Review by Rebecca Woolston
Joan Gelfand’s book of poetry, The Long Blue Room, exposes issues around the environment, politics, and love. The language in this collection is not particularly lyrical, and yet there is something else that is alluring. This is a poet who is trying to bring to attention the issues of the world and yet, it is all subtle, a word here, a phrase there. No poem feels as if it is a specific call to action, say like what a riot poem might look like, or some identity poems like “I Am Joaquin” by Corky Gonzales. Rather, Gelfand works in a way that feels as if no poem strictly discusses anything that is of importance, but collectively, they are loud.
The Long Blue Room is broken into sections, the first one titled “The Long Blue Room,” after Van Gogh’s painting, The Long Blue Room. In her poem “Good Morning America, Where Are You?” the voice is frustrated, saying the “the jig is up” asking, “Or was that greed/I heard knocking/Your knees back there?” Perhaps the most charged, or maybe obvious, poem in the collection, Gelfand’s poetic voice is asking America what it is doing, why does it still think the façade of whatever it thinks it is covering is working. The greed is seeping through, and tries to cover itself with moments of sarcastic humor, “There’s a knock-knock joke/in here somewhere:/Something along the lines of/“How many Investment Managers/Does it take to screw…?” The line is left open ended, a space for the reader to add whatever they feel at the moment, because almost anything could finish that sentence.
In her third section, “Taste” Gelfand addresses the food crisis juxtaposed to the overabundance of it in developed countries. The focus is on its substance, importance, the abundance of it here in America, and the consciousness of it missing elsewhere. In “Russian River Watershed” Gelfand brings to mind the Mediterranean climate of California and its ability to grow an abundance of fruits and large numbers of vineyards, listing stone fruits along with wines the come out of the region. The poem ends on a note that feels familiar for this book: a voice saying we have so much, and yet we waste it when others are suffering. The frustration of the complacency and wastefulness of our culture resonates throughout the collection. In “Russian River Watershed,” the frustration emerges through recognizing our current capitalist culture allows for the demolition of natural environments: “Vineyards./Trees pulled as fast as oil”- in order to feed a gluttonous appetite for luxury.
The fourth section, “Sex. Death. And All That Jazz” softens a bit. We feel like voyeurs as we watch with the speaker, a couple having sex through their window in an empty apartment in, “Making Love In An Empty Apartment.” Yet, Gelfand does not feed the voyeuristic desire to watch, but turns this into a tender moment. “Or is it the final pull of lovers/While chance and life are pulling them apart?” Perhaps, this moment we have stumbled upon between two lovers is a parting gift. Something I think we can all understand.
What Gelfand doesn’t do and this is something I have often been frustrated myself with activists, is not offer a specific solution. The first half of the book reminds us constantly of all the wrongdoings happening with the economy, the food, the environment. But what can we do about it? Perhaps that is not the place for poetry, I don’t know. Perhaps poetry is supposed to function as a form to increase awareness. What Gelfand does do, is bring the second half of the book into a deep look at humanity, not on a global or community scale, but on a single human’s existence. The daily life and upsets, in her section “Practice” the speaker(s) practice living. Maybe, that’s all we need to do. Gelfand pulls a consciousness to the reader, one that is uncomfortable at times, one that forces the reader to ask, am I part of this, how much a part of this am I, how do I change my everyday life to make an impact somehow? The book demands attentiveness from the reader, both to the language and the topic(s). What are we all doing, anyway? You might feel hopeless, angry, frustrated, confused after reading, but who says that’s a bad thing? At least you are moved in some sort of new direction. Gelfand’s writing warns to be aware of yourself and your impact on others and the environment. How do you fit into the community you are part of and the ones you create around yourself to practice better living?
Joan Gelfand is the author of four books including The Long Blue Room, A Dreamer’s Guide to Cities and Streams, Here and Abroad, and Seeking Center. She blogs regularly for the Huffinton Post and teaches writing for Poetry Inside Out. She is also a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her website is http://joangelfand.com.