The Blue Divide  by Linda Nemec Foster

By Charles Rammelkamp
Late in this lovely collection, referring to her immigrant mother in her Cleveland childhood, Linda Nemec Foster writes in the poem called “Blue”:
A paradise where she flies, dusts clouds,
and polishes haloes. Washing the blue
of heaven until it shines like a word
that has yet to be invented.
But the poem begins with a misheard word. The narrator is listening to an Egyptian poet and hears “blue heaven” when the poet is really saying “blue heron.” “Blue heron” morphs into “blue Helen,” the mother’s name, and the poem takes off on its own, heaven, haloes, invented words. So many themes, allusions and leitmotifs in the The Blue Divide are suggested by this single verse. Color – blue and gray – is a metaphor throughout. Poems about immigrants, war, her parents, the upper Midwest (Michigan and Ohio), Poland, dreams and art, religious themes, recur again and again.
The book opens on the Balkan War of the 1990’s – “The Cypress Trees in Croatia,” “Report from Bosnia: ‘Hair’ Performed in Sarajevo.” “Love in the Midst of War,” the very first poem, contains the image, “the gray / of shrapnel and transparent clouds.” Color symbolism is tricky, of course. Green, for instance, can represent jealousy or hope, spring; red, the color of blood, can be lust and longing, courage or violence. But the blue and the gray in Foster’s poems seem consistent, if hard to define (a word that has yet to be invented).  Gray is consistently bleak.
Immediately following the harrowing Balkan War poems (“They perform only / when there’s electricity,” she notes in the Sarajevo poem, reminding us of the dreary conditions of wartime) come Cold War poems set in 1950’s Poland, the country from which her grandparents emigrated.  Writing about the Hel Peninsula, she observes


            …it was here that Stalin conducted his land grab, his politics of duplicity,
            his transformation of the blue sky crowning Kraków’s Royal Castle
            to the gray clouds belching from Nowa Huta’s factories…
Blue so often signifies limitlessness – the sky, the ocean. Indeed, the collection’s title comes from the poem “Water”: “The ocean between them so vast,” she writes about her parents when her father joins the Navy in World War II, “not even two daughters could bridge / the blue divide.” As she succinctly puts it in the poem aptly called “All That We Cannot Name”: “Shape disappears into weightless blue.”
But gray? Always bleak. The Cold War Eastern Europe poems give way to New York City, on the eve of 9/11, a man in a rowboat around Manhattan Island, before everything changed, “The man in his boat becoming / as forgettable as an ordinary / day when they still existed.”  Then “NYC to Poughkeepsie: The Man on the Train” spells it out: “If gray had a face


            you’d see my blank stare right next
            to the word in the dictionary.
           Grapple, grasp, grating, then me –
           gray – my whole existence
           stuffed into four letters.
The poem is narrated by a man who rides the commuter train each day and finds his life utterly meaningless.
“Inside the Crater” is another poem that depicts a bleak world. The narrator finds herself staring into the Diamond Head volcano in Hawaii and finding it uninspiring, not the picturesque vision she’d imagined, but a dud.


            And how many duds have we sustained in our collective
            lifetimes? Ex-husbands and former lovers. Small towns
            and dying cities. Our old neighborhoods in Detroit might
            as well be the streets of Dresden, circa 1945: houses
            bombed out, abandoned, torn down. Even the crazy
            people are gone. No more bag lady screaming at strangers
            on Cass Ave. and bathing in the sink of a public restroom.
Dreams are a potent, recurring theme. “The Dream of Maine” is a poem about an imagined paradise, “The Far Country” about being on a train in a foreign country. It occurs the week after the death of someone close to the poet, and again it’s kind of bleak, like limbo. “The far country / where the border lies hidden and the guards / look distracted, asking for nothing but your name.”
The final section of this book contains personal poems about Foster’s family and is again saturated in dreams. The section opens with “The Immigrants in Slavic Village: Cleveland, 1955,” Poles, Czechs, Russians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians assimilating, a theme that “Family Tree” continues, people losing their language, “underneath the orange sky / above the steel mills of Cleveland.” The immigrant’s granddaughter “has never / known the language of the Old / and wants to be nothing / but American.”
Among the most charming poems here are “A Kiss Is Just a Kiss” about her mother’s obsession with movie stars (“My mother loved the back-stabbing of it, / the kiss and tell of it, the guilty pleasure of it.”) and “At 68, My Mother Sees Her first Foreign Film,” in which her husband – the poet’s father – is “afraid this is just the beginning.


Next week she’ll give up cold cuts
and blood sausage; start eating bean sprouts
and tofu. She’ll begin to lose weight…
“On her 90th birthday, my mother dreams / of her dead husband” begins the poem, “Gravity and God.” The penultimate poem is called “On the First Anniversary of His Death, I Dream of My Father.” I am in Kraków, your mother’s city, she tells him.
The collection ends with “The Dream That Is Forgotten” and concludes with the perfect metaphor for the writing of poems:


            In the dream that is forgotten, you learn
            to speak the language of sounds, not words.
            Language of bark, leaves, stones, mud;
            of fog sleeping in the marshes and sun caught
            in tangled branches. Language of amber
            sinking into its inclusions and rain falling
            from its clouds. You try to remember each sound
            as it leaves your lips, before you open your eyes
            on the blank page.
The Blue Divide is a thought-provoking collection by a truly skilled poet.

.You can find the book here: The Blue Divide: Poems

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.

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