"That is the assumption, isn't It?": A Review of The Sky isn't Blue by Janice Lee
The Sky isn't Blue
by Janice Lee
Civil Coping Mechanisms
“Do you remember what you wrote in the margins last night?” Lee asks in the beginning of The Sky Isn’t Blue, gesturing to an all too familiar writerly anxiety: though the words are there, right on the page, they resist being read as your own, hovering in some strange, liminal, early morning haze between you and another writer’s language.
Such was the case with me and The Sky Isn’t Blue: though I’d bookmarked dozens of pages and scrawled in the margins, I kept returning to those pages in a sort of bleary ontological fog. Where were “my” words amidst the echo chamber of Lee’s words, within the echoed quotes from Gaston Bachelard, Douglas Kearney, Samuel Beckett, and Elliot Smith? This is all to say: with some books, the most apropos time to read them is also a time when it feels impossible to write about them. The Sky Isn’t Blue was one of those books.
This book is challenging to write about because its ideas already feel so beautifully contained, a catalogue of atmospheric microcosms. The reading experience is akin to turning over quiet snowglobes of Yosemite, the Salton Sea, Los Angeles, and also those less iconic but equally recognizable (and equally uncanny) landscapes: Night Sky, Dead Calm, The Compromised Body, and Mornings in Bed. I am reminded of Chantal Akerman’s short film La Chambre, wherein a camera pans slowly, in circular cycles, around her small New York studio apartment. With each cycle, a palpable tension builds between the lightness and heaviness of her surroundings: the effort of insinuating ones presence into a room, the strangeness of condensing so much into a small space.
The effort of self-construction (within a constructed space) is such an essential resonance within Lee’s writing. She beautifully performs the ontological and narrative complications of such construction—of writing the self, both extracting a self from and disappearing a self into space—with a cyclical examination of the sky’s mythological blueness:
We all begin with the premise that the color of the sky is blue. But the sky knows how to not fall onto the ground below.
A restless perambulation on the threshold of being: this is the definition of a poem.
When we study a poem, we rewrite its intimacy with a space, the horizonless sky enclosed in language capsules.
Here, as in all of The Sky Isn’t Blue, Lee’s language is both direct and ambiguous, providing the reader an accessible image while allowing a certain tension to grow (and rise up, intermittently,) beneath the surface, between the lines. Just as we imagine the blueness of the sky—an illusion created by the atmospheric scattering of light—“we study a poem, we rewrite its intimacy with a space”. To live is to narrativize, to write and rewrite that tension: between sensation and language, between seeing and knowing you see what you’ve told yourself to see.
The magic of Lee’s writing derives from its honesty, from the earnest longing expressed amidst her self acknowledgement. I notice this earnestness most poignantly in her punctuation: her colons, like open palms: commas like small, grasping fingers reaching out to the reader:
The words melt like Dali’s clocks, I intend, try to remember intention, and instead feel a heavy feeling in my chest. The heaviness replaces the words and my mind goes blank, my mind only filled with hot gas, my heart: heavy, and I think: I want there to be more space around things, and I think: No, I want there to be no more space between things. Between us.
When I read this passage, as if bidden by Lee’s magic, a ladybug crawled up over the edge of the page, as though it emerged from the book. It fluttered its wings against the tip of my finger before taking off toward the not-blue sky. “Bodies: touching”.
We won’t find any epiphantic moments in this book, no grandiose resolutions. What Lee gives us, instead, is a progression of that same beauty found in each atmospheric snowglobe, that same insidious beauty of the (not) blue sky: repetitions that deepen, darken, and evolve profoundly:
Then, while driving home, looking back into a brightly lit bus to see all the sad faces, all the old faces, the smiling face of a girl, the blank face of a man, seated, and this seems somehow a beautiful sight.
Then, the rising moon, shy and yellow.
What the sky looks like proportional to how often you cry.
Each repetition—each “poem”—pushes back a little more achingly against its own illusion—“What the sky looks like proportional to how often you cry.” Thus, the book’s culminating conversation—of suicide as a possible act of resistance, a protest against the sky’s blueness—rises up painfully, suddenly, but also inevitably:
I can remember regret before it has even happened.
You won’t feel regret when you’re dead.
That is the assumption, isn’t it?
What a devastating acknowledgement. Even death, in its unknowability, is like the sky’s blueness: the ultimate “assumption” of what is (and is not).