The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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....

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.