Stepping Over the Threshold: On the Other Side, Blue by Collier Nogues

On the Other Side, Blue

On the Other Side, Blue
BY Collier Nogues
(Four Way Books, 2011)

Before I’d even opened it, Collier Nogues’ poetry collection On the Other Side, Blue compelled me to read with the question begged by its title — on the other side of what? — and its suggestion of turning over, of crossing through. I started thinking of my life as a series of steps over thresholds — door, street, creek, mouth, skin — and, on the other side of each, what? At seventeen, I closed the door of my childhood home and, over the subsequent decades, stepped into college, marriage, child birth, buying a house, graduation — each time by choice and with awareness or at least anticipation of what would be waiting. But no one chose the threshold crossed in Nogues’ poems.

Early in the collection, “Hydrangea, Best Blue Flower” offers context for the book’s title and for many of the poems that follow:

there is no proper name
for the daughter left without a mother.
What if I want to follow?

I whispered to her
for hours what I thought she’d like to hear,

and by the time she went
I believed myself:

there was a door, and it was painted white,
and on the other side was blue.

— p. 8.

When a mother passes through the white door, her daughter must cross the threshold between before and after: an unchosen crossing into a strange world for which a daughter can hardly prepare, from which a daughter can’t return. “No one says she isn’t dead, the way we said She isn’t dying. / (That’s not even a road and there’s a shut gate at the end of it.)” (p. 12). In Section I, Nogues gives us language for that world, where grief colors landscape and memory. “The trees look soft in the fog’s distance, egg-colored light / all over them. Even the sheep, / eggy” (p. 13). “I began to notice that horses like to be together at the edge of a pasture / heads over the fence or sides against it.” (“Blurred Farm,” p. 11). And, again, from “Fort/Da”: “I fed her ice chips. / We were close to the mountain, and the trees were very near the sky, / and the sky was barely light — ” (p. 12).

As the poems of Sections II – V move through the months after the mother’s death, her passing echoes in the death of a friend’s mother, another friend’s child, a grandmother’s dementia.

When the news about your mother came
I thought I wouldn’t know what to tell you about grieving,

though when I lie flat on a wood floor I remember how I did it.
Your cotton blanket looks like my cotton blanket except yours is electric.

— “Long Weekend II,” p. 44

Ultimately, Nogues’ poems shift from reckoning time in years since a mother’s death to counting years since a new love began. They remember fondly and with humor, as the speaker of “Anthurium” reflects:

I keep forgetting my birth control, but I do remember to water

the plant my mother gave me the last time I got dumped, the one
that blooms with stamens like little penises, she said.

She thought it would cheer me up and it did.

— p. 27.

On the Other Side, Blue approaches other thresholds and boundaries, sometimes passing through, sometimes stopped. Horses press against a fence, trees grow out of the water, the shed door disappears when the sun stops shining on it. At a certain time of day, you cans see equally through both sides of a car window. A man enters his barn apartment one last time and doesn’t come out. In “Kitchen Corridor,” the cat swallows a moth, “The furies for now in a safe / envelope” (p. 9). The beautifully eerie poem “Late-Stage Progression” begins: “The house was cordoned off by strings / at waist height to deflect the ghosts // who run in straight lines, their faces flat to the wind”—such flimsy protection against their invasion of the body.

The home they made in her bones

was the safe one; there they could not ruin
more than we could repair.

It was when they came through the lung wall
that she took the strings down from around the house

and let in the rest who wanted in.

— p. 7

The poetic choices Nogues makes remind me of the folded-paper fortune tellers I played with in middle school — there were many ways to open or unfold them. The first poem of Nogues’ collection has the seemingly straightforward title: “The Woman Who Left.” Most simply, “left” means “departed,” but it carries with it an echo: whatever was left behind. What or whom did she leave? As the poem unfolds, it reveals that this woman is not the woman who left behind a daughter; this is the woman who left behind a funeral suit. Nogues’ title and the poem that follows effectively entangle the two stories —mother’s and daughter’s — which become inseparable. Section I ends with the dream poem, “How I Take Care of Her Now,” which explores the way in which we visit each other’s subconscious. Who is the dreamer, and who’s in the dream? Again, the poem allows us to unfold it in two ways: this is the way the daughter re-enters her mother’s life; this is the way mother re-enters the daughter’s life.

She’s slimmer, and healthy, but her

skirt is falling down
so I help her pin it….


…. But I understand
mine isn’t the real dream — I’m in

her dream, and in it her skirt isn’t on, it’s
that kind of dream,

and fixing her dream is how I’m helping.

— p. 17

If these choices blur boundaries, Nogues’ juxtapositions of exterior and interior cross them. In “Long Weekend,” she moves outward, out of the self: “No one loves me like your mother, now my mother’s gone. / A beer an hour ought to hold me. / Pie tonight and maybe a game of Settlers, your brothers varnishing / boat parts in the shed” (p. 14). “Winter White” begins with the exterior: “Dusk, the deer / troll cabin yards for treats, / their ears uneven, eaten” and moves inward: “I understand better when I’m less / lonely, less a fixture / holding stale bread out and apples” (p. 17). A poem that begins with the “secondary tracks” of a train, shears away from the warehouse towards a sudden memory:

A while before the end, I thought
There are no horrors of the hospital at night
that I don’t know.

Would that I hadn’t thought it;
would that I could forgive myself for thinking it
anywhere near her.

— “Train Prayer,” p. 54

My favorite poems transport me, powered by imagination embodied in content and language. This possibility inherent in poetry — of arriving elsewhere, in location or experience or understanding — becomes critical when life turns sharply or shifts slowly toward what I’m not prepared to face. Then poetry rescues, less as an escape route than by making it possible to remain present through trauma and uncertainty. How does poetry accomplish this? By creating a myth such as Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette, a larger story which can both hold and give meaning to private stories? By creating an emotional space on a page as D.A. Powell’s “Chronic” does — a collection of words that by their very intention offer explicit permission to feel? By standing as bold witness to human experience as Tory Dent’s “Black Milk” does? How does Nogues’ On the Other Side, Blue fit into this body of work? How does it rescue?

The particular gift of Nogues’ poems is their grounding of loss and grief in a complex life that is both colored by that “eggy” light and larger than it, a life that happens “across the goat-mown lawn” (p. 43), in the Laundromat, on a Greyhound bus, while chicken-sitting, while “waiting for the gravy toast to finish” (p. 9). This grounding makes it bearable to walk through her elsewhere. Look, these poems say, “The pier light / falls through the slips” (p. 15). “[B]rothers [are] varnishing boat parts in the shed” (p. 14). “[The] orange sulfur lamps come on to illuminate the drippy trees” (p. 63). From the ground of her larger life comes strength to question, to challenge, and maybe find a few answers.

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