“Portent with Moonset & Blackbirds,”
by Kelly Cressio-Moeller


Portent with Moonset & Blackbirds

For a long time I wanted
……….to drink a cup of winter,
……………….to become tipsy on early
………………………..dark & longer starshine.

The thinning light
……….my favorite ether.
……………….These days I am uncertain, dead
………………………..reckoning my way through—

surrendering to mystery
……….& surprise of mapless navigation.
……………….That fistful of blackbirds
………………………..thrown across my wind-

shield? I don’t know what
……….their flurried wingbeats
……………….were trying to tell me;
………………………..not every moment

is a teacher, in the same way patience
……….does not mean measured inaction.
……………….I’m only a woman who con-
………………………..tinues to bury her dead—

wearing a clenched jaw that expects
……….diamond dust from the crown crush;
……………….shoulders that ride so high on worry,
………………………..they mistake themselves for wings.

I’ve never liked what I was
……….called, even though
……………….my father named me
………………………..& my name in his voice

was the last word I’d hear
……….him speak. Last night,
……………….I went to bed feeling hope-
………………………..less & profoundly lonely.

I left the curtains open wide.
……….Sleep plowed a ragged field of un-
……………….even rows—but in the morning’s
………………………..early darkness, the fullest moon

poured its cool, bewitching light
……….into the small bowls of my room & garden.
……………….As it hung impossibly low over
………………………..the Pacific, I drank & drank.


“Portent with Moonset & Blackbirds” is from Shade of Blue Trees © 2021 by Kelly Cressio-Moeller, published by Two Sylvias Press. All rights reserved. Purchase a copy here.


Listen to Cressio-Moeller read her poem here.

Read an interview with Cressio-Moeller about her visual art and Shade of Blue Trees at West Trestle Review and another interview that highlights her creative inspiration and process at Water~Stone Review.


Kelly Cressio-Moeller is a poet and visual artist. Her poems have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best New Poets, and Best of the Net, and have appeared widely in journals and at literary websites including GargoyleNorth American Review, Poet Lore, Salamander, THRUSH Poetry Journal, Valparaiso Poetry ReviewWater~Stone Review, and ZYZZYVA, among others. An associate editor at Glass Lyre Press, she lives in the Bay Area with her husband, two sons, and their basset hound. Shade of Blue Trees is her first poetry collection. Author photo by Stefan Moeller; book cover artwork by Andreea Braescu. kellycressiomoeller.com


Poet’s Note

This was written, like so many of the poems in my first collection, at a poetry retreat in Big Sur, led by Amber Coverdale Sumrall in the first days of December 2017. Earlier that day, we were given different fragments of poetry lines from W. S. Merwin to use as prompts. The line I randomly chose from an envelope was “for a long time I wanted” from his poem “After School.” It didn’t spark anything in me at the time, but when I couldn’t sleep in the wee morning hours, I opened the curtains facing the Pacific and the most astonishing moonlight flooded my room. Seemingly disparate moments from the drive there (those blackbirds!), to odd happenings during the day, to my dead father making an appearance when I least expected it all coalesced. I could not write fast enough; it was a rare experience for me to have something so there, all at once. It was the last poem I would write before my eldest son’s near-fatal stroke from a previously unknown cerebral-vascular abnormality, which happened a week after the retreat. That’s where the title comes from; maybe the moonlight was a warning, as if to say, “Something is coming.”


Commentary by Amanda Moore

As a visual artist and poet, Kelly Cressio-Moeller knows what she is leveraging when she evokes the color blue in the title of her debut poetry collection, Shade of Blue Trees. A word that describes not just color but also emotion and language, blue evokes the elemental—water and air—and has been put to use by all kinds of art and artists—Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Mark Rothko’s “No. 61 Rust and Blue,” Pablo Picasso’s blue period, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, Carolyn Forché’s Blue Hour—the list, like the blue horizon, is endless. In a collection replete with glimpses of the ocean, not to mention a host of shades, “shadows…fat with secrets / of the living and the dead,” who give rise to a certain melancholic nostalgia, blue lends its hue to the whole book. It does this even in poems that don’t overtly engage it, creating a cohesive mood that shows off an impressive range of variation of form and voice.

Today’s poem from Shade of Blue Trees doesn’t dwell as overtly on the color as others, and yet, from its very first lines, it calls to my mind Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Nelson’s work, a book-length meditation on the color blue, contains an entry that wrestles with the desire to push beyond the visual experience of the color: “Admit that you have stood in front of a little pile of powdered ultramarine pigment in a glass cup at a museum and felt a stinging desire. But to do what? Liberate it? Purchase it? Ingest it?” Cressio-Moeller’s poem starts with this same “stinging desire” to ingest and possess, to push the bounds of sensory experience, although the object is not a color or abstraction, but a season: “For a long time I wanted / to drink a cup of winter.” In trying to absorb and understand the portents seen in the world around her, the speaker works across the senses and at times against logic, inventing her own “dead / reckoning,” which in this instance involves drinking in the intoxicating winter to “become tipsy on early / dark & longer starshine.” It is the length and darkness of winter nights the speaker craves as she opens the poem, more opportunity to get lost in or be guided by those portentous stars.

As the movement evolves to consider various portents, the speaker recognizes that “mapless navigation” requires a “surrendering to mystery,” one which resists the meaning-making we (and she) are prone to undertake. One of my favorite gestures that addresses this desire to interpret is when the speaker wonders what to make of an ominous situation, a “fistful of blackbirds / thrown across my wind- / shield.” Whether these blackbirds are the common ones we see by roadsides, those evoking the “four and twenty blackbirds / baked in a pie,” or even those Wallace Stevens contemplates in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” it’s difficult to resist the urge to unpack or analyze the image for some greater significance. Augury—reading bird behavior as a sign or omen—is an ancient tradition, one worthy of poetry, yet Cressio-Moeller subverts this idea even as she delivers it by reminding us that not every moment is portentous. I may want to examine the birds’ lack of agency—after all, they are “thrown across” the windshield with a passive verb—or “what / their flurried wingbeats” mean, but the poem is quick to remind me that in fact “not every moment / is a teacher.”

The tension between an incisive wit that seems to deny or shut down inquiry and the speaker’s deep yearning to make meaning of things like “Moonset & Blackbirds” suffuses the poem with surprising turns. None is more poignant than when the speaker confesses to not liking her own name, even as she recognizes it as a gift from her father, the “last word I’d hear / him speak.” The poem resists an easy reading of such moments and portents. Ultimately, the “ragged field” gets plowed, which is to say some sort of meaning is found or understanding is reached, but it isn’t perfect, pat, or expected. Its “rows” are “un- / even.” There are no easy interpretations or answers.

In the quatrains that comprise the poem, each subsequent line frees itself a little further from the left margin where they begin, giving the stanzas a sense of falling. I’m tempted to consider this some sort of portent and make meaning of it, but I also want to be guided by the poem’s logic and to resist seeing everything as a teacher. The stanzas might be blackbirds in flight or the moon slowly sinking into the quiet ripples of a pre-dawn Pacific, but they might also simply be a way to create or preserve a cadence. Certainly, the line breaks over split words and phrases offer as much interest and meaning as the poem’s structure, Cressio-Moeller making deft use of lineation to open up several possible readings: “I never liked what I was / called” or “I went to bed feeling hope- / less,” for example. This attention to craft brings me back to those blackbirds thrown against the windshield: I’m happy to listen to their “flurried wingbeats,” and I’m also willing to be patient as I come to understand their power—patience that the poem assures me isn’t “measured inaction.”

At its close, the poem returns to the image of drinking, this time moving beyond the desire for early darkness into a realized imbibing of the coming light. What is being drunk here is open to interpretation, the syntax allowing a few possibilities. It could be the moonlight spilling into the “room & garden,” the Pacific over which the moon hangs, the winter the speaker desires to drink in the poem’s first lines, or any other intoxicating element. For me, it is significant only that she drinks as the moon sets in the morning, a cyclical gesture that brings the poem and its portents to rest at the beginning of a new day, albeit one after a ragged night’s sleep. This repeated act, “I drank & drank,” indicates a shift in the speaker’s relationship to meaning, although it resists revealing the turn completely, a withholding that ultimately satisfies as it upholds the poem’s refusal of simplicity or easy answers.

Cressio-Moeller’s Poet’s Note recounts the circumstances under which this poem was written, the last she composed in advance of a life-altering health event involving her son. Even the poem itself becomes a portent, life imitating art as she wonders if the “moonlight was a warning.” This extension of the poem’s concerns into the lived world is an example of one of the great joys of this debut collection, which continues to unfold for me, on and off the page, in so many shades.


Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.



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