O’Keeffe, Angela. Night Blue. Sydney: Transit Lounge, 2021. RRP: $27.99, 144pp, ISBN: 9781925760675.
Emerging Critics on the Editor’s Desk
This year marked the first iteration of a new Westerly initiative: our Emerging Critics Program. Designed to support both the Higher Degree by Research community at UWA, and to work in partnership with Pelican (UWA’s student magazine), we hoped to provide editorial guidance and mentorship, as well as publishing opportunities, for a small group of up-and-coming critics. The fruits of this process will be seen on the Editor’s Desk in special posts spanning December and January 2021-2022. The successful applicants for the Program were chosen in two ways: nomination by Pelican’s 2021 editors, Riley Faulds and Millie Muroi, and by the Westerly team after applications from HDR students across the Humanities. We’re so pleased with the calibre of work our first Emerging Critics have put forward, and can’t wait to introduce these new critical voices to our readers!
Art—and the indelible imprints it leaves on the human beings who witness and create it—is the central preoccupation of Angela O’Keeffe’s novel, Night Blue. While the broad emphasis of this slight yet intense debut work is that of the relationship between art, artist and observer—mirroring the ménage à trois often created between literature, author and reader—the true focus of Night Blue is the journey of Jackson Pollock’s painting, Blue Poles (1952). Yet I found the novel less a piece of traditional historical fiction, and more a liminal reflection on time and space. O’Keeffe crawls beneath the surface of Pollock’s work—literally interpreting his dictum that ‘the painting has a life of its own’ (7)—to give Blue Poles its own unique voice.
Night Blue opens in 1952 in Pollock’s Long Island studio. On the cold floor lies a piece of Belgian linen, ‘five metres by three’ (9), which begins to observe the act of its own creation into a piece of art. The figure of Pollock—who O’Keeffe slowly unpicks through the course of the novel—is romantic and sensual:
He turned and made his long-limbed amble across the room, crouched before his tins of paints, prised one open.
The smell of me.
He stood over the canvas, angled the tin. (9)
Yet like all lovers, Blue Poles and Pollock are parted; the painting is set aside, and another takes its place. Blue Poles changes hands, and changes hands again. This peripatetic restlessness proves to be a hallmark of the novel. Moving between past and present, the narration of Night Blue folds, tryptich-like, from the painting itself, to the character of a PhD candidate Alyssa, and back again to Blue Poles. To narrate a novel from the perspective of a painting—indeed, to write through the canvas, so to speak—is creatively ambitious, but O’Keeffe adroitly carries this somewhat intangible concept.
Blue Poles proves to be an unreliable narrator. The painting, at times, gleans information about its past through the overheard spiels of museum tour guides, and at others intuiting the thoughts, memories and emotions of the people around it. ‘I don’t want to give the impression that I could read the minds of anyone who came near me—it has never been so straightforward,’ the painting observes, almost glibly (37). Alyssa, the PhD candidate whose research centres on the painting, felt equally unreliable. Although she provides a still centre to Night Blue, she also struggles with the mythology surrounding artists and what they create, and provides a critical window through which to view Pollock’s art because of her detachment from the painterly creative process: ‘I am not a painter and have never aspired to be one,’ she tells us (78). Through her critique, Alyssa also appraises Pollock as a personality—that of an overindulged 20th-century male artist, supported by a long-suffering female partner, Lee Krasner, who sacrificed much of her creative potential to her husband during her lifetime. This interplay between masculine and feminine, light and dark, is the sinuous heart of O’Keeffe’s narrative. Although an imperfect man, Pollock is still human, and therefore relatable despite his flaws—and Blue Poles itself remains stubbornly and beautifully non-binary throughout the work.
At times O’Keeffe floods the reader with perhaps an unnecessary amount of historical detail which could be found elsewhere. The thick historical description surrounding former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s purchase of Blue Poles, and the political detail around the dismissal of November 1975, feel somewhat at odds with the broader sweep of the novel. The strongest and most poignant moments of Night Blue arrive when the artifice of narration is stripped away, and a moment of raw life is captured. These include the dream-like sequences of Blue Poles’ birth and Alyssa’s experiences in New York, with its buildings held together with cement the texture of ‘gritty icing’ (100). For me, however, the passages painting the fatal car crash and Pollock’s final moments reach stream-of-consciousness levels of lyricism:
The trees rushing by, uneven skeins falling this way, that, like the fall of paint; you couldn’t predict it, you could only give yourself to it, hurl yourself at it, it was a thing of beauty, a holy thing, a part of you but also somewhere beyond you […] It was the feeling that mattered. He stared into it the moment before he hit the tree. Just stared. (127-128)
Night Blue is a novel of emotion—primarily grief, desire and longing. Upon learning of Pollock’s death decades earlier, Blue Poles encounters a sense of grief, but mixed with ‘something marvellous, a thrum, a sense of connection; perhaps all grief has this in it, although it is seldom acknowledged’ (47). This moment of realisation—that of the death of the creator, and of the self-actualisation of Blue Poles—fuels the sense of desire present in the narrative. Grief evolves into individualism and independence, and the desire to exist outside of the artist’s original intention. But Blue Poles never loses the sense of abandonment attained when Pollock birthed it and then turned it away. This desire morphs to longing, which culminates when Alyssa finally writes down what the painting itself has been unable—or unwilling—to articulate:
You loved him; I knew it then. Knew it as I stood in that room with the fading light, the floor made messy and alive by the remnants of you, tucked around his footprints like a blanket, a nest. You loved him. And it didn’t matter how I felt about him.
You loved him.
I loved you.
You were between us. (114-115)
Perhaps this realisation is what draws O’Keeffe’s novel to a satisfying close: the understanding that rather than being a piece of historical fiction, Night Blue is, instead, a romance—but not as we know it. The novel ends as it begins, with a memory of Jackson Pollock, the indelible yet ironically dead heart of the narrative. Yet as O’Keeffe observes, ‘in art, death is life. In art what is lost is not lost. In art the world grows ever fuller’ (135).
Ellie Fisher is a poet and undergraduate student of English and History at the University of Western Australia (Kinjarling/Albany). Her work has been published by Westerly, Aniko Press, Not Very Quiet Journal, Night Parrot Press, and Pelican Magazine, among others.