The epigraph to "Sketches for Vincent " in Michelle O'Sullivan's The Blue End of Stars gives us a way to read this first collection. Quoting the French novelist Alphonse Daudet, the sentence reads, "If you have ever slept under the stars you will know that a mysterious world awakens in solitude and silence as we lie sleeping." Solitude and silence occur frequently in these poems in which O'Sullivan explores the mysterious natural world of the West of Ireland. In "Cargo," a speaker asks: "is it foolish / to think I'd hear this landscape speak?" The answer in all of these poems is no, as fields, water, sky, clouds have animate qualities: "the river is "as if asleep / or pretending to hold its breath"; "flowers have "a delicate sadness"; "an untroubled sunset hymns its last clear notes."
O'Sullivan moves far beyond the nature poem, and the solitude that pervades the collection reinforces the difficulty of meaningful human relationships, distancing people from one another. "The Ash and the Silence" describes a lovers' breakup which leads to a definition of love as "like the struck match--- / lit by some and quickly blown out." The final poems in the volume offer some antidotes to this negative side of solitude: in "Beneath the Roof of the Sky" the speaker asks, "How will we go, you and I?" and answers "By those boundless bright sounds, / by that temporary light." Reading these poems, one knows that the "you" and "I" are not restricted to specific individuals but can be applied to subjects, speakers, and readers alike, "each of us," according to "Medium Wave," "striving for transmission in the dark."
At the center of the volume—in the impressive "Sketches for Vincent," a longer poem in three parts—mystery, solitude, and silence are again highlighted. "Sketches for Vincent" imagines a connection between the speaker and a disturbed van Gogh, developed in a series of imagined meetings, most marked by a "pool of silence." Using words from van Gogh's own letters, like "don't come too near to me, for intercourse with me brings you sorrow and loss," O'Sullivan uses the painter's life as another illustration of the problems her personae face. She draws connections between his words and images—". . . that light in the darkness—a brightness in the midst of the dark night"—and the words and images throughout the collection. The poem compares van Gogh's difficult struggle to create his work with the search for artistic voice described in other poems. The [End Page 154] speaker in "By Slow Degrees," for example, tries "to translate / the language of the night," but this, like many other poems, focuses on the difficulty of "utterance."
In "Sketches for Vincent," O'Sullivan develops allusions to specific van Gogh paintings and images, from "Night Café" to "Haystacks" and "Starry Night," from irises to plum blossoms and cypress trees. Color imagery evokes Van Gogh's blues and yellows, pinks, and coppers, but also links this poem to the vivid colors used to create the landscapes in other poems. Addressing van Gogh, the speaker says: "I watch you paint / and think about how you are able / to grant these stars / the power of speech," echoing the problem defined in the poem "Hand in Hand," where a speaker tries to describe a landscape: "What's wild has no currency here, / there are no words for it." The final scene pictures van Gogh behind a barred window in the St. Remy hospital where he was being treated for a breakdown, as the speaker tries once more to communicate with him: "Come with me, we'll sit outside the café / and I'll paint you a moon you've never seen, / constellate your eyes with a shower of stars." The ultimate point of the poem is that one speaks through one's art, but the process is often difficult, and personal interaction with others is sometimes impossible.
O'Sullivan is a formalist and the image and sound patterns in this collection are striking. Couplets, sonnets and numerous other stanza...