. In New Orleans, “The Man in the Rain” stuffs his clothes into a garbage bag and wades out into the smarmy floodwaters smiling and waving, leaving the speaker and her companion(s) to drain tumblers of gin, pour out stories, and laugh and laugh. By contrast, one had to be quick to catch the laugh of the mother in “When Mama Smiled,” who with her smile “bit into the tender core of you.” Mama is cast in a much more appealing light in the courtship story of “The Blue Silk Lounging Pajamas,” which
with tarnished wings on the sleeves—
birds of beads and silver—
grew dearer and dearer,
Section III builds on earlier memories and characters. Where “Breaking Old Silences” presents a series of familiar poetic images—beautifully rendered as they are—“Jewelry Store” presents a poignantly original expression of grief: the visceral smashing of the jewelry case for her lost daughter and her lost self—a self still shiny and new, in “that unpolished time” before such losses.
In a book with many memorable—and two award-winning—poems, the one to which this reader kept returning was “While I Sauté Apples and Onions to Stuff the Pork.” It embodies the introspective nature of these poems—reflection, dialogue with self, humility and vulnerability—yet seen in the light of all the experiences presented in this body of poems, it becomes transcendent in the manner of Eavan Boland’s poem “It’s a Woman’s World.”
Those two award-winning poems are “Dissonance of Dust on This Old Sunrise Photo: A Triptych,” and “Longing for the Pleiades.” Both are marvelous, and “Triptych” particularly invites reading and re-reading. “Longing for the Pleiades,” by its placement at the end of the collection, reprises and amplifies the themes and motifs of the collection. It opens with
My grandmother’s house. The high-domed hall.
All of the heavens papered in stars.
I counted Seven Sisters, knowing only five,
begged for the fallen moon. Soon
the paper night was light-washed white.
Its concluding stanza evokes the scale of another Boland poem, “Outside History”:
The lamp beside my bed
tells me nothing. I lie still,
longing for the Pleiades.
If the stars have all gone out,
how long will they take
to let us know?
The girl who danced on her hands by the sea has become the wise woman longing for the Pleiades. Perhaps she is ready to move outside of history, but these poems also brim over with the beauty of this world. For all their keen awareness of mortality, these poems are testimony to life well lived and deeply felt.
How sweet it is, David, to read your deeply insightful and beautiful review of Dede Wilson’s beautiful book. Thank you for taking me back to a collection I already loved and now love again.
Cheers to you, your review, and that siren, Dede Wilson.