Blue Mistaken for Sky. By Andrea Hollander. (Autumn House Press, 2018, Pp. 86.)
Reviewed by Terrell Tebbetts
Marital betrayal discovered after decades of marriage brings trauma. When it breeds separation, divorce, the end of a decades-long career, the divvying up and selling of all the household goods that are now mere detritus, and a move across country to a new apartment in a new city, the trauma can breed PTSD.
In a new book of poems, Blue Mistaken for Sky, Andrea Hollander deals frankly with exactly that trauma and the brave battle for recovery she undertook in its aftermath. Hollander, the Writer-in-Residence at Lyon College for over twenty years, has written of pain, darkness, and the new light she finally rises toward, phoenix-like.
In the first of the book’s three sections, Hollander recounts her husband’s betrayal. In hindsight she sees the “easy accommodation” her husband made to “the double life” he led, where the simple offer of an umbrella in the rain might be a duplicitous prelude to seduction (“Umbrella”).
She acknowledges that such awareness is indeed hindsight, for she recounts premonitions she’d long ignored, one barely missed collision with a deer, for instance, now seeming like a warning that “the lumbering beast / speeding toward you / might kill you” (“Premonition”). She admits she “should have suspected something / sharp and dangerous / below the gleaming landscape” of her husband’s “irresistible phrases” (“First Snow”).
Though she begins with hindsight, Hollander does not bypass the pain. She felt like an animal hit by a car and “left on the pavement” to die, her husband now “a snake in striking distance” (“A Story about the Heart”), a “copperhead” lying “in the ditch like a cast-off tire” (“Dead End”). She shivers at his mere presence “spreading its molecules of bitterness / into the room, its molecules / of indifference” (“Doubt”).
When she goes over the betrayal again and again, endlessly, it seems, she feels like “a spider / caught in its own web” (“Aren’t You Tired of Thinking about Him?”). She wants to throw “a stone of words at him “(“The Laws of Physics”), but finally, sitting on the green couch where they’d sat together so many times, she tells him simply that “he had ruined my life” (“Green Couch”).
Even as she sets out for a new life, driving away from the betrayal, she knows that distance does not help, for the “pain won’t let go” but “keeps gaining on you” mile after mile (“Arkansas to Oregon”).
As a truer route to recovery, in the book’s second part Hollander reviews her own past—her first sexual encounter in “Contrition,” her jealousy when her best friend got a boyfriend in “Envy,” her date with a “boy I’m bored with” in “Drive-In,” her mother’s death in “Against Summer,” her father’s unforgiving silences in “Against Silence,” her own naive encounter with a man she finally learned was married, but “not learn / quite soon enough” (“A Thing or Two”), a youthful abortion that left a coldness she “cannot escape” (“Against the Law”), and her father’s dementia wherein it “was the plaque in his brain that betrayed him” (“Betrayals”).
Hollander struggles with such memories to discover whether “anything said / or not said / done or not done / could ever truly be . . . erased or forgiven” (“Contrition”), whether speaking and writing one’s pain “could change anything” (“Evening Meal”). As the second part ends she is still not sure this route will serve, whether she can change even herself:
At the top of the hill
I can barely see.
I won’t escape anything.
My father is dead.
My mother is dead.
I want to be home.
A frenzy of rain
Rages across the asphalt.
The wipers screech and screech
Against the windshield. (“Against Rain”)
In the third section of this memoir in verse, Hollander moves forward from that storm-shrouded hilltop. She clearly does not want to become the woman she remembers from her childhood, a “divorced woman” who “walked / up and down our street day after day / as if she belonged” (“Why I Kept Walking”). She plans to keep walking until she does belong.
So she gets underway. In “Against Detritus,” she walks along the river and views the trash on its bank, and she returns to her apartment and sees the trash in the alley below her window, all this trash, by implication, representing the trash left from her betrayed marriage. She can do something about this trash. She has a cleaning job to do, the “job / of trying to clear my mind. / I don’t want to think anymore / about what happened or why.” She has strength to build, as well. In an exercise pool in “At the Gym,” she practices swimming “in place against / furiously moving water.” Gradually she senses her change. In “A Year after the Divorce, I Take a Long Drive,” she realizes that “I’ve come a long way / from where I began” even though she still has “only begun” her recovery.
Having begun, Hollander keeps driving forward. In “Another Call,” she undertakes the “work / of getting used to having no one / to blame for anything—dishes / in the sink, the unmade bed.” In “Dust,” she endorses “the silence / that settles on me as I clean” the apartment and, doubtless, as she cleans her mind and heart, sweeping up betrayal’s detritus and tossing it away. Back to that unmade bed, in the poem named for it, “Bed,” she acknowledges that she doesn’t “mind lying down at night / by myself,” for now she “can stretch / all the way out,” and “all the pillows are mine.” She edges toward forgiveness in “Against Reading” when she urges that ‘Not everything is done / with you in mind.”
As she concludes, Hollander finds not only peace but promise, promise of new life and new work ahead:
yesterday it finally felt normal
to sleep alone, wake and eat alone,
walk out on my own, deciding
when and where to go
without telling anyone. (“Pleasure”)
In such lines Hollander promises her readers that she will be “telling” them “where” she has gone once she arrives at her new destination. She pictures herself already in flight to a destination she has chosen: “I keep going and going. / From 35,000 feet I look down at the clouds, the blue sky above” (“The Before and After”).
One feels that Hollander, in writing her pain, has soared above and beyond her trauma and the harm it had done to her. She offers her triumph over it in order to give hope to others still early in their struggles.
Terrell Tebbetts holds the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in American Literature at Lyon College. He has published over three dozen articles on American literature in several books and in journals such as Philological Review, Southern Literary Journal, The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, The Steinbeck Review, and The Faulkner Journal. He regularly co-leads the Teaching Faulkner sessions at Ole Miss’s annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference.