There is No Blue by Martha Baillie

The first sentence of Anna Karenina – “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – certainly applies to Martha Baillie’s family elegy, There Is No Blue. In the first section, Baillie describes the rituals surrounding her mother’s death, beginning with materials for making a death mask. The list appears in an almost poetic form with the first stanza vertically situated and the second stanza in a horizontal listing of necessary tools. Torn bedsheet and garbage bag prepare for the torn lives to follow, while a large lump of clay in the “tools” section could easily be transferred to “materials” with its “one handful alginate.” Indeed, physical, psychological, and artistic masking form a central theme in this memoir, as Baillie balances the sincerity [without wax] of “a good pound of beeswax” with “plaster bandages” of healing in her ritual of writing. As a pandemic highlights, masking is a contentious covering that protects and conceals.

After this objective opening, the narrative becomes subjective as Baillie turns to her dying mother sitting on the edge of her bed: “From the edge, she said, ‘I’ve mucked this up’.” Her daughter’s perspective comes from the edge, while the mother’s mucking up returns to the lump of clay and “concrete objects.” These objects are “very concrete and flying about.” While her mother is dying, she keeps writing, shaping all the centrifugal objects and edges from deaths into a still point of concentrated emotion. Her fragile body lives in language: “Her hands and wrists were made of fine bone, wrapped in thinnest skin, stained purple in splotches here and there, stained by her blood pressing close to the surface.” On the one hand, a heavy death mask; on the other, the unbearable lightness of anatomy where blood surfaces in wounds of inheritance. Her mother’s hands perform “a small dance in the air,” while her daughter’s choreography captures every fleeting moment in the language of love between them. The cushioned edginess of their fraught relationship recurs: “my mother’s the one who worried and watched and hovered at the edge of me.”

Trying to locate herself, her mother leaves voice messages from the edge of her bed; similarly, her daughter tries to locate herself “in language scribbled in a notebook, typed on a laptop, handed over to an editor, returned to me, and so on.” This ritual process of writing is also at the heart of There Is No Blue. Her mother offers her name, Mary Jane, the painter whose Pensive Woman 1941 (after Rodin’s The Thinker and Derain’s Woman in a Chemise 1906) forms the cover of Baillie’s memoir – another mask of protection, revelation, and concealment. The brooding and baleful woman in the painting is folded in an almost fetal position, knees drawn up to meet elbow, one hand holding her face, the other clutching a blood-soaked brush. This brush parallels her daughter’s vermilion pen of verisimilitude. The fauvist mask marks Baillie’s prose with its angular shapes in conic spheres of influence. 

Baillie offers a fragment of Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “open closed open,” to her moribund mother who accepts this rhythmic cycle of life and death, dilation and contraction. This open-closed-open pattern manifests itself in the shift from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the institution for the elderly to a young couple in the expansive outdoors: “The lamp on its metal pole cast a white light on the young couple, on the hard grey footpath and the lush garden – its beds bursting with kale, lettuce, zucchini, beans, tomatoes, peas – a garden where figures appeared during the day to water and weed, unaware that my mother was falling slowly from the sky in a corner of their tableau; absorbed in their labour, like the farmer plowing his field in Bruegel’s painting of Icarus’s plunge, they worked on; and now, as the arguing young lovers exited the scene, stage left, my mother continued her descent, unseen.” The garden bed’s cornucopia contrasts with the meager diet in the institutional bed, just as the figures gardening contrast with the solitary figure of a dying mother. The ekphrastic simile invoking Bruegel and Auden stretches the sentence and affords a historical perspective to soothe the suffering. This perfectly poised sentence exemplifies the moment “when language reveals itself to be exact.”

Soon after her mother dies, Baillie calls her friend Iris, an expert in death masks, which participate in the ritual of washing her mother’s body. “Even in this narrative, the telling of her death, the living are nudging their way to the front.” Waiting for death continues into waiting after death: “Waiting for the plaster to harden …. I sat with her and waited. I did not know what I was waiting for.” In death’s ritual process, she waits for the completion of the death mask and the cremation of her mother.

This anatomy of melancholy turns from her mother to her father’s death in the second section, “A Bend in the Path.” The narrative bends back twenty-five years earlier to the family’s cabin in the woods. Baillie carries her mother’s ashes in a jar, one of a number of containers in this memoir. She examines a large box of her father’s letters. Her father had wanted to be buried in a plain plywood box lowered into a hole at the bottom of the hill so that the minerals within him might quickly return to soil. His daughter turns to a poem by Jack Davis, “Variations on the Decomposing Fox,” as she composes her own variations on soul and soil, while the sky, “so blue, so blue,” echoes her mother’s words within There Is No Blue

After these parental burials, Baillie devotes the longest section of the book, “You Can Say Goodbye,” to her sister’s death. Her sister Christina writes her final poem in blue marker on her bedroom wall:

Because of schizophrenia

Because of the Juniper Tree

Because of losing the house

No rhyme, but enough reasons in those three parallel lines to cause Christina’s farewell note and act. Baillie describes her family’s grey stucco house in lengthy sentences that open the accumulations from her past. Like the road that loops around their house in the shape of a figure eight, the sisters’ lists intersect at intervals. Martha paints relationships geometrically: she, her sister, and her sister’s psychiatrist Dr. R form one triangle. An earlier triangle consists of the sisters and their mother.

Even as Christina struggles with her schizophrenia, so Martha agonizes over her narrative where guilt distorts her “disobedient tale.” There are demons in the details: “We are stories woven from darkness and light …. some of it we twist into a denser darkness that takes the shape of a demon voice inside us.” Baillie weaves intertextual details from her fiction into these familial interrelationships with their possessive pronouns and personalities: “My mother, her mother, our mother. My father, her father, our father. My rooms, her rooms, our rooms.” Open, close, open in a telling through photographs and memories. The sisters work through various forms of trauma, which leads to Christina’s writing in her journal: “There is no blue. There is only out of the blue.” The psychic outside-inside dilemma relies on a spontaneous “out of the blue.” Out of her blue moods Christina creates fragments of words and installations of found objects to situate herself. Together Christina and Martha create Sister Language

There Is No Blue ends with Christina’s poem, “Small Change,” a bookend for Martha’s found poem at the beginning of this book. Through these findings Baillie succeeds in portraying her family. Writing through Joyce and Akhmatova, she opens, closes, and opens into significance. Her pensive artistry sketches and sculpts the brightness and sorrows of blue to remind us of Donne’s “Death, be not proud.”

Martha Baillie lives and works in Toronto. Her novel The Incident Report was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and is being made into a feature film to be released in 2023. The Search for Heinrich Schlogel was an Oprah editors’ pick. Sister Language, co-written with her late sister, Christina Baillie, was a 2020 Trillium Award finalist. Martha’s non-fiction can be found in Brick: A Literary Journal.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Coach House Books (Oct. 3 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 184 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1552454746
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1552454749

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.