Janice Lee is a writer, artist, editor, designer, curator, and scholar. Her work can be found in antennae, sidebrow, Action, Yes, Joyland, Luvina, Everyday Genius, elimae, Black Warrior Review, Peacock Online Review, and elsewhere.
Janice Lee is a poet’s poet, a writer’s writer, a griever’s griever, a human’s human. The Sky Isn’t Blue is a phenomenal work for a reader’s reader—demanding us to be awake in this world.
In Janice Lee’s The Sky Isn’t Blue, her thoughtfully interrogative and raw turn towards intimacies elegantly weaves body, environment, and intellect together into a sensually theorized re-encounter. The attentive instance blooms into spiritual incantation.
To read Janice Lee’s new book, The Sky Isn’t Blue, is to remember. Not major events or turning points in life, even though she is writing after a huge one in her life, but remembering moments, textures, sounds, pauses. The air that touched my skin once as I walked home. The sound of dust touching glass. How there was blue once above me when I looked up. It makes me remember that my life is about spaces—of things as large as the sky that envelopes me and of the more intimate, like the space that is my body. The book disappeared as it became each second ticking away in my life, reminding me that I will not be able to save it nor will I ever be able to forget.
Many would argue that the main goal of literature, like most other forms of art, is to entertain. After all, we’re frequently so bogged down with the stresses and struggles of real life that we rely on these creative efforts to generate enriched escapism in which we become and interact with drastically dissimilar people in wildly different worlds. While that’s all well and good, perhaps a greater purpose of literature is to give meaning to those very same hardships, to allow us to explore our (and others’) deepest desires, fears, and confessions in the most eloquent and relatable ways possible. In her newest collection, The Sky Isn’t Blue, Janice Lee does just that, proffering a plethora of unrestrained revelations and reservations that evoke a sense of fragility, bravery, and honesty akin to Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Kaufman and Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Although it can feel a bit self-indulgently opaque and artsy at times, there’s no denying the beauty and weight Lee pours into each examination of her innermost being.
Lee (who, among many other things, is the Executive Editor of Entropy, where “earlier versions” of several of these works first appeared) views these pieces as essays, yet they often feel more like prose poems, written in paragraphs yet packed with dense, lyrical phrasing and stream-of-consciousness structure. Either way, there isn’t a wasted chapter in the lot, and the vast majority of them will leave you speechless with empathy, wonder, and introspection as you follow her investigations into the connections we make to each other, the cosmos, and even ourselves.
The opening section, which appears before the first official selection, gives a good impression of both the style and substance Lee aims for with The Sky Isn’t Blue:
In every manner of space, there is an intimate and crucial rivalry between open and close, between time and memory, between myself and yourself. The further we walk together, the further we walk in parallel, that distance between us that wavers, minuscule on some days, and incredibly vast on others, but always and certainly there, that distance persists.
The entire sky between us.
The entire sky between us.
Arguably the most prevalent and impactful subject Lee touches upon in her anthology is the death of her mother several years ago. She writes about and to her mother regularly, as if to exorcise unspoken views and hold onto a bond that, in some ways, is still very much there. In “Backpacking, Point Reyes, Driving,” for instance, she ponders how this loss has affected her entire history and outlook:
I look back and see my life divided up into three periods. First, the period before my mother’s death: a past that is difficult to remember, almost a daydream, figments of another life with mountain ranges that separate my current self from all else that dwells back there. Then, a period of flatness and depression: utterly content and comfortable yet without happiness or joy. Then a period after an intense heartbreak. The details are extraneous. What matters is that I have trouble remembering anything from past periods of my life. As if they happened in other lifetimes, or not at all.
Elsewhere, she scatters smaller fragments of the same mourning within other contexts, such as in “Los Angeles,” where whimsical ruminations about the city lead her to the following conclusion: “The confession isn’t the desire for death, though there is that too, but that you miss your mother... But in the light there is mother, there is that untraceable wound that began with birth.” These excerpts demonstrate one of the greatest feats of The Sky Isn’t Blue: Lee’s ability to represent the ways in which our cognition sometimes acts of its own accord, dispelling memories and emotions in the midst of seemingly isolated activities. In other words, we rarely have control over how our environment determines our thoughts and feelings, so all we can do is learn the embrace the randomness of it all.
Just as death sparks a myriad of responses, so too does mature [un]requited romance, and Lee does a fantastic job of capturing this as well. Interspersed throughout the sequence are confessions (directed at an unnamed lover) that are extraordinarily poignant, subtle, and gorgeous. In "Tide Pools & Rain", she expresses a need for that kind of intimacy again, both physically and emotionally. In doing so, she pinpoints a precise kind of longing known to anyone who’s ever loved and lost:
I think of a touch, fingertips along the small of my back, fingertips running parallel along my spine to reach my shoulders, my neck, my face. I think, fuck, I miss that. I miss that. I miss a feeling, a certain feeling, a feeling of saying I love you. I miss saying I love you more than anything in the world.
Similarly, “Spaces in Transition” begins with a reaction to how our partners begin as nothing and become all-encompassing:
The mornings in bed when you turn over to see someone there, a sleeping body you barely recognize. Who is this person lying next to you and what is this overwhelming feeling you have? For a moment you don’t recognize this person who has somehow managed to infiltrate your life so seamlessly. Three months ago they didn’t even exist. Today, they have taken over everything, become everything, are everything.
“Tide Pools & Rain” also finds her commenting with brilliant simplicity on the necessity of confessional writing while also addressing the aforementioned sole detriment to The Sky Isn’t Blue (that the fancifulness of its language sometimes impedes its messages): “To miss feelings and the feelings of saying certain words. Because words matter. Because word can never match the complexity of what is felt but words are the only approximation we have.” Here, Lee acknowledges that emotions are often too complex and intangible to represent accurately and completely; rather, the most we can do (which she does) is signify them within creative outpourings.
Even at its most abstract and impenetrable moments, though, Lee’s devastating truths about what it means to be alive still pierce through. It’s often said that ignorance is bliss, yet how many artists really delve into the inverse relationship: that creative and critical thinking is torturous, for the more we question ourselves, others, and the skies that surround us, the more we allow existential crises to disappoint and scare us. Alas, it’s all a part of the human condition, and Lee’s The Sky Isn’t Blue does a tremendous job of letting us know that no matter how we feel or what we think, we’re not alone.