Poetry

“A Story about the Heart,” “Betrayals,” and “Bed,”
by Andrea Hollander

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I heard Andrea Hollander read recently at a salon near where I live in northern California, where I discovered her book, Blue Mistaken for Sky, from which today’s first three poems are drawn. Hollander is a wonderful reader, but unlike a lot of contemporary poetry I fall in love with at readings, the work is just as powerful and effective on the page. In Blue Mistaken for Sky, the poems work subtly to create an arc of the disintegration and aftermath of a 35-year-long marriage: the story of a husband’s betrayal and of life’s less particular but inevitable betrayals as we grow older, and of how we come back from them. The poems are crafted with masterful restraint and are very moving.

Most betrayals involve lies, even if unwittingly told, a subject taken up in the second poem above (“Betrayals”). “At least my father did not betray anyone,” it opens, using a kind of negation to remind us that someone else did, indeed, betray someone. But the speaker’s father was himself betrayed, by the Alzheimer’s destroying his mind and personality, something that betrays also the memory of who he was to the people who love him. 

Calling things forth by their denial is an old literary tradition and rhetorical strategy, sometimes called via negativa, which one of my teachers (Reginald Gibbons) related to the “apophatic” tradition in a craft lecture at a Warren Wilson residency I once attended. Apophatic theology teaches that God can be apprehended only through negation, one reason for altar screens in churches. The idea is that the human cannot bear the unfiltered presence of the divine—is blinded by it—so that the only way truly to see God is through not-looking. You may have heard of an anonymous medieval text called The Cloud of Unknowing, a work that refers, paradoxically, to a kind of knowing by not-knowing: “We cannot think our way to God. He can be loved but not thought.” [Source here.]

As a literary device, via negativa is effective in poetry for a number of reasons. To begin with, it provides the artistic distance necessary for treatment of highly emotional subjects. Further, it heightens drama and opens up fresh and more subtle ways to describe things. Finally, it allows for the more efficient delivery of information, enhancing poetic compression. When Shakespeare says his “mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” readers must envision eyes that are like the sun before they can imagine those that are not. A poet using this device, then, gets two images for the price of one: the image or allusion and its negation. The result is a more complex and layered description, conveyed with power and compression, along with the distance that prevents communication of intense emotion from going over the top.

“A Story About the Heart” was the first poem Hollander read at the salon, and it knocked me out. How to effectively convey the intensity of emotion that follows terrible personal treachery? Such situations lead naturally to melodrama, but Hollander avoids it by locating the speaker’s emotions within the poem’s images. The first is of the heart, as it moves by fierce “turnings” while the speaker is young, then over time “twists and thins,” active and visceral verbs that evoke the heart’s physical anatomy at the same time they communicate feelings of disappointment in love. An incident in which the speaker and her husband hit an owl while driving at night provides a metaphor for effect of the husband’s perfidy, the description of the owl with “one of its eyes stuck open” conveying horror and tragedy, but again, without melodrama. We recoil from this visceral image of damage and pain just as the speaker recoils from the news delivered by her husband. 

The night of the accident with the owl, the speaker finds herself already emotionally abandoned by her husband, who refuses to speak with her in the car or later in bed. Reaching once again for image to embody the intensity of emotion, the speaker calls her fear a “tympani” and her sleeping husband a snake about to strike. And strike he does the next morning, delivering the “worst” news last, his decision to end the marriage. The news leaves the speaker with a heart that is “a hole at its core.” In the end she identifies fully with the dead owl, “left on the pavement, / even its shadow scavenged.” The secret to the power of this poem is its remarkable restraint, accomplished by delivering its emotion in the form of images, and it is devastating.

“Bed” takes place after the breakup and opens with the speaker professing not to mind sleeping alone. The first few lines are maybe reminiscent of Othello’s “methinks you doth protest a bit too much” admonition to Desdemona, but in any event, they provide an opportunity for the subtle delivery of unsavory information about the husband, the kind that delivered any other way might have risked sounding salacious: “the man who used to / occupy that space chose to lie / in other women’s beds.”

Like other poems in Blue Mistaken for Sky, “Bed” refuses to allow the husband’s betrayal to hijack the story of the speaker’s life. Instead of appearing front and center, the husband’s story is constructed piece by doled-out piece in poems that tend, overall, to give agency and action to the speaker. The speaker may or may not actually mind going to bed alone—the device of negation (“I don’t mind”) allows her to have it both ways—but in any event, there are some things she actually does enjoy about sleeping alone, such as having more room to stretch out.

Stanza 2 lists the beds shared by the speaker with her husband during their 35 years together, and in so doing begins to round out the portrait of that marriage. The image of a damselfly embedded in the paint of the iron bed frame and found by the speaker’s fingers “during sex” with her husband is gorgeous and reminds us that the marriage had its briefly incandescent moments. Damselflies are known for their ethereal beauty and extremely short lifespan, in this case even more truncated than usual when the insect literally gets trapped, as the speaker was, in the frame of the marriage bed. It’s an unforgettable image, pitch-perfect in its encapsulation of beauty and tragedy.

Stanza 3 returns to the things the speaker likes about sleeping alone: not having to share the pillows, having access to all the cool spots, being able to read all night or listen to jazz on the radio. It doesn’t sound all bad, right? And yet, in the last stanza, the speaker admits that it’s not all good, either. The bed she now sleeps in, never shared with her husband and acquired after he left, is solitary. It reminds me of Clarissa’s “narrow cot” in Mrs. Dalloway, a metaphor for the monastic life forced on women by aging, another way life discards us. But the most moving moment for me comes in the last lines, when the speaker, disarmed by sleep and unable to shore herself up any longer with the protestations that opened the poem, admits that “before I open my eyes, despite myself, / I reach for him.” 

The last poem, “Anniversary,” is not from Blue Mistaken for Sky, but I include it to more fully express what I experienced as the book’s arc, beginning with the shattering event of the breakup, great pain as details of the betrayal are slowly revealed, and then recovery that reaches a new state of wholeness. It makes me think of the Japanese art of wabi-sabi that sees the beauty in the brokenness of things, or in their decay, like the glowing patina of an old, scarred wooden table. 

My sense at the end of the reading (and after reading Blue Mistaken for Sky) is that this speaker is more than simply surviving and in fact has managed to forge a new and very satisfying life. Like “Betrayals,” the poem opens with negation, describing details of the speaker’s newly single life and home that her former partner has “never seen.” She’s made something separate and new, and that it is good—very good—is communicated in luscious food images like “the fruity redolence / of the chardonnay” and “chicken breast // marinated in champagne and limes.” These are visions of fullness, sweetness, and zest—the very opposite of the bleakness we might otherwise expect from a solitary anniversary dinner. 

“I ate alone and wanted nothing,” the speaker says in a wonderful line that could have ended the poem, but she goes on to elaborate on the description of the room, full of light and life. “Anniversary” ends not with some cheap and easy redemption but with what Frost might have accepted as the answer to his poetic question, “What to make of a diminished thing?” The answer, readers, is not anything like despair. In fact, something has been gained: “I know now where the mind // can take you when you stand by yourself / in the kitchen after a good meal.” The last line communicates the stolid acceptance and resignation the speaker has finally, painfully and triumphantly, come to: “Whatever comes next will happen anyway.”

I recommend Blue Mistaken for Sky for all kinds of readers. Each poem is brilliantly crafted, spare free verse that uses amazing images as vehicles for the intense emotions felt by the speaker, speaking not just to people abandoned in breakups but to those who have suffered life’s inevitable disappointments and betrayals—all of us, that is. 

 

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