michael collins

La Clarté Notre-Dame’ and ‘The Last Book of the Madrigals by Philippe Jaccottet (Trans. John Taylor)

la clarte

By Michael Collins

The late Philippe Jaccottet, winner of the Petrarch Prize, the Prix Goncourt and the Schiller Prize once claimed, “Everything – I think I can say this – everything that has given rise in me to a poem or a poetic prose piece has done so, it seems to me, because an opening has taken place in the wall of appearances; an opening through which, in addition, a happy light did not necessarily pass; what rushed through might have been frightful.”[i] This passage seems particularly descriptive of the meditations that make up ‘La Clarté Notre-Dame’ and ‘The Last Book of the Madrigals,’ his final, posthumously released works.

‘La Clarté Notre-Dame’ is a sequence of prose sections, spanning the final decade of Jaccottet’s life, that arise from and reflect upon one such “opening,” the sounding of a unique chapel bell:

I’d never heard a tinkling—prolonged, almost persistent, repeated several times—as pure in its weightlessness, in its extreme fragility, as genuinely crystalline . . . Yet which I couldn’t listen to as if it were a kind of speech —emerging from some mouth . . . A tinkling so crystalline that it seemed, as it appeared, oddly, almost tender . . . Ah, this was obviously something that resisted grasping, defied language, like so many other seeming messages from afar—and this frail tinkling lasted, persisted, truly like an appeal, or a reminder . . . (6-7)

The abiding experience accrues great devotion, a poetic inspiration that never finds verse form: “I must keep it alive like a bird in the palm of my hand, preserved for a flight that is still possible if one is not too clumsy, or too weary, or if the distrust of words doesn’t prevail over it” (5). The poet’s faithfulness is rewarded in continual and invigorating attempts themselves at reaching for the expression of the ethereal sound, ranging from a “limpidity which a heart would hardly be able to conceive, to hope for; and yet which would have enough power to act on a heart without any reference to its own nonetheless undeniable origin” to a synesthesia resonant with myth: “I had to think of morning dew that would be—as in a fairy tale—winged, and metamorphosed into aerial sounds . . . ” (13). A humble resilience results from this ongoing practice of linguistic devotion to the ultimately unsayable, yet even this modest dignity rests upon the mere possibility of his own life being somehow akin to the mysteries of his own reverence: “Would thus my life, so close to the end, at last discover itself to be an appearance of sense as fragile, yet also as persistent as all those signs of which I would have been the gatherer, the ‘re-gatherer’, and the too-clumsy interpreter?” (14)

All of these gentle considerations are confronted and threatened throughout the work by the rising drone of mindless cruelty that pervades the same world, represented by the recurrent figure of a man being released from a Syrian prison while hearing the screams of those still being tortured:

Therefore reduced, at the very end of my life’s path, to staggering between two aspects of my experience, at least both of them being indubitable: the gathering of signs, which is almost all my poetry, with the last sign received, this year still, as the starting point of these pages—all those signs whose singularity is to be minute, fragile, barely graspable, evasive yet undoubtful, indeed quite the opposite: very intense; in the final reckoning, the most precious things that I will have received in my life, without my having looked or even hoped for them. And on the other hand, the growing fright of one who walks in a corridor of a prison in Syria and will never be able to efface from his mind the screams that he has heard rising from the lowest circles of Hell. (20)

The fellowship of past poets, readings of their work and the memories it framed, provides recurrent and essential succor:

Defenceless, however? Not completely, because I had experienced those unexpected encounters as by far the best part of my life, some of them remaining completely interior or almost, and of which I perceive today that they were all oriented in the same direction, embellished with a mute joy, directed towards what Plotinus, as a rereading of Shestov has just reminded me, called the Very High, with the same terms that Hölderlin, all the same, still dared to call the Sacred, and even the Gods. Encounters sometimes prepared, without my being aware of it, by all those fragments of poetry which had come to me from all sorts of places, which were so well engraved thereafter in my memory, and which also proceeded, however different they were, in the same direction. (26-7)

Though these textual embodiments of the sacred may bridge death in finding the next generations, the awareness necessary to engage with them, in accordance with its own perceptive nature, circles back to its consciousness of the very evil that can only manifest materially because it is utterly unconscious of itself:

As for he who gets immersed in listening to music, with closed eyes, and imagines himself, for as long as he listens, sheltered from the worst; while this coat protects him no better than that of the snow.

Comes the moment of the torn coat, the torn body, and too often tortures with no thinkable excuse for them.

Comes the destruction with no remedy and of which one cannot speak without lying, without flourishes, if not those armfuls of flowers that merely mask the unbearable. (36)

The enduring truth, perhaps, that we may take from this “opening…in the wall of appearances” is the plurality of delicate, life-affirming synapses it fosters, in which both wisdom and innocence past are borne into the future:

I cannot help but notice, at this very late moment, as I write these already trembling lines, that here I’m touching the exact heart of what made me write, and which excuses, or in any event explains and justifies, all my repetitions from the onset, or nearly so.

To which responds the little bell of my childhood, the one that my father would ring at the garden gate…a little bell tinkling shrilly in the falling snow (34-5)

The sequences comprising The Last Book of Madrigals can be read as following the life of an intimation such as the bell, through a lifecycle – or several – within creative development that allows the inspiration to morph and take on new perspectives, as the title indicates. Here the initial life declares itself “While Listening to Claudio Monteverdi”:

When singing, he seems to call to a shade

whom he glimpsed one day in the woods

and needs to hold on to, be his soul at stake:

the urgency makes his voice catch fire. (49)

In a process that will play out in various ways over the course of the sequence, the speaker then moves into an imaginal scene in which the shade disputes with him:

              ‘I’ve no wish to be led away by your too-ingenuous angels,

but rather by those gentle women, even if they disappoint,

those merry ones suddenly—who knows why—so serious,

and we’ll take the white cherry trees for a lamp.’ (51)

The speaker first decries then incorporates the other perspective, merging it with his original one into a modified third:

would their way of leading astray also guide,

since they’d be the most faithful images

of the ephemeral sky?

It’s their gaze I gaze at, for quite a while,

to verify these landmarks for my future steps. (51)

As with the bell, the speaker enters into a form of dialogue with the place in himself where the “wall of appearances” has opened, and, as in ‘La Clarté Notre-Dame,’ this conversation expands over the course of revisitings to include the voices of imaginal characters, poetic ancestors, and mythic echoes. Within the psychic movements of the text, the experiential, living qualities of myth are consistently invoked through dialogue with the other poetic elements, the replicable nuances of perception, feeling, and reflection in which the reader may join the speaker. Take, for example, the conscious, felt rebirth of placing oneself as a small life within a vastness of voices and stories both ancient and present:

Then I raised my eyes: the whole wide sky

was around us,

with chirping in the stubble

like stars along the ground.

A last flight, like a trail of silence, was visible

and I said to myself: ‘So now we’re born again,

baptized by the long summer night.’ (53)

The fusion of stars and crickets combines unlike senses while also interchanging the grand and humble, the immanent and transcendent in a poetic gesture that corresponds with the larger moves between the speaker’s voice and those “other” voices great and small that the poems incorporate. This can be observed in more extensive imaginal developments throughout the collection as well”:

I believed that with its creaking wood and wheels,

once the day had snuffed out its fires, this chariot

would almost join the other one

where each of us would hardly have to reach

to gorge ourselves on ripe stars. (55)

Other images, perhaps indicative of communing with the past poets in a more direct way, reflect the polyphonic nature of “the poet’s” voice, its awakening of the textual voices of the departed concurrent with correlatives in the living world:

The streams have awakened.

The least clear voice intertwines with the clearest one

as their fast waters weave together.

So that I can be bound with similar bonds,

I’m happy to reach out my two hands.

Thus bound, I free myself from winter. (71)

The classical identification between poet and weaver moves from image, to mythic invocation, to refrain and extended metaphor as the poems unfold, the shifting between roles helping to facilitate accompanying movements of tone and perspective. Hence, in one poem Penelope “reweaves the blue cloth of the sky” in order “to protect us patiently and faithfully / from the black archer with his too-frigid arrows” (73). The colors in the weaving are then commended to “swift jockeys of summer, / wear them to glorify the invisible woman / who bet her beauty on your fiery spirit” (75). Spring’s affirmation of new life is the explicit concern of this weaving, the mythic renewal both fusing and expressing the invigorating feeling and sensation: “Who on those flaming benches around the arena would doubt / that living grace will triumph over a bundle of bones?” (77)

The intermittent use of second person and imperative draw the reader into the drama as both witness and surrogate to the speaker’s explorations, perhaps a subtle way of this poet passing on his own legacy:

Look at the swifts:

as many wrought-iron arrows in the walls,

shot towards the four corners of the sky

when the summer evening falls.

And he who still writes on the last staffs,

perhaps, of his life:

‘That unknown woman fishing in her lightweight skiff

has struck me as well.

I first thought it sweet to be her prey,

but now the hook tugs at my heart

and I don’t know if it’s the daylight or me

bleeding in these pearly waters.’ (81)

The poem places the central perspective with the reader, through which the speaker views both his own mortality and, perhaps paradoxically, through it, his own enmeshment within the daylight and water as a vital and ongoing part of the life of the world despite the impending cessation of “his” consciousness:

There’s a beauty that the eyes and hands touch

and that makes the heart take a first step in song.

But the other one steals away and we must climb higher

until we can’t see anything any more,

the beautiful target and the tenacious hunter

blended in the jubilant light. (83)

As in the meditations of ‘La Clarté Notre-Dame,’ however, the perspective that affirms its temporary place in ongoing life is not at one with the voice located closer to personal mortality. In fact, one important moral contribution of both works is bringing the two into intrapsychic dialogue. Here, the birds carry the blurred projection of transcendent self and the shadow of death that it implies for the individual poet, through which he recovers his deep, unwavering vocation:

In the distance, the blue tents of the mountains

seem empty.

What are you sombrely scheming on your wires,

nervous birds, my familiar swallows?

What are you all going to take away from me?

If it were only the summer light

I’d willingly wait here for your return.

If it were only my life, carry it off.

But the light of my life, cruel birds,

let me keep it so I can brighten November. (99)

The movements between mythic macrocosm and imaginal immanence, in parallel with the reflexivity of speaker and addressee positions, facilitate many framings of this inner dialogue, bringing forth various moods, perspectives, experiential openings, and insights. In doing so the reflections weave together objective knowledge of the human confrontation with death with the mythic experiences of ongoing life in ways that transcend both poet and text, brightening Novembers for those yet to add their own threads to the choir of tapestries.

[i] Jaccottet, Philippe. Ponge, Pastures, Prairies. Translated by John Taylor. BSE Books, 2020pg 37.

You can find the book here: https://www.seagullbooks.org/la-clarte-notre-dame-and-the-last-book-of-the-madrigals/

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.


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Poolside at the Dearborn Inn by Cal Freeman

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
                                                                   slackens it.
Call that substance what you will:
quark or dark matter;
                                                                  carbon, basketball,
                                                                  or atom.
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:
F-holes warped
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”
—Simone Weil
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.

Tràs-os-Montes by Josè-Flore Tappy, Translated by John Taylor

By Michael Collins
A bit past midway through Josè-Flore Tappy’s Tràs-os-Montes, we find a short poem that, as well as any, incapsulates the psychospiritual essence of this book-length sequence:
Between night and day
a narrow strip of land
where the blind body gropes forward,
trying to keep its balance, standing,
before opening its eyes (111)
The poem, read as the book’s kernel of self, portrays the individual core of the psyche the operates in many of the others in the book through symbiotic observation of and participation in human activity and the natural world, as if “opening its eyes” were first and most deeply understood as a gesture of community. The greater collection arcs between the speaker’s loss of a beloved and several processes that foster life’s continuation in the aftermath; however, at each point we find ourselves balanced carefully between a sense of necessary grounding and continual rediscoveries of the world, the speaker’s affirmative presence within it, and its deepening being within her reverent observations and the reverberating nuances.
Many of the earlier poems focus on Maria, a woman who works at the speaker’s lodging in remote Portugal, for which the collection is named. In some places in these poems the speaker draws comfort from the unsentimental, somewhat spartan daily routines: “peace has no face, / has four wooden feet / and customary gestures” (33). Others indicate echoes of her own ongoing work of mourning and reorientation reflected in Maria’s activities and demeanor, as here while she is sorting berries:
She seems to be measuring
an old dream from a distance,
visiting it with her fingertips
behind the bare windowpane
the clouds
leave stains (37)
The parallels between Maria’s work of surviving the elements and the speaker’s of surviving loss extend to connections between inherited habits and memories shared with the beloved:
How to sleep, though,
without returning once more
to the vegetable patch again as if
going back in time, to make sure
everything has been left behind
according to the rules,
and made ready, before the storm
what remains behind
sometimes the only chance
for tomorrow (41)
Through this process in portraiture, in which the quiet wisdom and dignity Maria embodies slowly come forth and deepen, the speaker develops an appreciative affinity in metaphor, a transitional bond that helps to facilitate reacclimating to the world through writing poems:
Thin as a handkerchief
my page I scrub and clean
down to the darkness that destroys it
and is stronger than words
while she awakens early, like a nail
boring into the cold, braving it,
moving forward,
all her thoughts gathered
into a silent point,
a single point that hurts (49)
The speaker moves from this psychological symbiosis of the book’s opening to poems that venture out to explore the surrounding worlds. Here, too, there are subtle moments of metaphorical interplay between the literal scenes and physical endeavors and the deeper psychological movements that take place unconsciously in tandem, until they release moments of cathartic imagery rendered, as in this piece, in a seemingly impossible tension between tender and apocalyptic:
Against fear we will set
the vigorous trail never weary
of guiding us, or of following us,
the stubborn waves that sweep away
the driftwood, their ebb and flow,
and that fragile moment when the lilac-colored sky
shatters like eggshell pressed by a finger,
opening the way to the blank hour,
when between us the cement wall
crumbles, when the sandstone cliff
vanishes, between pink carnations
and asphodels (127)
In these travels, as well, the speaker’s deeply felt confluence of grace and interdependence inform a perspective that confers a transpersonal importance and dignity upon the people and places the poems render:
Whoever lends his ear
long will hear the balls rolling
over the felt tables
they strike with a light flow
what is opaque in us and rises
with sleep,
clicking mutely
on that hazy door
and keeping us alive (131)
Whether as a result of this sacramental perspective into the quotidian, or simply as another experience of its practice, the speaker’s dedication to bearing witness to the transcendent life facilitates a return of the essence of the beloved:
Better this faulty lamp
way back in the land than sham
comforts of brighter lights.
In this place without an origin,
remote from the living,
I find you again at last,
make you out (167)
It remains an open question whether the speaker arrives at this felt presence of the lost beloved by seeing through to the spirit of so many images over the course of the journey – or whether this presence of the beloved, or of something that bonded the two, has been guiding these visions all along, an unconscious or spiritual guidance inverse to but allied with that of Maria’s practical, daily faithfulness.  Such questions make this work compelling for both its intertwined explorations of spiritual and psychological mystery and it modeling of an artistic practice of survival against erasure that offers back to others and the world that known grace that makes it possible for the poet.
You can find the book here: Trás-Os-Montes: Poems


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.




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

By Michael Collins
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.
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:
Beginner’s Guide to Loss in the Multiverse,
Universe 415
Beginner’s Guide to Loss
in the Multiverse, page 26:
I accept this challenge
of surrendering
all of you, every
notion of us
that could exist
in some other time
or space, (3)
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.
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:
but recklessly
allow myself
two pieces of light;
the one that burst
from your eyes
the day we watched
the dust whirl
and saw all our
lives at once,
then later,
those particles that
slipped around you
as you stepped
into the distance. (3)
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.
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.
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.
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:
Weeks afterwards,
these memories
split into ten thousand
streams that flooded
my sleep,
spilling bands
of hazel and loss
into the night. (4)
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:
I tell you,
never try to pocket
a photon. (3-4)
And we conclude with a gentle self-correction, appropriately in the form of a sentence fragment:
Classic rookie
Mistake. (4)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”:
1. Once I lifted
a piece of the light
that streamed
between us and
stuck it in a
moment only I
could open.
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
A year later,
I dream of
nothing but
4. Those photons
became encased
in crystal. I leave
fingerprints all
over its surface,
everything I touch
feels like glass. (42-3)
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.
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”:
Think of this moment
as ninety-eight percent
the light that spills
from your eyes as a
an infinite that unfolds
with the precision
of cut crystal;
the sudden transparency
in this glance.
Now step away
and hear the cracking
of chest muscles,
the separation of fibers,
a fracturing
as my heart sinks
through my bones
as a stone dropping. (44)
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.
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.
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:
You lift
your eyes
and a home
from your
lips, (45-6)
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”:
.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)
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?
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”:
I would like to gift you a space,
a room without tile or board
or screen, but with corners
where moments dangle. Do
not needlessly paint its worn
walls in gold. Your name is laced
through these moments, may they
swell in your basket. May they
fill your room with ice or
storm or sand or whatever
matter lies in their pieces.
Here is an angle of light. I
will sit here while you lift each
one and inspect their sharp and
beautiful edges. I will sit here
and we will let them all breathe. (17)
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.

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.