Erin Wilson’s second full-length poetry collection, Blue, is unapologetically honest, forthright in its sadness, and full of a mother’s unwavering love. This book haunts readers in the way all tragedies do, but it also invokes the strength of mothers and how powerful the connection between mother and child can be. The poems in Blue are raw, tender, aching, and beautiful. Wilson allows the reader to experience her son’s growth and to see how his brain changes from toddler to adult, and traces her growth along with his.
What first drew me into this collection were the section names: “lapis lazuli” and “zaffre.” Lapis lazuli is one of the oldest spiritual stones; its deep celestial blue has been associated with wisdom, truth, and emotional healing—an apt choice for a collection about navigating motherhood with a child battling mental illness. And zaffre is an alchemical substance used to stain glass blue, which is especially important as we learn the effect of a “precisely / cambered chamber, beloved blue-hued bottle” (“Boy Impastoed”). There’s a kinship to the elements and spiritual world as much as there is familial kinship within these poems. In the first section’s title poem, “Lapis Lazuli” about creating life in which the speaker makes “the perfect body,” Wilson presents this moment as a ritual, a spellcasting through a chanting tone that invokes more elements:
I touch dew
and I touch the perfect body
I strike flint
and I touch the perfect body
I touch wood, breathe it, burn it, smell it again
and I touch the perfect body
In the next poem, “[a hurt of angels,” each line is inverted to mirror how her world becomes flipped during birth. This is also the reader’s first encounter with angels, who reappear throughout the collection: “if I could make it clear / all shackles dissolve / with the proximity of just one / thimble sized angel” (from “[poem whispered to the loved one”), “ ‘Did you notice, shaved into the side of my head, / an angel?’ // There was one broad wing, as though the angel was moving off, / or drawing near” (from “And I Was Sore Afraid”), and in one of the final poems, “Contemplation, Ending with an Angel.” Wilson brings us to the beginning of her motherhood experience and, from there, launches us into a whirlwind of challenges faced by her and her family, most of all being her son’s depression. Readers are grounded by recurring angels, their connection to the natural world, and the ever-present, sometimes all-consuming color blue.
Blue functions as a timeline with poems “Five,” “Seven,” and “Nine,” which juxtapose moments across Wilson’s son’s ages: “You will sit on your bed with your seven-year-old legs dangling / and have me listen” (from “Seven”) and in a later poem, “when you came home, you shut the door / and through mental magnetism, / your bedroom your bedlam” (from “Milk”). In “Nine,” Wilson prepares readers for the heaviness that befalls the family later in the collection: “All year, a winter of grief. // I find him on the floor and stroke his hair. // ‘I don’t know why, Mom.’” The vulnerability of these poems is a fierce feat in itself. In order to show the strength of mothers, Wilson first conveys to readers the fear, in poems such as “Orphaned Rabbits” and “The Moose Calf.” In each, we see how mothers struggle to protect their young, reflecting Wilson’s feelings about her own son:
Excerpt from “Orphaned Rabbits”
He rescues a bunny from his dad’s backyard,
the mother having been killed in the front yard
One can perceive, even from this distance, a deep
How sick I feel. How powerless. For this. For everything.
In the morning he wakes to discover it drowned in its water dish.
Excerpt from “The Moose Calf”
This: not a deer, as my son thinks at first glance…
… the elongated face of a young bull moose,
who knew no better than to test the ice too early,
its bulbous head budding horns, stubbornly swaying
its burdensome weight, attempting to ballast its body,
half-submerged in lampblack winter water,
between two thin bridges of ice, working
its ponderousness against the current and cold.
We are past before we can be sure it takes foothold.
Later in “The Moose Calf,” Wilson imagines the bull calf’s “struggle that tests, falls through, rises, penetrates, sinks, resurfaces, / and then reruns again and again in [her] mind, / as [she] ushers [her] son on to the hospitable with thoughts, again, of suicide.” The symbolism of drowning physicalizes her son’s depression or, at least, the speaker’s understanding of it, which reinforces the sense of helplessness she is experiencing—just as the rabbit’s and moose calf’s mothers did not see and therefore could not help their drowning children. A more harrowing poem, “White Sheets,” captures a mother’s fear in a more surreal, nightmarish image:
One night the eye-door is ripped open.
One night and always that sound—torn tape, wrecked adhesive.
One night and always the filling of a vacuum.
One night he comes to you,
his eye-door having torn
every living fowl to pieces.
Feathers are severed fingers.
Bloody, he crawls into your bed.
Body, he crawls into your bed.
Moon-slick with bloody feathers,
he crawls into your bed.
A thousand reflected moons, bleeding,
His heart is a wounded bird.
Here, Wilson evokes a chant-like tone again, creating a haunting effect. The range of her work is what maintains the compelling nature of Blue, including beautiful pastoral moments: “Everywhere we look: white expanses, / bunches of pale yellow bromegrass and fescue, / electric lines breaking into kestrels, ravens, crows” (from “Pastoral”), alongside moments of great heartbreak and pain: “All night, while he dreamt in bed, / you took him to the shooting range. // Whatever ‘it’ was, whatever ‘it’ is, / you tried to kill ‘it’ out of him” (from “Blue Heart”). Wilson’s balance and control over the line, and the musicality of lines like “the cobalt blue poison bottle catching light” (from “Crime”) is essential to the embodiment of this family’s story. It’s also what brings us to the strength of mothers—despite the confusion and fear, she remains steadfast by her son’s side in each poem:
When I lie down to bed
and feel the weight of the
thousand sorrows, yours,
not mine, I scoop a luminous
cradle of sparkling seems-like-
nothings into my palms.
I put my face to them as though
looking upon a moonlit pond,
and I breathe, Please, dear
little building blocks of civilization
that floss continuously through walls
and conversations, do your work
and transgress the worried skein
of his mind, carry aloft
the heat and moistness from my
mouth, the same mouth that
once kissed his rumpled brow.
Carry these light-harboring
black seeds in a child-drawn cloud,
the smallest luminous energies
The speaker internalizes her son’s pain, feeling the “weight of the thousand sorrows” (from “Atoms for Adams”), trying any way she can to ease it, especially when she feels powerless. This is heightened to a restless need when the son moves out and when they are separated by the pandemic: “my mind an ever wily little thing / coated in nervousness, / jack-knifed by a need for love” (from “A Prayer for the Wayward”), “Do I keep it secret enough, that I want to infiltrate their bodies, and stay like the happiness of fat / along their hastening-away-from-me bones?” (from “Mortar”). Wilson’s voice throughout Blue is accessible, causing these moments of a mother’s desperation to feel even sharper. This voice also allows for the warm moments to shine brightly, too: “I watch you thoughtfully touch things, being touched by things, being mended” (from “Gold”). Readers experience the mother’s and son’s shared love for art and literature as Wilson gestures to Sokurov’s film Mother and Son, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, W.H. Auden, Beethoven, Andrew Wyeth, Leon Wyczółkowski, and others to fully animate their relationship within these poems and emphasize that more than just pain holds them together.
The entirety of Blue is wrought with both tenderness and anguish, hope and helplessness, and, above all, honesty and vulnerable love. I had to take breaks reading such a heart-wrenching and resonant collection, but I also found a lot of warmth and joy in it as well. For a collection steeped in drowning, Wilson continuously keeps readers afloat, buoyed by the promise and ever-present force of a mother’s love. I now carry the images of the drowning moose calf and sound of a boy’s sharp cry asking “why why why…” in an emergency room (from “Specifically, and Scattered Fragments I Hate in My Notebook”), but they feel lighter now compared to the final moments of the collection of the mother and son sitting “beside one another [to] consider / O’Keefe’s work” (from “Jacquard”), spending hours with each other walking through an antique shop, and driving over two hours to eat eggs together. Yes, there is hardship in these poems, but there’s also one of the most profound relationships between mother and son, a relationship that bleeds through the page and deeply affects the reader. Blue is an imaginative, evocative, impressive collection that demonstrates how family can persevere through hope, commitment, and so much love.
ERIN WILSON grew up in a rural community on Manitoulin Island, Canada. Her work has appeared in journals including CV2, Triggerfish Critical Review, takahē, Channel Magazine, Verse Daily, and numerous others. Her works include The Belly of the Pig (chapbook, Dancing Girls Press) and her debut full-length poetry collection, also with Circling Rivers, At Home with Disquiet. The title poem “Blue” was a part of a suite of poems long-listed for the CBC Poetry Prize. She makes her home now in a small town on Robinson-Huron Treaty territory. Visit Erin Wilson Poems and Miscellany
EMILEE KINNEY hails from the small farm-town of Kenockee, Michigan, near one of the Great Lakes: Lake Huron. She received her BA from Albion College, MFA from SIU Carbondale, and is currently pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing at University of Southern Mississippi. Her work has been published in The American Journal of Poetry, West Trestle Review, Cider Press Review, SWWIM and elsewhere. emileekinneypoetry.com