Joan Gelfand searches her own motives with a touch of whimsy while probing for hard answers, which makes her wide knowledge of humanity evident in her book The Long Blue Room. She is a poet who has visited abroad and traveled across her own country to gain a sense of contemporary life grounded in realism but also presented with a delightful wit that’s penetrating and wise. She observes the rhythms, the good and bad about her, but maintains the appreciation of small things—takes time to thoroughly taste fruits like peaches and pears and wonder about them.
The Long Blue Room, Gelfand’s third poetry collection, is made up of well-chosen poems equally divided into: Section 1, The Long Blue Room; Section 2, Ars Poetica; Section 3, Taste; Section 4, Sex, Death, and All That Jazz; Section 5, Scraping Dead Stars Off The Pavement; Section 6, Practice. The title, The Long Blue Room, is from an oil painting by Vincent van Gogh which appears on the cover. In one of the poems bearing its name, the poet observes that the artist painted it three times until he got it right. The epigraph is a quote from “Ars Poetica” by Czeslaw Milosz, which states poetry reminds us “our house is open, there are no keys / in the doors, and invisible guests / come in and out at will,” the long blue room included in this house.
The first poem in the collection, “Good Morning, America, Where Are You?” questions America’s position after the recent economic crisis: “The party’s over the game is played / The bad boys took off / With the cache.” The questions are central to our contemporary life. Greed’s the topic of another poem, “The Money Shot,” regarding plundered rainforests. Further addressing the current state of life, “Paris Whistling” ends with the appealing lines: “When did it become passé / To share a tiny slice of happiness, / Wear your heart on your sleeve?”
Another look at contemporary life is “Mother’s Day.” A mother appearing to have the good life in New York City ends her life in front of a train on 42nd Street. Also included in the collection is “I Know Why Sylvia Plath Put Her Head In The Oven,” a poem empathizing with Sylvia Plath, a woman who also ended her life.
“Bach Flower Remedies,” using the narrative style, is a humorous, three page look at five types of natural medicines, bringing up questions one surely would have about small brown bottles of: Agrimony, Aspen, Impatiens, Elm, and Chestnut Bud coming to about $100. Readers are taken on a shopping trip that has many aspects that will be familiar, one that they will laugh along with also. Similarly “Cobra Sonnet” does not follow the traditional number of lines of sonnets or follow the rhyme scheme, but it does finish with a couplet providing a conclusion. Gelfand uses humor, knowledge of plants, and irony to craft an engaging 26-line poem.
The included tanka poems, traditionally using thirty-one syllables, are on such varied topics as lime, maple leaves, and praise. “Ode to Toast” is praise to roasting toast, the humor evident, “Raise a glass in honor of skinny wire coils / That heat out bread’s best.” And also “Let’s toast the aroma that rouses a dog / From its coma. . . .”
Gelfand’s poems have aspects of a cosmopolitan and a naturalist, a combination that makes her poetry so grounded. The Long Blue Room is a collection to go back to again and again as it is a conversation with a friend with wit and understanding—one who writes not to confound or puzzle but to share the extraordinary lurking just beneath what is all around us. Joan Gelfand finds inspiration in Monet’s paintings, William Carlos Williams’s poems, letters in the Hebrew alphabet, movies—but mostly from what she has experienced, what is within her as a contemporary American woman, worthy of being shared.