Visually delicate and emotionally substantial, the fifty-five poems in Martha Collins’ tenth collection, Because What Else Could I Do, interrogate the expectation inherent in connection, here, the poet’s with her husband, whose death set up a barrier to comprehension (“as if the fact were a mass of lead”). There is a poetic narrative of discovery guided by poem titles, a number. “1,” the husband’s voice, launches mystery, clarifies pain, the why of it:
they’re coming to get
me arrest jail horrible
ago a legal mistake I
won’t be coming back
to the house that key
is on the shelf in the
please try to forgive
A what-just-happened in italics. This thirty-six-word poem is like coherent Scrabble pieces spelling out a suicide note for the reader to arrange. That’s one of Collins’ gifts, creating poems that are patchworks of sense—emotional—logical—by way of fragmentation, and to convince by patchwork. I will not reveal the mystery’s conclusion, if you were hoping, except her husband made mistakes, suffered, but wasn’t a jerk.
Now, please note that however skillful (majorly and very much!) and enjoyable (yes and buy this book!) these poems are, it is not easy to “critique” interesting hardship and grief. If Dostoyevsky had made a poem of House of the Dead I’d write of his brilliance but jeez, there was the firing line; forced labor; Omsk, Siberia; those Russian winters. Same but different here, by way of a fascinating story. Unanticipated, by me, as what drew me to this collection was ever-elusive grief. I have been on the lookout for models, hints, process-hacks on living with the indigestible, i.e., when one of my relatives passed, I knew I’d need help grieving. I tried an organization for families impacted by cancer, but those bereaving family members and friends grieved apparently perfect relatives who, per the telling, had led perfect lives. Not so much as burned chocolate chip cookies, let alone the complexity of those ill behaviors that reveal us as human. My search continued. Not to get self-helpy on you, but the process of reading this collection put, if not a period, at least a page-insert on my search. The “answer” to my mystery being, search and find and search more.
If Collins doesn’t provide a new path or sure remedy, being a complex and intelligent woman, her lovely and logical persistence in exploring the near past is in itself a way. Which, short of a year spent beating our breasts and screaming into howling winds on a Greek isle—as grief truly should be expressed—functions. Her marriage was good, full of love. Cool—each spouse had their own house. Then:
these oranges you bought
these coins you touched
the notes you wrote
this pen you used
the car you drove
that long afternoon
the belt you wore
the ring they removed
the key you hid
the door you closed
When “they” removed a ring … “you” hid a key … “the door you closed” are equally metaphoric and concrete, forensic clues, revelatory in their telling detail. Martha Collins’ has no doubt heard the word “spare” in connection with her previous nine collections, various translations, and chapbooks. Nothing I can do about that. The desert is spare and beautiful and so this book, spare, beautiful, and closer than a one-day drive. The oranges aren’t rotting. Hmmm. “you” versus “they” shows us the dead and what the living do on discovering them. There are a whole different set of questions for Collins’ living to answer than for Marie Howe’s in What the Living Do, but in both instances, they must be addressed. Collins reveals, in “7,” above, as well as in “39,” below, a minimalist’s faith in parts equaling a whole:
the winding road
the bare trees
through bare trees
the gray pond
beside the pond
the bench where you sat
the empty bench
the still pond
across the pond
the two white chairs
the chairs reflected
where I would swim
and when I’d swum
almost back in
you’d get in the water
and meet me there
There’s the marriage—eros, philia, agape, ludus (love as: sex, friendship, to be shared, play) and whatever else the Greeks threw in the lake when not beating their breast in their grief.
Also, a hoorah for “30”’s rhymical echoes of those children’s games played in a circle, each kid having to repeat what was already spoken and add to it (also for adults, as those who watched Succession know). The difference between child play and this repetition is that each line is an emotional kicker, one of those shiny black sedans with lights on, moving slowly to the graveyard:
as if I had swallowed the fact at last
as if the fact were a mass of lead
as if the mass made a space around it
as if the mass were a tiny planet
as if the planet were you, your life
the one you didn’t want anymore
as if what I am were in orbit around you
not as a moon, but as random debris
myself in pieces, space between fact and me
Kudos to a poet who can do a Ricky Jay with doilies of verse: “as if what I am were in orbit around you”, “not as a moon, but as random debris”—passion and the letdown. Ricky Jay is the right comparison, given his sleight of hand and artistry. In Collins’ right hand are love and passion and now shifted to her left hand … ah, random debris. Kudos to Martha Collins who has mastered one of the major criteria of a poet’s job description by detailing our lifelong consideration: death.
Because What Else Could I Do, by Martha Collins. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, October 2019. 64 pages. $17.00, paper.
Sarah Sarai’s collection, That Strapless Bra in Heaven (Kelsay), is available on Amazon. Her poems have been anthologized in Say It Loud: Poems About James Brown (Whirlwind); Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poetry (Sundress); Ocellus Reseau Pathology (Other Rooms Press); Like a Fat Gold Watch: Sylvia Plath Poems (FGW); Composing Poetry (Kendall-Hunt), and many other anthologies. Born in a former speakeasy on Long Island, she now lives in NYC, where she is an independent editor and park whisperer.
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