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Blue Positive by Martha Silano

Reviews of Blue Positive

Excerpts from Diane Lockward's review of Blue Positive in New Orleans Review 2008

As the cover hints, Silano’s predominant obsession is motherhood. We have in this country a history of motherhood poems going back to Anne Bradstreet, but while Silano might be seen as following this minor tradition, there is nothing traditional or minor about her poems. Surely no poet has ever given us such an inside view of pregnancy or described it with such unique and delightful figures.

In “Begging to Differ” Silano does an about-face and now disputes the idea that pregnancy is nine months of anticipatory joy. “Fat, fucking hooey,” she says to that old myth, then lists the nosebleeds, heartburn, migraines, nausea, and six-month stiff neck she endured. For emphasis, she delivers a volley of alliteration, one of her signature talents: “She didn’t dance; she galloped. She didn’t / do-see-do, hokey-pokey, or hullabaloo; // unhaltingly, she hammered; didn’t divide / but devoured…blow torch in one hand, // jack hammer in the other. Constantly flailing / two feisty fists.” She ushers in the baby on a stream of t and r sounds, telling us that the child remained in utero “till she got too big // to make her turns, to run her rumbling rudders, / till it was time for her to make her raucous, ruby-red debut.”

Silano also confronts that part of pregnancy that until recently women weren’t supposed to talk about or couldn’t talk about because they didn’t know what it was, that is, post-partum depression. In “Crazy” she records the terrifying months that followed the birth of her first child when she was certain she’d “been shot, killed, sent though the long, slow / stove of cremation….” She both reassures and frightens the reader.

 Again Silano embraces contrary emotions, later finding herself on the flip side of such despair. In “Song for a Newborn,” one of the collection’s finest poems, she employs the catalog, another of her signature talents, to praise each part of her baby’s precious body. At the same time she deftly juggles a spate of similes. Speaking directly to her “Double Thick Pork Chop,” she says, “Bless your arms which hang, / outstretched, in sleep, / as if conducting an orchestra / a tune I’ll never know. / Bless your capillaries / like the roots of Early Girls, / your large intestine like dozens / of miniature knackwursts.” She ends with a blitz of metaphors: “for now I’ll have to settle, / my Sugar-Cane Showered Scallop, my Swimming Angel, / for your smile which says Braised Chicken, / Cilantro Dumplings, Romaine’s Most Tender Hearts.” Has any baby ever been presented as this delicious?

Another of Silano’s obsessions is the home. She peppers the collection with poems about food—Polish dishes, beans and rice with hot sauce, pears, cabbage, Phad Thai. She brings us right to the table in “Ingredients,” grabbing us first by the ear: “In one ear the crunch of kapusta—in the other the sizzle / of bacala.” And then the nose: “Through one nostril the deep, dark sting // of hot oil meeting garlic—through the other the steam / of cheddar cheese suffusing mashed potato peaks.” And finally, the tongue: “Some nights our burps told tales of halushki… fried with buttery cabbage.…Some nights the basil in pasta siciliana / sweetened our breath till dawn.…”                                   

Clearly this poet revels in language. She seems to find words as scrumptious as her culinary dishes, serving up one feast after another and savoring the strangeness of words, their meanings, their roots, their associations with people, the irony of them, the sounds of them, all of which she captures in “My Words”:

            I never liked pachyderm, especially when I learned elephants are anything

but thick-skinned. Ditto to the dowdily galumphing dromedary

            with its root in dromad, Greek for swift.


            Ones I never considered memorable or strange—

            bubble, banana, anemone—bloomed

            when my son began to use them


to describe falling snow, a crescent moon,

            a cockatiel’s plume. Plum is a terrible

            word for a perfect fruit …                                                                                                                                     

Silano beautifully combines tenderness and boldness, gravitas and humor, mastery of craft and invention. Everything in this collection invites us in, then back again. It is full of love and hunger and nourishment and amazement at how baffling, disturbing, and wondrous this life is.



Kathleen Kirk reviews Blue Positive in Rhino 2007

This book I love for its baby head cover, clear brown eyes staring back from a blue-sky background, and for all the motehr, baby, sex, tree, bird, fruit, family, this-is-real-life poems inside, poems with a rollicking feel to them, with a richness of color and detail and food, with lots of ingredients and symptoms -- loose, unwieldy poems and poems finely wrought, like "Crown of Sonnets for a Son," which also allows itself to be as unwieldy as it wants.  These are poems to love for their honesty, for phrases like "Fat, fucking hooey" in "Begging to Differ," about the realities of pregnancy and morning sickness.  Ah, yes, I, too, remember sitting in the waiting room "After Drinking the Orange Liquid for the Glucose Tolerance Test."  This is a book to read repeatedly, for nourishment or, as in "The Forbidden Fruit," for "eye-opening" snacking. 

We published "I Don't Know What I Want, Only That I'm Desperate For It" (its title credited to Kim Addonizio) in RHINO 2005, and I still love that one for its "piece of lime green yarn" and its beaded ankle bracelet and its powerful, endless yearning.  "And I want to be famous," admits this endearing speaker, "not like pinecones at the end/ of a branch, or socks curled up in a young woman's shoes// but a fame like yo-yos, Kleenex, the Northern Spye."  Sure, I want that, too, and for the son's dinosaur mobile to hang from the ceiling forever, as it will, swaying, in this poem.


John Newman reviews Blue Positive in LitRag issue 20

Martha Silano’s new poetry collection centers on life’s stages, and provides insights into pregnancy, food, birth, motherhood, marriage, and family. Though rising from everyday life, her work is far from an ordinary exploration of domesticity. These topics are merely starting places for Silano’s skillful use of language and imaginative leaps between seemingly disparate elements.

By placing a premium on active rhythm and sound, Silano succeeds in making her poems richly evocative. Take, for example, the opening stanza of “My Words.”

I never liked pachyderm, especially when I learned elephants were anything
but thick-skinned. Ditto to the dowdily galumphing dromedary
with its root in dromad, Greek for swift.

Or this stanza from “Salvaging Just Might Lead to Salvation.”

& when I come home with a headache the size of New Hampshire
you go oh my sweet sweet square root of three
my tikka masala poppadum chutney-dipped
let me get you a patch of blue a stratocumulus don’t move

Active language propels these poems at a brisk pace. The momentum she builds in combination with vivid imagery allows her to approach a subject obliquely while still intriguing and captivating the reader. The opening lines of the title poem provide yet another example:

To begin with I need to tell you about Phoenix, who’s telling me he’s so hungry
he could eat twenty sumo wrestlers, diapers and all. I need to tell you about these puke-yellow walls, about Ms. Porthoff, how she shines

in this, cluttered chalk-choked room like the Iowa sun in July. . .

By the end of the poem, almost miraculously these unexpected elements fit together.

Silano’s poems are often constructed like bouquets with many varieties of flowers in different colors, shapes and textures. In “Forgetfulness the Great Bronchial Tree From Which I’m Swinging,” she manages to include “keys in the yard,” “soupy tomatoes,” “water taxi,” “proof of insurance recipe for ouefs a la neige,” “Ho Jo’s in Far Rockaway” and more, arranging them all in the vase of her poem. These dexterous arrangements show how fluid and carefully considered her poetry can be.

Clearly placing an emphasis on mastering her craft, Silano puts formal pressure on her writing, often working in tercets or couplets, deftly allowing form to match content, as she does with the sonnets she includes. Her voice is mature yet flexible. Though Silano exercises a rigorous control in her poems that hints at her sympathies for the current academic trends in poetry, the persona she creates in her poems is never distant or remote or inaccessible.

A great sense of promise both in the writing and the life lived comes through in these poems that have the vitality of youth, optimism, and freshness. Anyone who enjoys seeing life affirmed will find Blue Positive well worth reading.


 Cranky Volume 2 Issue 1  2006

Blue Positive, Martha Silano. Steel Toe Books, Bowling Green, KY, 2006; and Corset, Shannon Borg. Cherry Grove Collections, Cincinnati, OH, 2006. Reviewed by Erin Malone.

There are many things I admire about Martha Silano and Shannon Borg, frequent contributors to Cranky. Some of these are personal; we share a friendship that goes beyond the bounds of poetry. But initially it was our interest in writing that brought us together. Along with two other poets, Kary Wayson and Anna Maria Hong, we make up a writing group serious about creating new work and challenges for one another.

Just so you know, I’m not in the habit of writing reviews of my friends’ books. But Borg and Silano impress me first as writers. It’s my luck that they inspire me also as people. Here, then, are my recommendations of their books, newly released.

Blue Positive, Silano’s second collection of poems, reveals a curious, enthusiastic mind, one that pushes at the walls to make room for more. A quick cataloging of subjects will show the author’s range: sex; pregnancy; postpartum psychosis; motherhood; Eastern European food; all manner of insects, birds, and fish; and the scientific vocabulary associated with the study of flowers. Instead of seeming scattered—as this material might in another’s hands—in Silano’s, it flows.

Poems recalling childhood tie the speaker to both her parents and her children. Taken respectively from the beginning and ending sections of the book, here are images of her mother and daughter. Notice the consonant sounds at work in this memory, the richness of “rickrack,” “Windex,” “kugel,” “kapusta,” “kale,” and the strong stresses of “last week’s beets” and “triple baked”:

. . .she presses her foot
to the Singer’s pedal, inching along
the rickrack of a hooded dress
while I doze on the bed,
intermittent surges stirring.
Mother of wisdom—
vinegar/lemon in lieu of Windex,
jelly most un-petroleum.
Matriarch of markets—
resurrecting last week’s beets,
overseer of kugel, kapusta, kale.
Queen of the tooth-chipping
biscotti, triple baked.
                             —“Mother of Peace”

In the following lines about her daughter, the repetition of “skyward” almost allows us to see the baby swung high in the speaker’s arms, and to feel blessed by it:

In relation to me she’s always skyward,
skyward like the popcorn flower and the trillium.

Her tongue, both tibias, hail from the era
of Rosie the Riveter, women named Garnet

and Hazel. She’s fire, all fire, but also
tending toward cymose, cymose and lacy, . . .
                             —“My Newborn’s”

Organization of this kind fulfills a collection’s need for structure at the most basic level. In between parent and child, you’ll find Silano hammering out the subjects of love, marriage, motherhood and self. Watching her build is impressive: here is “[Her] Man with his Fly Reel Eyes,” his “fingerling tongue / Biceps smooth as skipping stones,” but here is her wry admittance that “there is much in a marriage / that is cheerless” (“Gravitas”). Here you have the tender “Crown of Sonnets for a Son”: “Twin pink hyacinths bloomed beside the fence; you sprouted lungs”; in other poems we find accounts of the mind turned against itself:

. . . some god’s gotten hold of me,
some god’s squeezed hard the spit-up rag of my soul, rung me

like the little girl who rang our doorbell on Halloween, took
our M&Ms is your baby okay? Why did they take him away?

Lines like these last are the ones that most strike me, for their honesty and fear, their anger against the self and against “some god.” The poet does not shy away. In a world where the question of the day for literary critics seems to be “Can Poetry Matter?,” this work affirms.

There’s not enough space here for me to praise more fully Silano’s funny, smart, sexy language, her dazzling lists and vocabulary, and the rhythms that sometime necessarily break free from punctuation in their headlong rush towards all that wants to be said. This voice rises off the page: “I’m uplifted, // I’ll admit, by the notion of peering, / ever hopeful, toward a darkening sky” (“What Do You Do When You’re Blue?”) Blue Positive is a daring and lovely book.