michael collins

Bone Country by Linda Nemec Foster


By Michael Collins

The prose poems of Linda Nemec Foster’s most recent collection, Bone Country, published by Cornerstone Press, follow an itinerary of travels in Europe through imaginative and reflective responses to the images, characters, and history encountered. The surface contents of the pieces range from the lively self-presentations of different areas cultivated to interest and entertain tourists to observations of local life farther from the central attractions, continually refocusing on unique aspects of the different travel destinations. These snapshots are invested with psychological and existential insights that link their recurrent interests in the changeability of life, perception, identity, and relationships. Exploration of these themes, often using syntax to reflect cognitive and affective nuance, forms a compelling and sometimes unsettling shadow travelogue more akin to the journey through life’s instabilities and eventualities than the relaxing or enriching idea of a vacation with its promise of a homeward trajectory.

Awareness of fluid identity is established early in the collection, perhaps an essential feature of setting off on the journey. “Conjuring her face” features a “famous artist from Serbia” who claims he’s seen a woman in Belgrade, although she has never been there: “He’s memorized every nuance of her expression, every outline she exhales on the pages of his sketchbook. ‘Look at these,’ he shows her, ‘I know you.’ Eventually, she starts to believe the evidence. As if she never lived her life, as if the blood of her ancestors never left his country” (2). The imaginative mailability of identity seems, in part, related to the contextual experience of vast numbers of strangers with few familiars to tether one to their understood life. “In the Old Town, Warsaw” is composed of a list of such observed strangers, from which a concluding figure emerges as a sort of spokesperson: “…the effusive expatriate who used to live in Detroit and now owns a fashionable café. ‘Anyone can be anybody in this part of the reinvented world,’ he says to you with your borrowed map and permanent stare. ‘You should try it’” (3). The somewhat mercurial gatekeeper offers an invitation we’re too intrigued to refuse, at least to the extent that “the reinvented world represents the collection we’ve only begun to open.

The café owner is a stranger whose world can only be “reinvented” by the speaker through a combination of observation, imagination, and insight into human psychology. As we have seen, he also presents a partial mirror of the speaker in his invitation to a mysterious world of possibilities. Strangers who reflect shared aspects of human cognition and pathos, while maintaining their own distinct characterizations, recur throughout the collection, opening the speaker – and reader – to aspects of memory and loss we tend to bypass in the flow of our “normal” comprehended dailiness. “In the Perfume Store, Kraków” provides one example in its young vendor:

“…the anonymous cologne her grandmother wore. The fragrance of purple and white – if colors could exude a smell. That was the girl’s first lesson in memory. How certain smells reminded her of certain people. The lesson she remembers every day as she sits in her shop waiting for you and your exposed wrist, the quiet hollow of your neck.” (9)

End stops are inserted for commas in various places, indicating a pausing within the associative flow of her memories and thoughts as she quietly reverences a lost elder linked inextricably with her own youthful discovering of felt connectedness with others. The punctuation pacing the inner monologue evokes the gradual coming into focus of this psychic interconnection and its attendant feeling of ego consciousness being momentarily transcended, the inexplicable nature of which is also deftly presented by the synesthesia in the colorful description of her grandmother’s scent. The ending highlights the way the shopkeeper’s reflections seem to create a corollary need for the temporary connection with her patrons – or give meaning to the interactions that must take place for the business. In addition to lending dignity to the woman’s daily activities, this passage renders an interesting parallel to the ways that poets work with unquantifiable psychic material to offer something to a reader who they meet primarily through the medium of their work.

“The Maid from the Hotel in Bialystok” is another fascinating variation on this constellation of relationships. She lets the beds air out all day because “The Bed needs to breathe…so that it can forget all the dreams left behind from the night before” (50). The maid’s inner monologue also holds up a mirror to the psychological imagination of the poet: “How can the empty bed forget – their hair, their skin, the imprint of their bodies? The maid knows only time holds the answer.” In this poem as well, a routine of awaiting the stranger opens to surprise, in this case in the form of the room’s next occupants:

“Only then is the bed ready for the next dream: the dark rooms of an abandoned house that haunt the quiet bureaucrat from Moscow whose wife is as constant as a blank page.” The more overt evocation of the “blank page” prompts other nuances of the maid’s – and bed’s – poetic mirroring. These include the speaker’s role as the collector of stories, but also the need to “breathe” between them, both to rest in oneself and to detach in order to redirect focus anew. Indeed, this practice, subtly mimed by the ellipsis, seems to be one thing that differentiates the speaker from the spectral wife so omnipresent to the beloved she conceives no expression of her own. More generally, this poem presents an insight most travelers may not know they share with poets: Considered concentration on what is unfamiliar or opaque often necessitates taking a few quiet breaths for oneself.

In “Café de Paris, Switzerland,” the speaker’s imagination of others’ plays an even more detailed role, presenting the introjected voice of a diner’s deceased wife at an establishment that serves only steak as a strategy for catering to all: “No need for menus, no need to read French or Italian or German, no need to stutter with an American accent” (51). The lack of linguistic interaction seems to open the floor to some patrons’ inner voices:

“His wife hated meat but approved of the ancient world’s ritual of gazing at slaughtered animals’ entrails to predict the future. He envisions her frown appearing in the reflection of the red juices pooling on the plate. Her mouth opens in disbelief: What do you think you’re doing, eating in a place like this that doesn’t even know what tofu is? Think of your heart. Your congested, breaking heart.”

In a context where language itself is eschewed as a primary mode of connection, the introjected voice gravitates toward the psychic presence of mortality, as if, ironically, it presented the only grounding commonality between a couple separated by death.

A similar development occurs in “At the Zeitgeist Hotel, Vienna,” which catalogues one of the wider ranges of scenes in the collection, ranging from “’[t]he waiter as teapot…. One hand on his hip, one hand cupped to his ear, waiting to hear you decide on the fate of your lunch” to “Sexworld in a tiny museum on the other side of the train station: a permanent collection of anatomically correct dildos from all over the world” to “[t]he nearby cathedral with its wooden Christ that pilgrims lick.”  Interspersed are impressions from other states of consciousness: “Dreaming of your dead mother and her large dresses printed with unknown blossoms, unknown colors that haven’t been invented yet.” The longest piece of the collection concludes with, “The silent statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, alone in the choir loft of a gray stone church, somewhere east of the city. Heat from the votive candles in the forgotten side chapel. Prayers for the living and dead: you among them” (46-7). In contrast to the focused imaginative attention in the previous poem, we leap here between exterior eccentricities and surreal atemporal interior images. Yet, again, in this far more sensational poem, we arrive at death as a common touchstone. Notably, all of these sections are sentence fragments, further evoking their shared quality of being juxtaposed impressions of the speaker’s wanderings. The turn to second person projects this displacement through the text, towards both the reader and the writer, who has already been implicitly connected with the “you” in the passage regarding the deceased mother. This disquieting common ground, such as it is, also lends a darker wordplay to the title, “Zeitgeist” punning to mean both the collage of the spirit of the times in the odd collection of attractions – as well as the spirit of time itself and its mortal certainty.

These more existential pieces provide their own context for some of the lighter ones, such as “Lipstick in Geneva,” which examines the difficult choices faced by women comparison shopping overpriced lipstick: “So what’s the foreign wife to do? Pucker up and pay or risk having her lips disappear amidst Geneva’s well-heeled, well-dressed women? As she contemplates her face in the mirror, the sunset glows coral and crimson just behind her” (49). In addition to the tonal variety and the clever shift to rhetorical questions when discussing social masking, the poem provides a subtle nudge to the traveler not to focus on their own aesthetics at the expense of those quietly hiding in plain sight. However, we might also note the role that the cultivation of our facades can play as a healthy distraction from life’s more menacing aspects, even those of the social variety. The creativity of painting one’s lips to keep them from disappearing in a social context may share at least one existential root with the motivation for the speaker’s painting of the concluding, fleeting landscape.

Creativity as a practice of finding equilibrium without stable ground is one element that brings these travel pieces home to the reader as an uncommon mirror of our daily lives. “Stadtpark, Graz” offers a fitting character to guide us through sitting with these improbable translations:

“Maybe the monk asks the quiet sycamore, ‘Where am I going? Its branches filled with no clouds and a pale blue. He spends an hour waiting for an answer. Anybody’s guess, he guesses. And the answer would be totally right and totally wrong, depending on where you are at any given moment. Meanwhile, the shadows of the dogs and the drunks collide.” (62)

The monk’s seamless movements between meditation and observation of bodies both apparently real and manifestly illusory are a fitting microcosmic reflection of the speakers’ studies throughout the collection. Here again, homing begins in a practice of locating the self in the other, the relatable in the superficially foreign, the acutely real in the fictionalized character compellingly aware of their own deeper fictionality. The speakers’ awareness of shifting subject-object relations is cultivated in the counterbalancing of compassionate imagination with more detached existential contemplation, opening again and again to an ephemeral creative space in which psychological connections between lives and their worlds flicker into moments of resonance, a compelling practice of “reading” that we who open these pages are implicitly invited to emulate in our own travels far reaching and close to home.

You can find the book here:

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.



Benefit by Siobhan Phillips


By Michael Collins

Laura, the narrator of Siobhan Phillips’ Benefit, describes her dissertation as “focused on characters in Henry James at the periphery of the narrative” such as Fanny Assingham in The Golden Bowl, who “has little money and no children. She therefore can do nothing herself. She stands on the sidelines and talks about what other people are doing” (72). Notably, this passage could also function as a plot summary novel from the somewhat lost perspective Laura herself occupies for much of it, if, that is, if we add Laura’s addendum:

Viewed another way, Fanny Assingham is not peripheral to The Golden Bowl. It is she who introduces the impoverished Italian prince and the rich American daughter. It is she who sets the whole narrative in motion. At some point, Renata wrote at the end of one of my dissertations chapter drafts, you may wish to consider whether your description implies a stronger indictment of narrative structure. But I didn’t want to indict anything. Certainly nothing I was working on. (75; italics original)

Laura’s impressions of the relative importance of a “minor” character and the injustices visited upon her by class structure are a mere whisper of the widespread social injustices Laura’s research projects in the novel will explore, ranging from the brutal sugar trade’s accumulation of mass fortunes, to the treatment of characters “at the periphery” of modern wars and the refugee crises they caused. The quote from Renata also foreshadows much of Laura’s intuitive and creative “research” that will be published as the novel itself, which follows Laura’s reorientation toward her evolving guiding principles and her extensive reconsidering of the perspectives of other characters previously kept at the periphery of her own life.

The novel begins as Laura is “not renewed” at an adjunct teaching position, which sends her on various explorations of potential sources of income. By necessity or unstated wish, this time period also seems to call Laura toward reconnecting with friends; in fact, the first few chapters are individually structured around meeting various members of her former cohort of Weatherford fellows at Oxford. Laura’s narration of these meetings, often eviscerating all varieties of social contrivance, shows her to be an incisive reader of humans as well as texts:

Heather’s relationships with men: numerous not frivolous. They were always deliberate, even if sometimes casual. She did not do one-night stands or flings. She went on dates; she dated, sometimes several people at one time. Sean and I are going to brunch. Matt is taking me to a jazz concert this weekend.  I told her, I don’t know anyone else who actually dates. Dating helps you meet people. As if that’s a good – Laura you’re terrible. Heather was smiling. I know I am, I said. Don’t mind me. Keep doing everything exactly as it should be done.

I think you need to be very beautiful to do everything exactly as it should be done. Also, you need to have money. (54; italics original)

If, however, Laura undertakes an informal inquiry into narrative structure, she does so intuitively and relationally – and her own assumptions are revised along with anyone else’s, particularly those involving the importance she places on the perspectives of others. Through this process she learns that her friends do not view her as a foreign object, but rather with respect, as in Caroline’s description of their time at Oxford: “[Y]ou were sort of assessing everything all the time. That’s why you weren’t part of things. Mark and I talked about it once. He had this idea that if he passed muster with you, he would be okay” (288). This seems to be a discovery for Laura, although it has long been apparent to the reader that Laura’s narrative voice is indeed continually assessing everything, an interesting way in which Phillips’ narrative strategies allow us to see Laura concurrently from interior and external views. It helps us to perceive an interesting complexity Laura’s character: Her assessing gaze is also regularly turned debilitatingly inward, so much so that she relies on observations of and interactions with her friends and mother as one primary source of grounding in navigating her professional crisis.

In an interesting formal development, the middle chapters are structured around improvisational forms of writing, including a narrative structured around a false dichotomy between novels of incident versus novels of character that was dismissed by Henry James, whose rebuttal she highlights: “the only classification of the novel that I can understand is into that which has life and that which has it not” (242). This more esoteric doctrine seems an elusive goal compared with her sometimes comically self-aware diary: “Today I thought again about how I should use this record, this journal. I am doing it wrong. I should write more about my day-to-day life, my ordinary actions. I should not write about what I am learning or reading. That goes somewhere else” (110). Writing things in the “wrong” places, in turn, becomes the form of a later chapter that interrupts and juxtaposes attempts at biographical imagination of the founders of the Weatherford fellowship with her own process of moving out of her mother’s house. In seeking out a form that “has life” narrative structure is obliged to morph with and perhaps to a degree facilitate the unfolding life of the narrator – or, seen another way, perhaps, a narrator who is opening to a broader array of experiences carries into their writing a curiosity to experiment with the perspectival and expressive potentials of new and different forms, even those that seem “wrong.”

Laura’s experiments with more process-oriented modes of writing, dovetail with her extensions of “research” to include a variety of excursions into previously unexplored pockets of consciousness and society. Meditation helps her to perceive her work as a mirroring, albeit in a backhanded way: “[I]t turns out my thoughts are not like clouds in the sky. They do not drift. They gnaw. My thoughts are rats in a field of sugar. Rats, I read, are one of the few animals that not only survive but even prosper when fields are cleared for cane” (96). Reconnecting with friends from her time at Oxford also allows her – and the novel itself – the benefit of their perspectives cultivated in other fields, integral to complicating the work of both. Greta, a professor intently focused on supporting students, quips, “You don’t need to be a trained anthropologist to know that gifts are all about power” (142). Whereas Caroline summarizes her field of “Development”: “It’s a bunch of people who wanted to do some good, and realized they couldn’t, and kept going anyway” (283). I’m focusing more on Laura’s evolution of consciousness in this piece, but the historical and ethical conversations, clustered to a degree around the other characters’ specialties, are each significant in their own right, as well as providing context for Laura’s troubling meditations. The rats have real teeth, and, significantly, they sometimes visit the meditations of other people.

These exchanges of disappointments, disillusions, and apprehensions point to another interesting aspect of these social reconnections, the delicate manner in which Phillips shows the other characters to be Laura’s friends, almost despite Laura’s wishes to remain at an observational distance. The other, also notably understated, side of Laura’s aversion to sentimentality, though, seems to be that she is a generally polite and compliant friend.

None of this obviates the litany of psychological and historical demons Laura faces, beginning with those created by her lumping together of social structures and their evils: “Anything you do is part of something, some institution, system, way of operating, and all of these ways are founded on cruelty or heading for a crash or they have no use for you” (156). Her ideation also cuts off what she perceives as her potential paths of retreat from this quagmire: “I know that failed academics are supposed to find refuge in imagination; they are supposed to realize that books are more important than scholarship about books. But they’re also supposed to find refuge, the failed academics, in life; they are supposed to realize that the world is better than any words. I don’t want either part of this contradiction” (209). Oddly, this thinking bottoms out in a realization that, though negatively experienced, is quite grounding: “I saw for a moment what I was. How I was. Exactly how wrong, how petty, driven by illusions I didn’t even admit, cowering under the generosity of others, my own indecision, my own ineffectual inconsequence, counting on that” (264). Leaving aside the self-indictment of “failed academic,” which is barely justifiable as a criticism, Laura’s comments, if we’re individually being honest, are true for most of us and the social structures that contain us. A subtle achievement of the novel is its balancing of social critique with awareness of the shadow aspects of the consciousness through which they are processed and articulated.

Laura is aided in this process by a bit of sanguine wisdom from her dissertation advisor, Renata, through which she develops a more intricate understanding of the “countercultural” work of “scholarship” (292) and a more complex and intersubjective understanding of the dynamics between story and character, based in no small part on a reconceptualization of her own character and story:

It was the feeling of taking things in; it was the feeling of needing more – information, words, understanding – and of having more and not enough and then again needing; it was the feeling not of wanting to work but of wanting to learn. It was not a moral feeling. Selfish rather. But so utterly distant from myself at the same time. How badly I had served this desire, and yet how faithfully it continued nevertheless: That was something to trust. (297)

This ownership of her passions constitutes a complex enough understanding of “selfish” to be characterized as self-knowledge, and its realization carves a place for the novel as a pluralistic and interdisciplinary research story in which the personal equation forms a shifting figure and ground with the various subjects of study. Laura is, after all, among many other things, the narrator. Not to be excluded from this achievement, the work’s literary forebear Henry James tacks on his own again reread writing advice to such posterity: “One must save one’s life if one can.” (296).

You can find the book here:  Benefit

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.



Let No One Sleep by Juan Josè Millàs Translated by Thomas Bunstead


By Michael Collins

The intertwining themes of mirroring, identity and narrative construction present themselves concurrently in the very opening of Let No One Sleep, the latest from Juan Josè Millàs in the engaging translation by Thomas Bunstead:

Seeing herself in the mirror, Lucía said, That fat woman is me.

This was not said insultingly; she wasn’t being mean to herself. She, after all, was pretend thin rather than fat. So her mother had said when she was a girl….” (9)
Lucía negates the simple assumption of a weight-normative negative inner monologue. However, the reasoning for the statement, such as it is, involves an attribution of her “true” identity to a concept coined by her mother, who died when she was young, an construct that Lucía herself fleshes out as an adult. It is notable in this context that the statement “That fat woman is me” – as opposed to the more expected “I am fat” – seems to create an alternate self in the mirror image in opposition to her invented-inherited self in order to identify with it and draw towards the enigma it represents.
The line takes on more ominous undertones shortly thereafter when we learn of Lucía losing her job in IT development the day after the death of an obese colleague who died suddenly after a significant weight loss:
Her death confirmed people’s suspicions, whatever they were, given they were impossible to substantiate either way. The day after she died, the company, an app-development firm that also installed, configured, and maintained IT systems, filed fraudulently for bankruptcy and shut down. (10)
The passage, like many of Lucía’s narrative constructions, juxtaposes the two events syntactically, as if their slight chronological separation in consciousness keeps the death from shading or perhaps expressing Lucía’s feelings about the job loss. The self-confirming gossipers add a layer of isolation to the woman’s plight, and by extension Lucía’s, showing her awareness of how neither have much control of their own story. Or, perhaps, none of us have much control of such things, but we notice it most when cut off from our habitual sources of stability – and when conscious compartmentalization collapses.
As fate would have it, Lucía leaves work in a taxi, and “The taxi driver turned out to be a programmer as well” (11). Shortly, we learn that this interaction, like the one with the mirror, ends up describing Lucía’s future in reverse, a subtle pattern that dovetails with the ways in which individual identities support and destroy the identity formations of others throughout interactions of the novel. The cab driver suggests – narratively and/or psychologically – Lucía’s oncoming events in sharing his own experiences as a driver: “’You get into all kinds of scrapes. Plus, I imagine I’m in a different city every day. New York, Delhi, Mexico…’” (11). The English translation here sounds like a mashup of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Fight Club in ways that invite comparisons of this “single serving friend” and the complicated adventurer Lucía with various unreliable narrators and the works that serve as their vehicles. Other subtle literary allusions arise throughout, in keeping with the novel’s problematizing of identity, mirroring, and art as representations of and stable reality.
Lucía’s driver also references his use of self-hypnosis as a way of deepening his practice of pretending to drive his cab in different cities with the hypothetical – and evangelized – purpose of deepening connection to his actual environment: “’It’s like when you succeed in imagining what you’re doing and doing what you’re imagining, all at the same time, the anxiety in your life goes away’” (12). I’ll leave the reader to parse where the novel upholds and complicates this statement, mentioning merely that the self-hypnosis seems to form a segue for Lucía from her previous work with algorithms in IT programming. As the novel unfolds it also seems to explore the algorithm as a metaphor for the mind’s own recursive functioning in ways that range from the liberating experiences that can arise from improvising with identity to the blind spots and tunnel vision associated with obsession.
Somewhere between these competing approaches, Lucía also seems to calm herself with an ironically non-predictive rehearsal of precognition inherited from her mother:
This was a phrase she had spoken thousands of times in her life, though it did not, in general, precede anything happening. She had gotten it from her mother, who would sometimes stop mid-action and say, “Something is going to happen,” followed by a vacant look coming over her. Then, since nothing happened (nothing visible at least), she would go the rest of the way down the stairs, or finish brushing her hair, or whatever it was she had been doing before the sudden stoppage. Lucía had inherited that sense of some vague but threatening event being constantly just around the corner. (15)
The prediction, counterintuitively, comforts Lucía by not coming to pass, except on rare occasions that reveal how terrifying the unforeseen often is as a mere psychological factor without an actual event even needing to take place. As if a part of Lucía’s learned algorithm for confronting fear, the statement repeats in, from, and to Lucía as if creating a ritual bubble of psychic protection, a practice that deepens the pathos of the opening scene significantly.
Other characters posit such bubbles in the external world as well, and the novel as a whole continually explores ways in which the psyche, precariously, exhilaratingly, hilariously, and tragically vacillates between these poles of self-protection and relative self-exploration through interaction. In Lucía’s case, this takes place on a higher magnitude due to her process of attempting to negotiate with the world a new identity that it will mirror back in the responses of others. However, the same duality manifests in the other characters, like the woman who works in theatre who invites her into a similar para-intimacy to the one Lucía shared with the first cab driver, except with the seating reversed: “I often use taxis to get things off my chest. The car is a kind of bubble; it creates a provisional sort of intimacy between two strangers. I’ve told colleagues of yours things that not even my closest girlfriends know about” (36). Also like the first driver, she offers up a statement that, while true in a limited context, wildly belies greater implications: “Theater’s quite like that, a bit of a closed circuit, it’s own ecosystem” (40). Both characters, regardless of their initial intentions in these conversations, open new worlds for Lucía, in which she sees herself from different perspectives and allows dormant parts of her to externalize into evolving new versions of herself that grow increasingly chaotic to those around her, ultimately challenging the algorithms of social reality itself.
Lucía is insouciant and instable, liberated and liquescent. Though she is seeker and subject in ways that dialogue with meta-dramatists from Pirandello to Beckett, the narrative itself is continuously surprising and entertaining, offhandedly funny and deconstructive of many forms of social preposterousness that one is often too polite to point out, unless one finds oneself with nothing to lose. I’m limiting myself to writing about the opening here so as not to ruin the turns, hard stops, and side trips for everyone else because the book is, literally, the ride of a lifetime.
Michael Collins’ poems have 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.

Beyond Repair by J.C. Todd

beyon repair

By Michael Collins 

“In Whom the Dying Does Not End,” the opening poem in J. C. Todd’s Beyond Repair, initiates several interwoven themes in the collection, including the roles and perspectives of various mothers and women experiencing different aspects of conflict and displacement, the complicated psychological plights of survivors of such mass traumas, and the roles of imagination and empathy in attempts at healing. The poem opens with the juxtaposition of “cells / churning toward brain / just as a vacuole / opened to become a mouth” while “Hafez, father of Bashar” (3) orders a precursor of recent headlines: “the troops of Hafez attacked / the people that Hafez ruled. Twenty thousand dead” (4). Between these two worlds, speaker subtly invokes awakening to these complexities:

It happened in Hama
while I gestated, TV off,
newspapers unread,
in Harrisburg, my thinking
sludgy, speech cut back,
consumed by what I fed. (3)
The speaker’s reflective stance juxtaposes an authoritarian, patriarchal lineage of violence with a cellular-level imagining of maternity: “Loved, she grew, singular / anarchic, safe in the province /of my body, and Hama was razed” (4). The two perspectives differ, crucially, in how they imagine their role in others’ lives, or life, over which they have a degree of control, the speaker focusing on a self-image as a haven for the inchoate life and self-determination of her child, the dictator creating a public image of obliterating all life that opposes his rule.
Engagement with images – journalistic, artistic, and psychological – will become a theme of the collection’s larger meditation. Several poems focus on women who are prevented by political circumstances from keeping their own children and themselves safe – as well as a moral exploration of the role and limits of media in presenting their stories. “The Girl in the Square” recalls a woman who was beaten and partially exposed in public during the protests in Egypt, highlighting along with the assault itself, her ephemeral appearance within media coverage and viewers’ awareness

among flotsam, snagged
in the stream of a video
that holds her up
to memory
although the torrent
has swept her away” (10-11)
The portrayal in “Cover Shot” of refugees welcomed by a meal in safety shares an acute awareness of the boundaries of the image, in this case spatial rather than temporal:
mother and child
buoyed on a current of mercy
beyond the cropped shot
into the open field
of a good story
that reseeds in each of us
as a perennial hope or wish
but the background resists
and we too
feel the world
askew (14)

These poems’ dual awareness of the scarred and endangered lives presented in the reporting that reaches us and these presentations’ mere representation of thousands or millions of other lives certainly has elements of social critique. However, within the context of the opening poem they also have a quality of self-reflective practice: The speaker’s awareness of suffering is linked with awareness of the mind’s own inability to quantify it. Therefore, yes, the reports are cropped, edited, and insubstantial, but there are also qualifying understandings. For one, the idea of whole story is really just an abstraction. Further, even more comprehensive storytelling, such as the wide lens the poem itself offers, is far more complex and daunting than the “perennial hope” we also require.

What the collection offers in the absence of mythical objectivity is flexibility of perspective; its meditation on war and its aftereffects continues by exploring a plurality of experiences in forms and expressions appropriate to the distances at which they are encountered. The sonnet crown “FUBAR’d” employs a close third person of a female American medic, and its tone and diction reflect the mental and emotional fatigue of seeing one after another “soldier who didn’t come through” (27), often due to circumstances beyond her control. Her gallows humor reflects the need to remain unsentimentally resilient against threats both foreign and domestic: “A stiff prick, / how’s it like an IED? Makes you meat” (30). The shift to formal poems itself adds range to the collection; however, the leaping recurrences from final to opening lines in the sequence also grow to seem expressively necessary in their quiet evocation of the paradoxical comorbidity of feeling constantly on alert for new danger while at the same time experiencing the crises’ permutations as interminable. This seems a quite appropriate presentation of a perspective of one near in proximity to the effects of war yet distanced by necessity on a psychic level by the nature of her own suffering as a witnessing participant and her need to maintain daily equilibrium.
This sequence segues into poems that focus on experiences of surviving war that are both common and, cruelly, trapped within. “Debriding” is one such treatment of the inability to release traumatic experiences: “you’ve survived, but your will will not release / the scream, your wound will not heal / in the mind that daily eats it raw” (40). The run-on sentence and rephrasing line breaks formally mirror the circular and disjointing psychological effects of trauma. Notably, the speaker also shifts to second person here, allowing the sufferer and the reader to be concurrently and interchangeably addressed, perhaps the beginning of fostering potential bridges of understanding and healing. “In Late Summer the Sea Comes to the City” presents another such opening, arising from the common experience of looking down into a puddle: “You are a reflection in / the gutter’s standing water, and the flat-you, / swept up in traffic, an image looking back.” This passage recalls the earlier pictures found in reports of foreign affairs, yet the fleeting image we encounter here is our own. In response, the speaker asks,

Imagine – what is it like to be left
with a solitary thought, uprooted,
pulled out from beneath you
by unfathomed undertow?
Every last cell lost. In this way
you learn to distance from your memory. (48)
The imperative to imagine here is an even more direct outreach to the reader’s awareness of their own self-reflexive experience; correspondingly, the suggestion invokes more objective aspects of the psyche than any of the external stories encountered in the collection, in the sense that the self-reflective contents can be confirmed in the experience of each reader. All of our memories, identities, and daily realities are, on a deeper level, similarly insubstantial. In a counterintuitive corollary, though we may not comprehend individual trauma by direct external experience of each situation, we may, to a degree, have imaginative compassion for them due to the shared temporary and contingent nature of life itself, if we are open to our own awareness of it even – or especially, perhaps – on more existential levels. Here, we should note how “every last cell” is lost in our momentary experience of annihilation, recalling the earlier imagining of the autonomous self-arranging of cells that would grow into a person in the first place. The cell-level imagery here seems to point toward a healthy depersonalization that allows for holding of psychic phenomena as such, rather than carrying them as aspects of identity.
Other poems reexamine and complicate this cell-level imagery through differing perspectives. In “Sonogram” the first-person speaker reconnects to empathetic pain from an article read in childhood, contrasting the objective, metaphorically medical perspective with the individual experience of empathetic consciousness, “echoing internals / image by image.” An aspect of such pain that has been implied throughout the collection emerges here explicitly: The “place” the speaker’s empathic suffering appears is in consciousness, presented in the poems themselves:
Bursting in me, insurgent memory
walled off for thirty years.
Where is the sonogram,
CAT scan, MRI to locate
rogue cells that refuse to forget?
This is where the sorrow lodges.
Here. Where it hurts. (65)
The wish to “locate” and see the “rogue cells” of the internal “insurgent” presents an alternative to the drive of Hafez in the opening poem to eradicate such experiences by projecting them onto political opposition. However, this personal tracking of such experiences allows the speaker to deal with them in their psychic reality. Perhaps such practice also allows the imagining of its pathological opposite, in which empathy is barred from the imagining of cellular life in “Herr Doktor Mengele Considers the Fetal Brain”:
Why not colonize beginning with the brain?
Sort the neurons one by one to link
in clear-cut lines that radiate like spokes
of force. Iconic, like a painted state-
house dome: commander top and center, displayed
above lieutenants, lackeys, messengers.
Redesign the circuitry for worker,
each cell imprinted to obey. (80)
The poem uses persona to characterize the way authoritarian mental illness remakes itself, trauma manifesting as idealized ideation and imagination of the world that, if allowed, organizes both the brain and the world in its image. The terrifying part, and one contribution of the poems to our understanding of the mind, is that all of the minds presented in these poems are our shared potentialities.
The later poems gravitate toward the humble potentials of art for the interrelated pursuits of survival, witnessing, and cultivation of consciousness. Artistic practice provides a measure of solace for those suffering under inhuman – or all too human – oppression in “What’s Left”:
root twigs broken from an unknown tree
braided into a box that holds nothing
discernible under its lid. Oils from
the hands that wone it stained the roots,
but DNA analysis did not reveal
the maker, who may have – who knows?
– entered the exhibit and spotted the box
whose weaving had kept her together
enough to stay alive, enough to say
she knows this box, here, is hers. (85)
The vision of the maker sees itself in the work of the other – in an inverted way to that of the authoritarian, which seeks impossibly to mirror its illusion of power the world over. The making of the cared for object, whether the box in its most basic (though no less creative) form or in the poem with its intersubjective complexities, though it mounts no defense against external brutality, models a practice through which one hopes to survive it and supplant its internal moorings.
Such practices, though noble, are not without limitation, as the collection’s coda, “In Bruges,” acknowledges: “The Old Masters called it still life. In Bruges, the phrase inverts to / life stilled, the burnish of a grieving too particulate to dissipate. / It darkens a lyric voice to contralto, a lullaby to requiem” (89). And, yet, the relative lasting of art, its refusal to “dissipate” like news stories, provides a measure of companionship for consciousness and compassion when they arise within us, just as the ordering consciousness of this collection operates from an understanding that the world’s shadows are our own mind’s, a connection which opens psychologically to some mitigation of its sufferings.
You can find the book here: Beyond Repair: 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.

Commonplace by Hugo Garcia Manríquez (trans. NAFTA)

By Michael Collins 
Hugo Garcia Manríquez begins Commonplace with a unique hybrid of invocation and manifesto, clearly announcing its meta-poetic intentions in the use of both generally conceptual language and semiotic terminology. The reader is therefore immediately arranged into a mode of engagement that requires applying considerable thought. The approach is necessitated by poem’s subject matter, the connection between the aesthetic and lethal aspects of modern political power and its role in the environmental crisis, which requires not merely seeing through cultural and aesthetic facades but altering inherited modes of perceiving, considering, and valuing lives previously thought “subaltern” and therefore “dead matter.” Hence, there is a clear warrant for the poem to require concurrent thinking about how we think about poetry:
We push history to the side
Turn it into our own indexicality
Aspects, ones from others
The world that produced us
Moments. Moments to intonate aspects


I read the opening lines’ reference to “our own indexicality” as saying that we look at our history within our own context, as part of our own meaning making process within that context. This can be interpreted in two ways that inform one another. First, our world is so different from historical worlds that we, to some degree, can only accurately view it within its own context. Second, this worldview that ends at the boundaries of our own context is itself the form of myopia through which we usually approach reality, which requires continual reframing or complicating of context..

The poem then sets out to consider the aspects of our world within the context of various “moments” of “the world that produced us.” This sounds a lot like a very abstract description of a lyric poem: We are, ourselves aspects of the world, considering other aspects by separating them from one another in discrete poetic moments. However, Manríquez then moves into “discussions about poetry / that are in the end discussions / about politics”: “in those moments / the poems intonate aspects // Aspects gathered and aspects kept apart.” It’s difficult to imagine a poem approaching poetry itself from any more detached, more objective position and language, and it creates an affect toward poetry itself that is distinctly unsentimental and rational. This succeeded in making me curious about why someone would open with such an unexpected tone and perspective, and I wanted to read on. Hence, it was a successful first page.

Continuing, it becomes clear that the objective meta-poetic position is essential to establish because the reader will be asked to question assumptions about the role of literature in our culture and politics. We are often required to think through connections between the parts of an assertion and question its validity for ourselves: “When we read literature we read the budget / of the Mexican army (21). Here we see an early glimpse of the connection the poem will elaborate between the aesthetics within which power shrouds itself and the violence that enforces it. A similar construction invites the reader to connect this constellation of power with what we think are “our private lives” – and the poem’s potential role in them:

A poem is part documentary
part inferno
But first something
about our private lives:
The budget of SEDENA (75)

In order to interrogate this aesthetic-military complex, the poem invokes the Dantean moral quality of guiding the reader through its hellscape, the process modernized by focusing on litanies of documentary evidence. The sardonic aside to “something / about our private lives,” which are constituted by the defense budget, is perhaps a modern echo of “abandon hope all ye who enter here” that evokes the voiding personal meaning by a culture based on subordinating heterogeneity. In this context poetry serves to document not hope but the truth of the hollowness of lives constructed and defined by arms sales and the power they underwrite.

However, this recognition of emptiness is foundational, not nihilistic. The empty space previously assumed to be “our private lives” becomes one in which peoples and cultures previously silenced might approach voice and listening, perhaps a more polyphonic world – or at least an approach to the world that understands that it is polyphonic already:

a new nothing
traverses the poem
as capital
traverses the century
reactivating insurrection
the insurrection
of objects
the uprising
of matter (71)
Manríquez articulates a poetics given life by what have been assumed to be “objects” and “matter” by the perspective of the dominant culture. Poems being cultural products, this revisioning necessitates the degree of self-definition we noted at the opening of the book, in order to differentiate from the inherited cultural expectations of poetry itself.
Arriving at this “new nothing” involves “new articulations” that “are inserted / with constant moments” (23), which seem to replace the personal lyric moment in a corollary to our inner lives having been replaced by military budgets. The oxymoronic phrase “constant moments” highlights both the vapid and generic qualities of these instances, as in the “11,231 constant moments” involving guns sales “designed, produced, and sold / to the Secretary of National Defense” (25). However, in juxtaposition, “constant moments” are also produced by the biome’s endemic wildlife, for example, the
monkey (Alouatta palliata) with its specialized
oral apparatus with its hybrid bones
and larynx developed
forming with the mandible a resonating chamber
that allows the powerful amplification of
the sounds, aspects gathered together
aspects kept apart (25)
Placing the military budget language on the same level as the objective zoological description has the effect of establishing each as an independent world. Yet, we know from the rest of the poem that these worlds cannot coexist. Again, we are asked to think through the ramifications, in this case of the zoological language that acts as a mirror of the scientific aspects of our thinking, describing the creature in ways that from its perspective bring forth some of the wonders of the creature’s organism, but are also quite foreign to its being.
The pathos of this section, which we can only arrive at by thinking though the logical parallels in subject-object relationships, is that we are the creatures defined by our defense budget in the same way that the monkey is described by anatomical jargon. We are still connected to the natural world as was the case in the romantic worldview left far behind in this poem, yet no longer by of a shared soul, so much as a shared subjugation that we can logically comprehend by the examination of the “aspects gathered together / aspects kept apart” that interestingly echo the poem’s opening disclosure of its own processes. Unfortunately, there is far more complexity here than this short piece can address; fortunately, the book is in print.
The poem’s conception of the lyric as a contemplative space also necessitates consideration of the relationship between poetry and time, which we see in the elaboration of “Constant moments / that seem to begin and only begin” (33), such as:
Bombers that are an extension
of the impact on my mother’s cheekbone
when I was 17
I haven’t thought about this situation
for a long time a time that is non-transferable (31-3)
Time in this poem does not stop, reverse, repeat, or any of the other things it may appear to do in consciousness. We inhabit the perspective of chronological time, in which we know that consciousness cannot bring back species that are made extinct or people blown up by bombers no matter how timeless it may appear evoke them in poems.
Perhaps the most pointed result of these reexaminations is Manríquez’s conception of the writing as a continual choice that his poem has endeavored to clarify:
When writing, we do not
romantically confront the blank page
Rather, the confrontation
is historical:
take the side of Sigűenza y Góngora
and protect the Library from the masses
as Mexican letters have done
for centuries
                take the side of lifeforms
the side of the forms of language that
sprout from the riot (57)
Here again, taking the side of nature no longer means to loaf and invite one’s soul, but to think self-reflexively about the threats posed by our own cultural complexes to other perspectives and creatures with whom one shares the world.
One approach to this cultural reflection is to seek out and amplify dissonant perspectives from history such as those contained in the Popol Vuh, which “records the rebellion / of the objects and animals / against human endeavors” (63). The history of Western civilization’s creation of such histories as byproducts of its subjugations gives rise to this role of Manríquez’s poem in our contemporary world:
The historical forms of the continental imaginary
recorded the rebellion of that irrational, subaltern
dead matter
Those forms registered the basic
operation of poetry: the interruption
Within that revolt exists an immanent historical lesson (65)
The “immanent historical lesson” is the way that the forms of “subaltern / dead matter” manage to interrupt the dominant discourse that subsumes them. In their “interruption” of even the texts that contain them, they represent the countercultural basis of poetry, the “immanent historical lesson” about which beings we identify as alive.
Reading these lines, it is apparent that the emphasis on thought in the poem does not render it devoid of emotion or empathy. The reference to the colonial view of whole peoples and biomes as “irrational, subaltern / dead matter” evokes both the degradation inherent in this view and the chilling way in which such thoughts formed – and form – themselves into prophesies that can become self-fulfilling if allowed to continue unchecked in their own self-confirmation due to the failure to recognize counterarguments. The pathos of the poem arises in conjunction with our apprehending from the outside of such a perspective, aspects of which perhaps at one point were unwittingly assumed as our own.
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.

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.

Most Read Reviews @ North of Oxford 2022

Just in time for holiday shopping! Most read reviews as determined by the readership of North of Oxford

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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.