Heartwood 3:3 – apophenia in blue

apophenia the perception of connections, patterns or meaningfulness in unrelated things.

As regular readers of Heartwood know (that’s right, all five of you), I am frequently stunned that whatever I happen to be reading seems to connect in surprising ways with other things I’ve read or recently lived through. I find this one of reading’s greatest pleasures.

A couple of years ago I was reading a book that briefly discussed Renata Adler’s Speedboat in glowing terms, especially appreciative of: its collage structure; its quick changes in subject; the aphorisms and miniature stories; the interweaving of ideas, emotions and experiences; and its thematic recurrences or reiterations. This made me think of another book I’d recently read and loved called Bluets, by Maggie Nelson – though clearly nothing in the above description would make one think that Speedboat would have anything to say about the color blue.

Anyway, when my interlibrary loan request for Speedboat came in (it’s recently been reprinted and is now in the EPL collection), I was pleased to find it did indeed share something of the structure and qualities I’d seen in Nelson’s book. Nevertheless, I was completely unprepared for this passage late in Speedboat, which looks like it could be an emblematic entry from Bluets:

We spoke of the quality of the blue in the stained-glass windows of Chartres, which modern science had not been able to reproduce, as though the medieval craftsman who had produced it were a colleague. He had, we knew, billed his diocese for the purchase of sapphires ground up to create that color. Modern science had, at least, established that sapphires played no part in its composition at all. It was our first, most scholarly appreciation of the padded expense account.

Adler’s Speedboat crosses continents in passages that relate the life and observations of a woman who works as a reporter. Nelson’s Bluets takes an obsessive interest in the color blue, which she pursues through philosophy, art, personal experience, and other channels of research. Nelson breaks up these passages with others in which the narrator grieves a broken relationship and assists a friend who has become quadriplegic. Here’s a sample entry from Bluets that also touches on stained glass:

For Plato, color was as dangerous a narcotic as poetry. He wanted both out of the republic. He called painters “mixers and grinders of multi-colored drugs,” and color itself a form of pharmakon. The religious zealots of the Reformation felt similarly: they smashed the stained-glass windows of churches, thinking them idolatrous, degenerate. For distinct reasons, which had to do with the fight to keep the cheap, slave-labor crop of indigo out of a Western market long dominated by woad, the blue-dye-producing plant native to Europe, indigo blue was called “the devil’s dye.” And before blue became a “holy” color – which had to do with the advent of ultramarine in the twelfth century, and its subsequent use in stained glass and religious paintings – it often symbolized the Antichrist.

OK, now for round three. Last week I was reading Catherine Barnett’s smart and sensual collection of poems, The Game of Boxes, and came upon “Which System Is Most Miraculous?” It opens with the poet discussing the subject of the poem’s title, presumably with her partner who has since left her. Some of the miraculous systems they identify are language, vision, conception, and birth. Among the things she doesn’t name, but suggests, are time, love, and – if I can read into it a bit – the significations we attach to important life events, such as in the giving of wedding gifts. But as our lives progress and/or change direction, these systems can also change, break down, become ambivalent, deteriorate – which leads her to question whether she should outgrow her attachments. When faced with it, however, it’s not so easy. She informs us that “A blue glass broke but I can’t throw it away. / There’s room for it on the shelf. / Or there’s no room.” Even though the glass has been destroyed, she notes the absurdity of feeling unable to part with it.

The poem ends in lines that are as awestruck by this particular blue as Maggie Nelson is by the various blues throughout Bluets. Where the interpersonal bond has proven fragile, and where even the power of language has its limits, the immediacy and intangibility of this blue stays vibrant, persists, almost succeeds in holding together what’s been broken:

Words still fortify me but the blue is better,

brighter, almost as bright as when it was first

removed from its tissue and passed

from hand to hand.

I love that Barnett’s poem and the passage in Adler cited above happen to unite with Nelson’s Bluets in these unique, though somehow stylistically similar and excellent books. Yet, astonished and pleased as I am by this, another of Adler’s observations causes me, at least momentarily, to check my enthusiasm:

when invention failed them, they used the fail-safe method for undergraduate work at any solid institution: take two utterly unrelated things or matters and show that they are, if not in fact identical, actually related in the most profound and subtle sense.

Be sure to visit A Reading Life for more reviews and news of all things happening at the Everett Public Library.

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