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Halcyon: a self-portrait in epic poetry

Madeline Blair, like her recently self-published debut collection of poetry, is steeped in mythologies. Halcyon, the bird of Greek mythology for which Blair’s book is named, “had the power to calm the rough ocean waves every December so she could nest.” A state of halcyon is one of peace after struggle, calm after the storm. Its tranquility has been hard won, paid for in blood and tears. 

Structured as a four-part odyssey, Halcyon moves from Prelude, to The Hurt, Through The 2020 Interlude, and, at long last, it reaches the shore of The Happy. A symphony of personal, family, and Classical Greek mythologies, Halcyon reads as both epic and specific. Abandoned by her father and left in mortal danger like Oedipus and Paris, Blair’s narrator journeys into the underworld, a modern-day Persephone who is pulled back from the brink of death, but left forever altered. 

The specifics of the narrator’s descent present the modern day equivalents of sea monsters and vengeful gods. A young woman is offered antidepressants to heal from the father’s abandonment and absence. Intended to mitigate the pain, the drugs become a Trojan horse of sorts, going on to wage a deadly war against the young woman’s body and mind.   

My 11 year old body spent 11 days
trying not to die or at least
rot from the inside out—

The anti-depressants started
making the stars in my eyes burn.

nothing was worse than this the smell
of antiseptic is dizzying
and does not in fact feel clean

There was nothing worse there was
nothing worse there was almost

Excerpts from “Sick, Pretty Things”

Her own near-death serves as an fall from innocence, leaving Blair’s narrator deeply aware of  the death that surrounds her. In “One of the Worst Days of My Life, Validated by Affixing My Music Note Pin to His Father’s Suit Jacket,” Blair hits the sweet spot between intimate and universal. Titles, here and throughout the collection, may read like the names of Friends episodes, yet their deliver a type of brutal honesty served up in seemingly mundane specifics. 

His wake was a knife,
An unfamiliar feeling in my chest.
Each photograph on the slideshow reminded me
I wanted us to play more classical duets,
Get lunch one more time.
Should have spoken
Over summer
Like we promised we would.

He was orange Sunkist
And shiny teeth
Only sixteen
And I’ll tell myself now,
We adored each other just as much as we ought to have.
I want to tell him everything
And I hope he knows it.

Excerpts from “One of the Worst Days of My Life, Validated by Affixing My Music Note Pin to His Father’s Suit Jacket.”



Photo of cover of Halcyon by Madeline Blair. Photo from Madeline Blair's Instagram.

Photo from Madeline Blair’s Instagram.

While Halcyon can be dipped into and out of, I would save that strategy for revisiting specific works that call you back. Readers are best served by allowing themselves to travel through the stages of this journey as they are presented, and as they have been lived. This reader found herself returning to the three particular poems, “Hand Me Downs,” “Grocery,” and ” The Arizona Sonnet,” as well as the sole piece of prose “Warning: Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear.” 

“Hand Me Downs” speaks to the way mental illness can be handed down through generations like old sweaters, giving a texture and weight to family mythologies that pass on though remain unspoken. 

Anxiety runs in my family
Passed down the line like an ugly
Unwanted christmas sweater

My mother’s throat once
Twisted around itself (like mine does)-
Wool stitches curling around themselves,
Catching on the jagged edge of a nail

I am a walking ghost of a family
History my family won’t talk about ;
Shove it underneath the floorboards
And put a rug over it

Excerpts from “Hand Me Downs”

“Grocery” presented in list form, speaks to our cultural obsession with organization. But in Blair’s hands, the items are deceptive in their simplicity and seeming everdayness.  

5. You ordered maybe sixty balls of yarn to your house
and that’s not all

6. Somehow dozens of packages are supposed to make you feel
more connected

7. To the outside world but you don’t think it’s working

10. I think I know what it feels like now when i leave my sims in abvox in that video game

11. And let their needs turn to red.

Excerpts from “Grocery” 

In “Warning” Blair’s narrator describes herself like “a star [that] runs out of nuclear fuel, some [of] its mass flows into its core. Eventually the core becomes so heavy that it cannot withstand its own gravitational force. The core collapses, resulting in the giant explosing of a supernova. I was a supernova—a dying star that ignites itself with brilliance. Everything I touched set me on fire.” This is one of several references through the collection that frames the narrator as both dangerous and endangered. 

In “Girl With a Gun,” she is “ultraviolence, baby!” She is “singing hot neon purple that leaves your fingertips raw and bloody.” And in “Arizona Sonnet,” 

One thousand, seven hundred seventy-one:
More distance between us, more miles than years,
That I can remember. I’m not the only one
holding the smoking gun. It’s both of us.

As the protagonist in an epic battle to win mental and physical health, Blair’s narrator speaks to both the specifics of her descent, and the larger global crises that she and others her age were born out of. It is an act of bravery to lay bare the carnage, as Blair does. And, as she also illustrates, it just may be the first step towards salvation.

Blair (née Udelhofen) is a multi-talented, multi-hyphenated creative, with a voice and perspective well beyond her years (she is currently a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in French). She describes herself as “writer, poet, editor, artist, flutist, and owner/operator of her own handmade knitwear business called Skye Made.” Sharing that “her poetry has been likened to that of Sylvia Plath before she read any of Plath’s work,” Blair may take a cold heart look at death, but she does so with a grounding in love (of yarn, of literature, of real world comforts) that is her own. Such a strong debut leaves the reader wanting to see where Blair journeys next. It also speaks to the remaining relevance and rewards of an education in creative writing. 

Accompanied by lovely illustrations from Page Love, Grant Mason, Violet Moyer, as well as her own, Blair’s collection is a well-designed companion for the continuing grief of pandemic times. Its thin volume belies its haunting invitation to descend and to come out the other side. 

Photo of inside of Halcyon with text and images. Photo from Madeline Blair's Instagram.

Photo from Madeline Blair’s Instagram.

Copies of Halcyon are currently available at Art Coop in Lincoln Square, Urbana. 

Follow Madeline Blair on Instagram

Top photo from Madeline Blair’s Instagram.

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