michael collins

Beginner’s Guide to Loss in the Multiverse by Claudine Nash

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By Michael Collins
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Claudine Nash’s third full-length poetry collection, A Beginner’s Guide to Loss in the Multiverse, is a subtle yet broadly relatable exploration of the psychological mysteries related to the presence(s) of the beloved in the human psyche. Each poem explores a speaker’s loss of a beloved in its own uniquely evolved universe.
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The eponyomish first poem establishes several of its signature approaches, most notably the poetic transformation of subject matter through metaphor and modulation of tone and syntax.  The poem is framed within an ironic fictional text, yet it begins in the mode of a first person affirmation:
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Beginner’s Guide to Loss in the Multiverse,
Universe 415
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Beginner’s Guide to Loss
in the Multiverse, page 26:
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I accept this challenge
of surrendering
all of you, every
notion of us
that could exist
in some other time
or space, (3)
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Is this a lyrical address to a specific lost beloved from the speaker’s own past, or a first-person utterance in the mode of the title, designed to be repeated by self-help readers? The speaker and addressee remain, as they often will in this collection, in a sort of superposition between possible constellations of relationship – and between the various modes of perceiving the world connected to each one.
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But, when it comes to the surrendering of all possible potential manifestations and memories of the relationship, we would be naive not to expect a bit of a diet cheat:
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but recklessly
allow myself
two pieces of light;
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the one that burst
from your eyes
the day we watched
the dust whirl
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and saw all our
lives at once,
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then later,
those particles that
slipped around you
as you stepped
into the distance. (3)
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As the material veers from group utterance to personal narrative, the overflowing syntax dramatizes the speaker’s self-described failure to fully relinquish the lost, in the process spilling into the complicated images at the center of the poem. First, we see the light in the “eye” of the beloved “the day we watched / the dust whirl / and saw all our / lives at once.” The image and its interpretation evoke the organizational trope of the book, a collection of many possible versions of a relationship, its ending, and its aftermath in alternate worlds, each with its own nuances of the moebius experiences of love and loss.
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Fittingly, in the second image, the beloved is subsumed into “those particles,” flipping figure to ground, “we” to “you,” the flux between worlds already underway. In the first, shared vision the material world is transcended in a mixture of love and a concurrent perception of mysterious connections among all things; in it’s corollary, or completion, part of the viewing “we” becomes the object of perception, and the mystery changes along with (due to?) the speaker’s separation from the beloved.
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Glimpses of these interconnected cycles in which the “eye” perceives the more archetypal levels of reality (love, loss, reflection, cyclic nature itself) and, in turn, apprehends a reflection of itself as perceived by greater mystery, constellate and disperse throughout the collection in locations across time and space, narrated or lyricized from different perspectives, shaded by ranging moods.
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Often these shifts in perspective are embedded in and facilitated by the tonal and syntactical movements of the poems. For example, the final stanzas contain three much shorter sentences and only one right branching clause, notably another example of psyche overflowing across the boundaries conscious thought attempts to set, similar to the long sentence with which the poem began:
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Weeks afterwards,
these memories
split into ten thousand
streams that flooded
my sleep,
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spilling bands
of hazel and loss
into the night. (4)
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By contrast, in the simple sentence and sentence fragment, the speaker is attempting to regain control. First, there is an attempt to offer advice, which recalls the poem’s opening self-help parody:
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I tell you,
never try to pocket
a photon. (3-4)
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And we conclude with a gentle self-correction, appropriately in the form of a sentence fragment:
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Classic rookie
Mistake. (4)
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The tonal shift in these sentences from earnest and elegiac to playful, self-aware (and self-qualifying) is unmistakable. We’ve been prepared for it by the pastiche in the opening, but it registers nevertheless as a pronounced turn, balancing awareness of the paradox and interplay between absolutes such as ephemerality and interconnectedness and their inherent subjugation of the individual ego and narrative with a lightness that allows the speaker meet the world on its own terms nonetheless.
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Let’s also notice a couple of other fine subtleties before moving on. First, the humor in the final lines enacts a second kind of turn in that it also shifts to modern vernacular with terms like “pocket” and “rookie mistake,” usages that locate the speaker within the infinite possibilities of all imaginable worlds, as someone who, we suspect, has actually spent quite a bit of time, maybe even an entire life, in this one instance of earth that we happen to cohabitate, materially if not always cognitively. Hence, this speaker, already trustworthy on the basis of an ability to conceptualize and communicate cosmic mysteries through imagistic juxtaposition, also appeals to our sense of relatability through an understanding of shared, frail humility and a need for human community. This is communicated by sharing our language of daily use and allowing us to laugh.
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Finally, although the speaker is clearly referring to forces and laws that transcend and define human life, we greet their ubiquity in the form of an admonishment not to try to steal a photon, an infinitesimal, unquantifiable particle of light, a leaping, illuminating, unstable metaphor that lies at the center and heart of this collection’s multiverse – until it moves – and then once again. In all fairness to the unreliable photon, however, the speaker’s prohibition (or winking suggestion) not to try to “pocket” one, echoes the law transgressed by Prometheus in another kind of reality, and the speaker seems to understand human (and titan) psychology well enough to know that this guideline has about the same chance of being followed, which is probably for the best for all concerned. After all, fire itself rests by changing, if Heraclitus is to be believed.
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The subsequent poems continue to explore and complicate the central themes raised in the first and develop its formal strategies. The four sections each have their own substructures, in keeping with the “Many Worlds” “structure” of the book, as if each section were a larger fork of reality that gives rises to smaller branching in and between the titles, perspectives, and tones of the poems within.
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Wherever the lens shifts in this collection, loss of the beloved is the attendant mystery, even when not necessarily in the center of the frame, as in poems that are more about aspects of consciousness adjacent to loss, such as memory, which remains in the absence of the beloved to torment and console. Take, for example, three sections from “Strange but True: Universe 416”:
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1. Once I lifted
a piece of the light
that streamed
between us and
stuck it in a
moment only I
could open.
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3. A rogue stream
of particles once
slipped through this
moment. Once
you looked at me
and that same piece
of light poured
from your
pupils.
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A year later,
I dream of
nothing but
dust.
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4. Those photons
became encased
in crystal. I leave
fingerprints all
over its surface,
everything I touch
feels like glass. (42-3)
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Memory, combined with the sense of loss that animates it, functions here as a semi-autonomous factor in the psyche, as Jung originally defined the complex, casting its own influence over the ego – and fortified against the ego’s intervention. Through its influence over perception, it even succeeds in distancing the speaker from the experienced world, which it places behind glass in the metaphor that embodies the speaker’s point of view.
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This refraction of the perceived world is experienced both as the felt presence of the past shared with the lost – and the enduring presence of the lost as a partition from the present world in the speaker’s present consciousness, as we read in “Strange but True: Universe 7,893,459”:
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Think of this moment
as ninety-eight percent
glass:
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the light that spills
from your eyes as a
prism;
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an infinite that unfolds
with the precision
of cut crystal;
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the sudden transparency
in this glance.
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Now step away
and hear the cracking
of chest muscles,
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the separation of fibers,
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a fracturing
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as my heart sinks
through my bones
as a stone dropping. (44)
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Glass recurs here as the metaphorical lens through which the speaker perceives the world in the absence of the lost. Here, we notice this relationship’s considerable potential to transcend all containment, an inversion of the confining experience of such “glass” in the previous poem. However, temporal reality reasserts its rights after we “step away” at the poem’s turn. Now “chest muscles” are felt “fracturing” as the world that seemed to be shared with the lost within the speaker’s psyche shatters, leaving a heart of stone, a different material altogether from glass, one less breakable, and infinitely more difficult to see through. You’ll find myriad subtleties of this metaphorical constellation and its psychological implications to unpack as you read the collection – and as you experience the various layers of the psyche over the course of your lives.
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There is a word for the experience of a psychic content experienced as becoming its opposite, enantiodromia. Perhaps not coincidentally, this word can also be used in conversation as an ancient Greek form of spellcasting to turn friends who think they know everything instantly and spontaneously into friends trying not to respond in such as way as to not not show that they do not know what you just said and, more redoubtably, what you did not just say.
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Enantiodromia is also an important phenomenon to keep in mind in exploring, as this collection does, an archetype like Death. As we have seen here, death, whether literal or in another form of finality, remains a paradox in the consciousness of those left behind to experience the lost now as materially absent, now somehow psychically present “somewhere,” as in “Somewhere We Are Carpenters: Universe 69,693,” and full of promise:
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You lift
your eyes
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and a home
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bursts
from your
lips, (45-6)
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As in our examination of the glass metaphor, you can also see the vacillations between these poles evoked in many ways within and between the poems of this collection. Consistent throughout, however is the presence of tangible “light” as an impossibility, like the relationship itself, that the speaker refuses to relinquish, recalling and complicating the opening prohibition against shoplifting photons, as in “The Theory of Everything: Universe 4,752”:
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.Still I summon
that single moment
when you stood before me
and spoke a dialect
of silence
that had no such word
as never,
when you stared me
straight on
as the morning burst
around us,
and I swore
I heard the sound
of light. (47)
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Like the original photon, light, here, is unstable and unquantifiable, hence its expression through synesthesia in the final lines. Does the remembered moment manifest in such light within the speaker’s consciousness, or does the ineffable light return the lost to the speaker in memories that are impossible to narrate literally? Or is consciousness itself the light, present to itself –necessarily though the casting of shifting glances and shadows over the material world to which it offers both perception and mischaracterization?
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Context shifts widely throughout this collection, bringing out new contours and valences of these dynamics, versions and revisions of a eulogy that could go on as long as there is consciousness to grasp and slip from itself.  Loss, the central and irrevocable paradox that accompanies such “light,” assumes and transmogrifies the felt shape of the beloved as the mind alternates between thinking they somehow are still here and that they should be here, recalling the image of the “dust whirl,” the particles of which subsume the lost viewer. This paradox lends itself to – or demands – response via explorations of the impossible: imagination, defamiliarization, poetic embodiments of archetypal levels of experience. None of these things promise anything graspable, apprehendable, irrefutable – but, then, their subject was even while present their fugitive. And, just as in the opening excerpt, a “guide” that morphs from vow, to confession, to self-transcending elegiac mystery, humbles itself by claiming the whole enterprise as a “rookie mistake,” the guidance offered by this collection is an open-ended, provisional, and imaginative journey through all of the possibilities of the impossible empty space of loss, lighted always and again by love that transcends the temporal moments in which it is/was a shared experience. Take, for example, “A Space for Your Moments: Universe 3,082,019”:
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I would like to gift you a space,
a room without tile or board
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or screen, but with corners
where moments dangle. Do
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not needlessly paint its worn
walls in gold. Your name is laced
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through these moments, may they
swell in your basket. May they
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fill your room with ice or
storm or sand or whatever
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matter lies in their pieces.
Here is an angle of light. I
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will sit here while you lift each
one and inspect their sharp and
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beautiful edges. I will sit here
and we will let them all breathe. (17)
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Humor and elegy balance one another formally, emotionally and cognitively in this collection. Infinite possibility and irrevocable event intertwine inextricably. The speaker’s many universes, imaginatively formed, are based on psychological realities that will both resonate with a plurality of readers – and inspire corollary adventures, allowing for plenty of rookie mistakes along the way.
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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.
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