Kelly Cressio-Moeller’s breathtaking debut poetry collection, Shade of Blue Trees (Two Sylvias Press, 2021), paints a complex tetraptych of grief, loss, and solitude, inviting readers into a space of introspection while singing an ode to the natural world.
Filled with nods to Greek mythology and art history, Cressio-Moeller’s words read like lyrics. The collection is organized into four sections, each boasting its own seasonal “panel” beginning with winter, then traveling through spring, summer, and finishing with autumn. In “Panels from a Deepening Winter” we’re thrust into a desolate environment with the opening lines “Veils of clouds replace the mountain’s ghost-blue / face: snow and fog, a sky of ice – a quiet haunting.” The rest of the poem continues with themes of solitude and bereavement, though in the 4th stanza, we catch a glimmer of hope with a “promise to a white moose” and a “buckeye for luck” – both seemingly good omens. Throughout the rest of the poem, we’re faced with the same feelings of loneliness and a “quiet in the way that online winter is” that doesn’t feel silent at all with moments like “the wind wears heels tonight” and “red-petaled cries, open mouths of cyclamen.” This poem is the third in the collection, thrusting you into the “brumal embrace” of a speaker navigating grief and isolation.
In “Panels from a Courtly Spring,” the speaker tells the story of a woman trapped in “gilt, guilt, geld,” and “Austrian pawn in Versailles,” a “foreigner at court.” The panels are packed with flowery language painting the portrait of this “wilding’s” demise, “barefoot racing, barely outrunning the metal clamor of blades and pikes.” This poem is the finale of its section, following a collection of observations and musings, like “In late afternoon pampas grass tapers shine silver as the hair in my brush.” (“Begin and End at Big Sur”) and “The tree’s arms hold her in the indigo lap of sky.” (“Among Other Things”). It also includes two letters, to low tide and the rain. In the first, the speaker ties herself to the tide, saying “I, too, want / to unhook myself from shore” (“Letter to the Low Tide’). The second, “Letter to the Rain,” starts with a similar sentiment: “Come at me with guillotine sheets, / I will be happy in separation.” The “Courtly Spring” panels feel like a story the speaker has spun or the way in which she sees herself, a “wilding” trapped in the vastly material world.
“Panels from a Blue Summer” takes us to the middle of the third section, and while the last set of panels was fraught with gilded language, these start with the speaker stating “I lack the luster that my lilacs / can muster at any time of year.” This rolls into a second stanza that returns to darker imagery – “torched moods” and the “melancholy shade of blue trees.” We get a reference to Van Eyck’s triptychs as “layers upon layers of brittle meditations.” The speaker’s relationship feels complex and the tone is depressive, matching that of the rest of this section with moments like “Poets and suicide. It’s been done before” (“Southern Gothic”) and “grief rolled up its sleeves” (“Sacrament”).
The final panel, and the penultimate poem of the collection, “Panels from a Celestial Autumn,” continues this darkness, with a speaker who tells us the story of a boy who “fell from oaken arms” when “Jupiter / held the current easy in his hand. Slipped it though / the lad from collar to hip,” and our speaker who “was born when the spark was fading, a gibbous face / turned her cold gaze elsewhere.” In the longest of the panel poems, the speaker transitions from the first- and third-person: “Lake-eyed & wolf-bit, she dead reckons the / hardscape of illness & rough sleep” and is “Somehow…always prepared for winter.” In a lot of ways, this piece offers returns and references to many of the others, like “flares persimmon,” tracing back to the poem titled “Still Life with Persimmons,” and is held together with observations in the form of “body as” statements that trend from dark, “body as dying star,” to the slightly brighter “body as forgotten island.” The rest of this section lives in the same mood: a level of darkness outlined in silver with images like “the hills look blue / in the arms of an old moon” (“Suburnan Aubade with French Horn”) and “a starless sky still shines as bright” (“Dusk at Mt. Diablo”).
The final sentiment of the collection is its best summary: “listen / when she whispers: If you are patient, / your eyes will adjust to the dark.” This moment serves as a reminder, of the capacity to adapt even in the heaviest moments. Traversing through the seasons, Cressio-Moeller’s Shade of Blue Trees takes its reader on a journey through history, grief, and solitude. This structure tells a story that is constantly weaving in and out of itself, showing how complex the process of healing can be, while leaving us with the hope – and the reminder – that somehow, after it all, “even broken glass refracts light” (“Self-Portrait as Empty Reliquary”) and that that light is worth the pain of perseverance.
Nicole Bethune Winters (she/her) is a poet, ceramic artist, and yoga teacher. She currently resides in Southern California, where she makes and sells pottery out of her home studio. When she isn’t writing or wheel-throwing, Nicole is likely at the beach, on a trail, or exploring new landscapes. She derives most of the inspiration for her creative work from her interactions with the environment around her, and is always looking for new ways to connect with and understand the earth. Her debut poetry collection, brackish, will be published by Finishing Line Press in August 2022.