The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

“Blue Wine” comprises eleven numbered sections. They vary in length from the three-line seventh section to the twenty-nine lines of the eighth section. Each line in the poem is fourteen syllables long. One key to the poem is its dedication: “for Saul Steinberg.” The inspiration for the poem was a visit by John Hollander to Steinberg’s home, where Steinberg (an artist, humorist, and cartoonist) had done a drawing of several bottles of “blue wine.” The whimsical names Steinberg gave the bottles in that initial drawing are given in the poem’s eleventh section. From there, Hollander “thought about blue wine, and what it might mean.” He was also thinking about Steinberg’s art, specifically the 1979 second edition of The Passport, to which Hollander contributed the introduction. The Passport, a melange of real and false immigration documentation, is similar in tenor to Hollander’s Reflections on Espionage; both acknowledge by undertone that authority is always authority, but it is not always correct.

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As “Blue Wine” opens, a winemaker “worries over his casks,” but the wine has its own consciousness. Red wine or white wine “broods on its own sleep.” One cannot learn anything about blue wine, however, by looking in the barrels; “a look insidewould show/ Nothing.” The difficulty of understanding blue wine is established.

The next four sections delineate methods of apprehending the wine. These result in mutually exclusive conclusions and arrays of half-truths. The second section presents intellectual approaches ranging from the scientific to the contemplative, while the third evokes the sensual, emotional reactions of the wine itself, such as “a blush of consciousness/ (Not shame).” By the final two lines of the third section, neither emotional nor intellectual interpretations are seen as more than convenient representations, unable to fully comprehend “immensities like blue wine.”

The fourth and fifth sections show modes of “high” and “low” culture, respectively. The scholar translating Plutarch stands in sharp contrast to Hollander’s rearranging of the “bluing for extra whiteness” of a television advertisement. Again, neither is in itself sufficient. In the sixth section, the names tell the tale: The name of the wine may translate as “The Blue Heart,” but the wine comes from a nobleman whose title translates as the “marquis of silliness.” What follows is a preposterous description of personal revelation. By the end of this section, the reader will trust in no one’s authority on the matter of blue wine.

Sections 7 through 9, like section 6, are tales of personal encounters. They are, respectively, apocryphal, epic (“Homeric”), and naturalistic. The eighth section, with its blatant evocation of Homer’s The Odyssey, anchors the poem solidly in the poetic tradition. The ninth both returns the reader to the contemporary world and links the arts to the world around them.

Section 10 is the only part of the poem to present the first-person experience of the author with “blue wine,” which he remembers as only occasionally (with “domestic reticence”) being poured at family meals. The last section ties the various perspectives together, and the poem’s final four lines concurrently reject and affirm their own incomplete nature. The last words, “to see what he will see,” refers to drawing one’s own conclusions and having one’s own encounters. The final line’s evocation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature” brings the poem to a close.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 379

Connections and evocations abound in Hollander’s poetry. Nowhere is this shown more clearly than in the linkages (the following examples are by no means all-inclusive) between sections 3 and 8 of the poem. The concluding word of the eleventh line of section 3, “surmise,” while appropriate in and of itself, also evokes the similarly phonemed “sunrise” as an element of the wine itself. This schemata of structural linguistics would not be so effective had not Hollander set it up by invoking “the dark moon of the cork” and “the bottom over which” the wine has come: The reader is subtly led to expect the sun beginning to broach the horizon. Hollander makes further connections. He has described poetry as an ongoing dialogue with poets previous, and the phrase “mild surmise” evokes the “wild surmise” in the penultimate line of John Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” The explicitly “Homeric” eighth section is thus linked to this section.

Once the first link is noticed, the appearance of others comes as no surprise. One is especially delightful: The wine’s “blush of consciousness/ (Not shame)” in section 3 invokes Adam and Eve in the Garden. Hollander uses this reference obliquely to reinforce the fourth and fifth lines of section 8. Even as the “gnashing rocks to leeward” evoke the Scylla and “the dark vortex” Charybdis from The Odyssey (book 12), so that which Charybdis “display[s] in its whorls/what it could never have/ Swallowed down from above” is a fig tree—the type of tree whose leaves Adam and Eve used to cover themselves after their first “blush of consciousness.”

In Hollander’s reconception of The Odyssey’s book 12, Odysseus’s crew, instead of eating Helios’s cattle, drinks blue wine. As with Hollander’s more complex poem “Spectral Emanations,” the blue is evoked through the colors leading to it. The spectrum is described, from “Brightness of flame” to “flavescent gold,” with both all colors (white, “blinding bleakness”) and the absence of color (“the shining black of obsidian”) limned. What remains on the island is the “constant fraction” of blue that abided “even after every sky/ Had been drenched in its color.” The final phrase of section 8, the joyous “the sea-bright wine,” is an inversion of “the wine-dark sea” of The Odyssey.

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Themes