By Michael Collins
Although the individual poems that congregate in Cal Freeman’s recent collection, Poolside at the Dearborn Inn, are often as subtle as they are profound, the constellations between them engage with even more subtle interconnections of psychological and spiritual mystery. Drawing on subject matter rooted in the daily and remembered worlds of family and community – and often nature – in and around working-class Detroit, the poems form associations that interrelate nuances ranging throughout global and historical affairs but maintain grounding in their abiding value of humbly upheld impressions of human compassion and resilience. The poems respond to our world through their own twin joys of language and music, their diction characterized by inventive, eclectic, and often overlooked or underappreciated words and phrases, reminding us of the diversity of expressive potential present in our inherited language while also allowing the more playful improvisations to celebrate what is yet and daily present to the eye, the ear, the mind, and the heart.
Opening the collection to “An Ode to the Proprietor of the Eastern Great Lakes Window Washing Company,” we are confronted immediately with both the uncertain nature of images and the deeper revelatory value beneath their instability. The speaker clearly draws on an esoteric and thoroughly engaged faith in invisible connections between things and persons that can seem disparate on surface levels, their collisions chaotic, yet the poems turn back on nearly every page from reified forms of evangelism, rather evoking multiple possible lens of mystery through associations that span fields of human understanding and experience:
…some images belie the substance
that composes everything
or underpins it or
Call that substance what you will:
quark or dark matter;
I have my theories and suspicions. (8)
Following the poem’s associative meditation that leaps between basketball, poetry, prayer, and the “window washing business that’s hell / on his [bother-in-law’s] back,“ each of which to a degree recontextualizes the others, the poem arrives at a negative definition of the role of poetry in human life that is equal parts terse and welcoming:
If vocation is all we have of meaning, dispassionate absurdity
is earned, and I am only tangentially alive. I could clean
this window and end up killing several birds over
the course of several days. It’s not the southwest wind
that makes a ladder or a tamarack sway.
It’s not the job of poems to be windows. (8-9)
Poetry is not made of surface vision here, especially in the form of the literalistic view represented by the window, through which seeing “into” someone else’s world or perceiving “from” one’s own is accomplished by attention to the surfaces of the perceived images, even those surfaces that may seem to house mysteries by materially concealing, to a degree, other material surfaces. Or, from another perspective, perhaps, we are allowed the interpretation that Freeman’s negative definition of the poem implies that it simply cannot be the window in any case because it is itself a way of perceiving from both – or many – directions at once.
One enlivening way in which a poem, both in rhetorical and musical form, complicates and bears witness to the “substance” that underlies and connects images is by presenting them on its own interrelating fields of meaning and complexity. “Static GIFs for Broken Musicians” is a lively example of using rhetorical forms to move the poem forward through weaving associations while maintaining a vital energy of open-ended exploration. We open with inversion both in word order and part of speech as the ubiquitous meme-maker and depth-flattener .gif is taken back into the realm of genuine creative practice: “Better to paint a gif than to gif a song, / to fail at aphorism than to whittle the world / to a disingenuous pith” (14). It may seem counterintuitive subject matter at first, but, if you think about it within the context of art history, there’s really no less reason to paint a gif than a bowl of fruit – or a can of soup. The word play invokes the playful joy of the transformation from an artifact of a digital wasteland to an object of perception lent dignity by the intention and practice of perceiving to honor the musician and invoke the music trapped in the .gif: creativity as a spiritual practice and vice versa.
This playfulness overruns formal definitions in waves of trans-disciplinary synesthesia, again, a rebellion against the rubber stamping and schlock-piling of the uniqueness of any of the genuine creations or their creative modes by using one to express alogically the singularity of the next:
into bruised eye sockets, an SM-57 mic aimed
for a mess of pencil lines and paint.
You’ve promised this won’t wind up
being about love, but contour
hatching is as devotional as prayer
or malediction if we’re to believe
the baffled music or the leach
of smurfy lichen. You’ve promised
that this won’t wind up being about the road,
but you’ve taken the Kelly-green froth
as horseback, the shambolic equitation
for an unaccompanied progression
beneath which the air always seems
about to kick. If you trade prevention
for elegy, you’ll be much more impactful,
say the beer cozies with “Suck It, Suicide”
printed on their stomachs. It’s hard to argue
anyone’s been saved but a precious few
were named and then forgotten. (14)
The self-reflexive refrain of negated promises deepens our sense of the speaker’s genuine enthrallment with prayerful, though not pious, creative activity as music becomes visual art before traveling on to the trope of the road, which we’re all familiar with from a song or two, and then we ride off on the contour hatching, which has become, in turn, “smurfy lichen,” then “Kelly-green froth” before returning to the road of the song’s own progressions, reassociated with the journey by horse “beneath which the air always seems / about to kick.” The conditional sentence that follows allows for the suspension of the reader’s realization that its cagey proverb is, in actuality a paraphrase of a beer cozy. The cozy, another quotidian creation, inverts a more probable daily phrase, “suicide sucks,” into an overt confrontation with despair through humor that both draws on the convivial illogic of the pub and the bulwark of human gathering against the nullifying isolation of modernity, which probably wasn’t that recent an invention if we’re being honest, just less efficiently mass produced.
We arrive from our errant quest in the final statement, which uses misdirection, pun, and allusion to remind us that we need to read lines of poetry more than once, from more than one perspective, and often with more than one form of vision. At first glance it appears another negative statement about our prospects of salvation, until we arrive at hinge of hope when the compound sentence feints at reversal, but then we realize that the “precious few” we were being led to hold out hope for “were named and then forgotten.” Upon reflection, though, this ephemeral “naming” rather parallels the process by which the original song was born, probably titled or “named” (like a knight or a religious; sometimes musicians don’t go by their given names either…), only to be gif-ed into two-dimension underworld of internet flatland, only to inspire new creative life in the form of spontaneous artwork – never mind the poem itself, which finds occasion to revivify all of these other “named and forgotten” things along the way. Secondary, creatively constructed identities and fabricated artifacts are no less sacred, for they have inspired and been remade into this “shambolic” lyric of unfolding of visions, perhaps paradoxically all the more vital for the synergistic ingenuity necessary to do so. Things become sacred here when humans make and name them so as part of a continual process in which that which leads and returns to life identifies itself as such in vision and in practice.
Wow, something unseen sure appears to have wanted me to go on a while longer than conventional about that poem; this stuff is contagious. Let’s read another poem to break up all of this reviewing:
At Evergreen and Brace
“The looking is what saves us”
When my father would tell me
my eyes itched because they still
had sleep in them, I’d imagine
a slumbering boy intaglioed
in a communion wafer and wait
until the afternoon to scrape
their corners clean. Those morning
rides down unplowed Evergreen
in his two-door Escort to
St. Thomas Aquinas School
where each afternoon we were told
by a gentle old priest
that the soul would never die,
told to be selfless, told stories
about saints who tamed wolves
and gave away their clothes.
Eye and sacred heart,
road frictionless and cold,
yet textured like a birthday cake,
auguries of blood and wine —
the mind’s eye, maudlin
and injudicious, still visits
three consecutive empty lots
blanketed in white, a windbreak
of dead cedar protecting
a flame-licked northern wall,
thorny canes that droop
with raspberries in summer,
and traces crenulations
made by boots, as though the patterns
of those winter mornings
were their own theology, a path
down which we can return. (18)
Here we see one branch of the psychic root system supporting the spirited connective celebrations of “Static GIFs for Broken Musicians.” Memory, here of a fortunate upbringing in which the child was protected, both by the safe transit represented by the car and the life-affirming worldview of the priest, from prematurely confronting certain of life’s eventual tragedies long enough to cultivate the relative practices of trust, grace, and fellowship in their developmental forms. The adult speaker is able to reflect upon all of the constructions put around us the adults and communities of our childhoods, the nurturing ones anyway, to allow us for a time to see, to learn to see, as children: illogically or from misunderstood axioms, but also from a sense of interconnection that protects from exposure to the elements and despair, that survives and balances the mature “mind’s eye, / maudlin and injudicious,” which still visits the “empty lots” of the child’s world as if by religious pilgrimage. This is, inherently, an “as though” return, the speaker balancing awareness of what has been irrevocably lost to time in the external world with what survives as a holy ghost in practices of gratitude that support creative generations like those in the previous piece, neither any less psychologically “real” or sustaining for their allowed subjunctive nature, poems of gentle complexity, living elegies, parcellates that watch over alphas born from omegas.
These interdependent intrapsychic relationships are, to some degree mirrored in the macrocosmic mysteries of the poems in the collection with titles that respond to questions the reader has either just asked somewhere in the white space, or perhaps has asked at some point and then forgotten, or would have asked if they had known the answer would be a poem because, well, who wouldn’t call forth such a generous response? We may be simple, but we’re no fools. These titles are another way in which Freeman weaves creations from materials that, while no longer present if they ever were in any literal sense, support what emanates from their new communities of associations as their legacies, as if continuing a conversation that may or may not have ever begun, similar to the earlier dancing among those that were “named and then forgotten.” These titles also locate the reader a kind of lyric superposition that holds together connections across time and space, which, luckily for whatever can or cannot be said of the continuity of universal mysteries, seems to be something they seem to have always seemed to have done anyway. This arrangement is mirrored within the longer poem “The Answer to Your Question Is, ‘Yes, but Not as Some Unremitting Paradise’” in the speaker’s address of the self “like a puzzled friend” in order to shift the perspective, and consequently the context, of a seemingly daunting moral-intellectual conundrum:
I address myself like a puzzled friend:
With all of the atrocities taking place,
why are you concerned with the plight
of a washed-up union trucker on a fixed income?
There are far greater indignities
than fixing your neighbors’ foreign
cars in exchange for beer. (22-3)
The poem further broadens in scope to include the other as mythic perspective through connections between classical text and present lifeworld that quicken the former and lend the inherited dignity of the myth to the latter:
Demodocus fuses epithet to melody
and rests the lyre’s tortoise shell
against his stomach to feel
the exiled creature’s reverberating
voice, and in this gesture
we begin to understand
the subtle difference
between poetry and song.
Outside the hall, young Phaeacians
hold contests of skill
in honor of the gods.
A hook shot clanks
from a back rim, soles
squeak over maple planks. (40)
This fusion of ancient form with quickening contemporary life is given a more musical incarnation, both in its cadences and reference to the evolved form itself, in “Mixolydian,” a catalogue of the collection’s signature negative statements which serve to invoke their opposites that resist definitional quantification. In this case music is the poem’s enigma, divine in the sense that it reflects and performs being per se, continually reborn in performance, allowing and celebrating the new life of inherited cultural form:
Not the clipper ships, creaking,
cruciform above the fog,
not the poplars whose leaves dangle
like tongues of cows in summer,
not the ironing boards
and bent umbrellas chucked in the canal,
not the water frothed by chemicals to spit,
not cliffs falling sheer to a bottle-green sea.
Neither the laughter gone unpunished
nor the laughter limned in vein-blue smoke,
not the combers that roll
like sculpted copper shoulders in setting sun
or the radiator tines destroyed
by rodents’ teeth. Not the antithesis of beauty
or the banyans sowing themselves
in cinderblock, not the angels
you say you’re listening to
when you close your eyes to play. (41)
As we read the incantation and sound play in these lines, the speaker saying the angels aren’t there merely denies, as we have seen throughout the collection, the reifying or literalizing entrapment of angels, recalling the images we opened the discussion with that “belie the substance / that composes everything,” kind of like saying “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing” in a song that palpably embodies and thereby “means” each mutually affirming aspect of itself.
You can find the book here: Poolside at the Dearborn Inn
Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines. He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.