By Thaddeus Rutkowski
The title of Michael Collins’ new poetry collection suggests more than one way of seeing things. “Appearances” could indicate things that come into view or into existence. It also could mean the superficial or surface look of things, the way things merely seem. Both of these ideas are at work in these poems of life among people and life lived next to nature.
Near the beginning of the book (published by Saddle Road Press in Hilo, Hawaii), I found this brief poem, titled “Creation”:
The fleshy snowflakes
twisting blissfully down
through the faint breeze
seem to have been made
in the image of the paperweight
I would gaze at as a child,
a tiny half world upended
in beautiful flurry, set down at will
by a suddenly gigantic hand
to quiet and awe the eye.
Each stanza, save for the last, is constructed almost like a haiku, and like the classical Japanese form the poem concerns nature, starting with a reference to snow. But the thought turns inward as it becomes a memory of a paperweight owned in childhood. Another shift occurs in the third stanza, with a reference to a “gigantic hand,” as if a supreme force could cause the fall of snow—and could “upend” the world. By juxtaposing the very large with the very small, the poem asks how big we are, or how important we are, in the whole of the world and beyond. We have only our perception, our “eye,” to answer that question, and at the end we arrive at a state of “quiet and awe.”
Nature is in the process of being tamed in “Portraits of Soul,” a poem placed later in the collection:
The harbor’s a flurry of work:
juggernaut mowers crop the lawn,
bushes are trimmed, the sand is combed
and brushed away from the walkways,
a team sweeps and lines the clay courts,
boats bustle with gossip and cleaning—
Spring is here!
This excerpt offers a fairly straightforward description of a beach being prepared for human activity as the weather gets warmer. There is a feeling of excitement and anticipation. The area will become a spot of play and recreation. However, the poem takes a detour toward the philosophical in the following stanza: “Forms must be in things / and beings ever shaping space, / and these eyes that we have seen through, / must return to their visions’ graves.” I read this as meaning that “forms,” or objects that we see, are always changing with the forces that shape the space we live in. And all must come to an end, if our eyes, or what we see with, return to the “graves” of their perceptions. The poem ends with a kind of Zen koan: “Make something of what can’t exist.” The paradox of being and nothingness, of existence and nonexistence, cannot be resolved through reason, though it can be accepted through enlightenment. In this way, the last line of the poem functions as a koan. (I use the words “Zen” and “koan,” but to my recollection organized religion isn’t mentioned in this book.)
Many of the poems in “Appearances” contain a visual element. “Harbor Mandala,” for example, consists of blocks of type arranged in a circle, with a block of type in the center. This pattern allows you to read the poem in different directions—top to bottom, side to side, or around the border. The effect enhances the contemplative quality of the words. As the eye wanders around the poem, certain phrases pop out (I could say “appear”): “i apprehend the amorphous dream,” “your skin creating visions,” “invited you into my soul.” It’s up to the reader to put these thoughts into more coherent order, or not. That “not” might be Collins’ message.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the prose books Guess and Check, Violent Outbursts, Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.