A Riff on the Color Blue
by Stuart Vail, Editor-in Chief

The Blue Museum by Phil Cousineau
Sisyphus Press, September 2004

In early Christian times, the liturgical colors were black, gray, brown, red, violet, and dark green, meant to convey suffering and grief. Blue was considered barbaric and evil. In fact, most Cistercian churches were devoid of color, and it wasn’t until the twelfth century that the powerful Abbot Suger (of the abbey of St. Denis), who believed that color was a manifestation of God, was able to bring the full palette back into the church. It was under his realm that a specific blue was developed by stained-glass artisans to depict the robe of Mary, which later led to Kings adopting blue as a popular royal color.

In today’s Western culture the color has many associations: sky blue, midnight blue, baby blue, navy blue, royal blue, Blue Ribbon, Blue Monday, blue blood, feeling blue, the Blues, true blue, a bride’s “something blue,” Bluebook, out of the blue, Old Blue Eyes, a robin’s egg, and Old Glory’s red, white, and blue. It can be calming and soothing, yet in Iran it is the color of mourning.

Phil Cousineau’s The Blue Museum is his first book of poetry since his astounding Deadlines: A Rhapsody on a Theme of Famous and Infamous Last Words, published in 1991 (Part II appeared in this magazine). The title was inspired by his perceiving an aura of blue around his wife’s pregnant belly before she gave birth and around their young son, Jackie Blue, ever since.

Cousineau is not a jazz musician, yet he thinks and writes as one. The protégé of Joseph Campbell, he journeys into the deep recesses of Soul, weaving mythology into his very personal stories as he riffs through words and phrases with his horn-of-choice, the pen.

In reading Cousineau’s poetry I can imagine distant strains from Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” playing in the background. It’s a sweet irony that one of my favorite soulful jazz albums aligns so perfectly with these works by a man who has been writing about Soul all his life. Of his 19 books, “Soul” is in the title of four, and through them all, soul pervades.

Two poems from The Blue Museum first appeared in the January 2004 issue of this magazine, “Music in the Wood,” and “Memoricide.” Of the latter, Cousineau writes, “This poem was first written the night of the bombing of the Sarajevo Library, as others have been moved to immortalize the tragic night. See the Serb poet Goran Simic’s poem, ‘Sarajevo,’ especially the lines ‘Set free from the stacks / characters wandered the streets / Mingling with passers-by and souls of dead soldiers.’” Another link to Soul. And yet another in Cousineau’s “Earthbones”:

The aborigines say when you die you go sky,
when you in trouble you go forward
into outback, you dig up your stone
you bury it where no one can find
it but you, and before you don’t
know it, you’ll be out of
trouble. Or so says
the dreamtime
painter, to me
on the Sydney
a ritual
I can dig,
down to the
depths of my soul
that, he says, as we journey
toward the ruined world, looking
for clues to restore our perdurable
secrets. Yes, the aborigines say when
you die you go sky, but I don’t know,
I only know when you live your sapphire
blue soul is flung like an earthbone boomeranging
from one world to another and back again, over and over.

Traveling figures greatly in Cousineau’s writings, for he has traversed the globe many times in the last thirty years. His The Book of Roads vividly brings to the reader the smell of fresh bread in the little town of Colares, Portugal; the “soft, ginger-colored light” in an ancient amphitheater in southern Turkey; and the sounds of rebeks, tambourines, and goatskin drums near the Djama el Fna plaza in Marrakesh. When Cousineau writes of “place,” he owns every step of the way. Those are his footprints, yet he allows readers to slip their feet into the still-warm impressions, giving one the sense of being there and smelling, seeing, and hearing the richness of his travels.

The Blue Museum is equally itinerant with its visits, in Part I alone, to Alexandria, Dublin, Genoa, Cannes, Sonoma, and Detroit. It consists of galleries containing a great collection of things blue: a blue guitar in “Fretting,” the watery world of “Proteus,” Van Gogh’s “seeking for blue” in “Vincent’s Search,” and Anna Akhmatova, waiting for hours outside a St. Petersburg prison to see her incarcerated husband, who saw a woman with bluish lips standing in line behind her in “Bluish.”

He plays with the word in “The Strange Flow of Synchronicity”:

Mama told me money didn’t grow on trees.
Papa talked a blue streak to me about the way he blew it,
Adding, contritely, that I better hold onto it because it had wings
And would fly out of my pockets as if it had a mind of its own.

And “The Samurai Poet” ends with:

On the wooden planks
where he had been standing
there is a dusky blue light,
like the afterglow left
by a conflagration of fireflies
who spent the last night
of their short-fused lives
flaring forth light
in a world of

Cousineau’s Museum presents blue in ways far more eloquent than did I in the second paragraph of this review. With each succeeding poem it is a delight to see how he approaches the color, stated or not. Had I another hand, I would rate this book “three thumbs up.”

Please visit Phil Cousineau’s website for information on how to buy the book, signed by the author:
Painting: antique oil on board, artist unknown.

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