Tiptoeing through Medium and Message
A Contrary review by Courtney MacNeil

In title, Laura Solomon’s Blue and Red Things is enticingly vague. Scratched out in sketchy lettering, the words on the collection’s cover float above a silhouette of branches which assume, delightfully, almost-recognizable forms: shadows in a nighttime closet, that call out to the imagination. What are these things, one thinks? Why blue, why red? What lurks within? One expects, perhaps, a throwback to Gertrude Stein’s cubist abstraction, to a world where objecthood reigns, and this proves partly true. Like Stein, Solomon seems to revel in breaking down the building blocks of language and endowing nouns with a quirky passe-partout authority: “so that sky is a sea,/the sand a sea,/blood a sea, bleed/a sea, pretty bee.” Solomon’s speaker, however, does not undo language norms deliberately, but rather finds in their stretched boundaries an unconscious avenue of escape. While the collection’s subject matter is undeniably mature – sex and death run rife – the perspective is surprisingly naïve; caught up in a world of harsh adult truths, the speaker takes refuge in the sweet shelter of evasion. 
Solomon writes most often in couplets and tercets, and largely in monosyllables: even when she also, frequently, breaks into blank verse, her lines feel as though they must be tiptoed through (a quality learned, it would seem, from the French haikus of Pierre Converset, which Solomon has translated):

These clothes are cold weather 
dear and warm me 

Never mind that last letter
I found the cat at the foot of my cot 

Did you lose your manners
with your mittens
I did

Pancake is a word I like to say 
	so say it 

	Can it be avoided
	green blade

	that snowflake headed for you
	Wind will not aid you, no  

	But the sun may melt 
his lips on the way down

	These are natural causes
	as I am all day and you are 
	not night so why

	do I let the white cat bite my 
	left hand 

This poem’s title, “Gently,” reinforces the delicacy of its structure, but the sentiment runs only surface-deep, for behind the fragile façade echoes a blunt acknowledgement of mortality. A calming grown-up voice offers reassurance to the younger “I,” but the distinction between the two wavers precariously; the “green blade” under siege connotes not just springtime grass, but also the green innocence of youth. Attempting to forgo the heavy weight of adulthood, the speaker takes pleasure in gamine puns and easy rhymes and even words themselves, in their plain simplicity.  “Pancake”/“Snowflake”; “I found the cat at the foot of my cot”; “night”/“white”/“bite” (and implicitly, “right,” the inseparable partner of “left”) – these are experiments with sound which, in their lightheartedness, foster an illusion of eternal youth. Yet, while this gesture is self-preserving for the child, it is self-effacing for the poet, for in privileging sonority over semantics, the speaker undermines the impact of the poem’s central question: “can it be avoided?” 
	This paradox instigates a conflict between medium and message that resounds throughout the collection. “Never mind that last letter,” we are told in “Gently”: a pun, of course, but mainly a claim that since language is ever changing, letters, in their alphabetic sense, bear little import. But when the title of Solomon’s final and longest poem invokes an epistolary form – “Letters By Which Sisters Will Know Brothers” – it becomes clear that letters, and especially last letters, do matter. While the form of letter writing imposes itself only loosely, one anticipates that the implied presence of another will prompt the speaker to reveal more of herself: 

	    here are the rocks                 I have gathered for you	                 blue and red things
	    other underthings	              a thousand children		        read your letters
	    dream of 		              people not of places		        keep your flowers

These “squared” tercets, for example, in their intense columnar arrangement, hold the promise of more intimate expression. But the words do not move the speaker forward, but rather backward into her skittish shell: these lines have appeared earlier in the poem, embedded within longer lines, and have here merely been reordered (“other underthings” and “keep your flowers” are exceptions). Moreover, while syntax is more fluid when the lines are read from left to right, they can also be read from top to bottom. While this surplus of alternatives offers an attractive fantasy, it only buries the speaker deeper inside herself.
Particularly in this last poem, when we are most eager for concrete answers, the speaker may test the reader’s patience with this habit of avoidance; and when confessions do finally emerge, their mawkish tone of self-discovery will be too Judy Blume for most (“my sister and I were sharing secrets about our bodies…please don’t tell my mother”). Nevertheless, the collection’s astute linguistic manipulations evidence a well-tuned ear, and while the poems feel sometimes immature (which, in fact, they are: Solomon is only 32, and Blue and Red Things her second major publication), each trace of inexperience lends credence to the speaker’s awkwardly persistent innocence, which, though grating, rings sincere. Having finished reading, we are left where we begun – what are these things, one thinks? – but while answers remain cloudy, Solomon’s potential shines clearly through.

Courtney MacNeil lives in Paris where she works with the European Independent Film Festival.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | autumn 2007
Blue and Red Things
Laura Solomon
2007, Ugly Duckling

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