Smile Politely

Fool in a Blue House is a poetic exploration of domesticity

Fool in a Blue House lays on green and purple flowers.
Serenity Stanton Orengo

More than a few years ago, I took a class as a graduate student at the University of Illinois called “Anthropology of Home.” It was one of those rare classes that sticks with you due to its real-world relevance; we discussed everything from Soviet communal apartments to Marie Kondo. Since then, I’ve often thought of how we inscribe meaning to houses or dwellings, and how that shapes not only fictional texts but my own life and those around me as well. When I caught a glimpse of Katherine Gaffney’s new poetry collection while browsing at The Literary, I was immediately intrigued by the decision to center the idea of home in the title: Fool in a Blue House. Written in blue script, the title is paired with a painting by Mary Cassatt dated 1890–1891. Depicting a woman bare from the waist up while washing her face in a water basin, the painting immediately grounds the reader in a moment of timeless domesticity.

Gaffney, a lecturer in the English Department at the U of I, first came to Champaign-Urbana in 2016 for her MFA. Now living in a “beautiful old house” in Champaign with her partner, two dogs, and a cat, she told me that the inspiration for this collection was her first experience cohabitating with a partner during her MFA. In addition to exploring “the role of the domestic in parsing out that dynamic,” she says the collection “also explores navigating intimacy with a partner alongside one’s family and discovering the shapes and outlines of those different loves.”

Katherine Gaffney, a white woman with medium blonde hair and glasses sits in front of a brick wall and smiles at the camera.
Katherine Gaffney, on her website

Gaffney’s collection takes the reader on a journey through various domestic scenes. There are moments between lovers and partners; instances of familial love and grief. We see a grandfather’s death processed while the Kirstin Dunst film Marie Antoinette plays in the background. There’s a mother’s heart attack, and an earlier disillusionment with the expectation of how life will be versus how it turns out to be:

I feel like a fool in a blue house, thought I could curate
the life we’d live — repot herbs in spring, summer dinners
on the deck, year round sex on the couch. Saturday
we’d bake bread. Sunday we’d walk in the sleepy
evening steadying ourselves for the week. But we’ve got
none of that, except for sex on the couch […] (3).

There is something tangibly familiar in the settings of the poems that make up Fool in a Blue House: the reader sees glimpses of trips to Home Depot, Capital One credit card offers are strewn on counter tops; there’s a poem called “At Longhorn Steakhouse,” and another that opens with a play place at Burger King that smells of “overdue sanitation.” The settings are at once both oddly specific and entirely generic, often with a hint of nostalgia: we (Midwesterners) know exactly what the inside of Longhorn Steakhouse looks like, but that Longhorn could as easily be located in California as in Champaign and look exactly the same. Even the blue house feels known, a stand-in for your own starter house and all the dreams (and disappointments) that are housed there.

These settings ground the poems in relatable reality. Gaffney’s poetic recollections are deeply personal, and yet we too could find ourselves in a model kitchen in Home Depot on a Sunday morning. This is a collection that invites you to reflect on your own scenes of domestic life. What is the space you inhabited when you experienced that life changing moment? What movie was playing in the background during that moment of your own grief?

In addition to domestic spaces, another inspiration for the collection, Gaffney told me, was animals; the opening poem is titled “The Horse,” and there are several animal themes that run throughout the poems. For me, the most memorable animal moment comes in the form of a fishbowl mentioned in one of the concluding poems, “In April.”

The poem "In April" by Katherine Gaffney reads "She must have carried her belly around like a fish bowl. Careful not to knock into corners, bash the little gold body floating inside her. Despite her care, it took her seven tries to carry one home. Seven times she saw it float, belly up in the bowl. Wanting to smash bowl, body, and the blow dryer on its hook. How her body must have felt like snow in this April.
Photo by Serenity Stanton Orengo; Poem from Fool in a Blue House by Katherine Gaffney

The poem is set apart from the others in the collection due to its physical presence on the page; experimental in form, the poem is set as a circle; resembling the fishbowl mentioned in its lines, or, perhaps, a pregnant belly. The words are unevenly set, creating deliberate absences in each line. There are several levels of “home”: there’s the image of the fishbowl as a home, which is in turn being carried around by a woman serving as the first home for her unborn child — an image that is then compounded by the lines “Despite her care, it took her seven tries to carry one home.” Both devastating and vulnerable, I appreciated the many layers to this poem and the various ideas of “home” present.

When I asked Gaffney what she hopes the reader will take away from her collection, she told me, “I hope readers take away what they need to take away. Perhaps that’s a bit of a cop out, but it’s the truth. I hope readers walk away with, perhaps amongst many possibilities, a ring of musicality in their ear, a resonance with the image of a rabbit, the echo of their own emotional truth, and exciting takeaways I can’t even imagine.”

While there is a clear narrative and continual thread throughout the collection, I think that many readers will be drawn to certain poems more than others, based on their own personal lived experiences, the space they currently inhabit in their own lives, and their own memories and moments of love or grief. This is a beautiful and moving collection, both personal and timeless in its ideas.

You can find Fool in a Blue House on Gaffney’s website, or at The Literary.

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