BookMarks: The poetry of Michael Collier captures, reframes tragedy
I often find comfort and pleasure in reading my favorite poets — Donald Hall, Herbert Morris, Maxine Kumin and Stanley Kunitz. I am also drawn to exploring the work of poets new to me.
My usual sources are the New York Times Sunday Book Review and the annual literary prizes including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle, all of which give an annual prize in poetry. A newer prize that recognizes poetry among its categories is the Vermont Book Award, given annually for the last five years by the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.
One of this year's 10 nominees for the 2019 Vermont Book Award that went to Jason Chute's "Berlin" Nov. 9 is Michael Collier's "My Bishop and Other Poems" (University of Chicago Press, 2018).
I was unfamiliar with Collier's work, despite his distinguished career as a poet and editor. He has published six books of poetry, edited three anthologies and has served as the editorial consultant at Houghton-Mifflin, where he edited prize-winning books. In addition, he was the director of the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Middlebury for 23 years and was Maryland's Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2004.
So it is with gratitude to the Vermont Book Award panel of nominators that I discovered Collier's new book, "My Bishop and Other Poems." Reading it was a powerful, emotional and aesthetic experience.
The book is not simple or straightforward, and even upon my second close reading of the poems, there remain mysteries, beauties and references to be explored.
Collier's book contains 20 poems, most of them a single page. The shorter poems address memory, nature, man-made objects and the legacy of other writers, some famous (Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Johnson) and some previously unknown to me (Steve Orlen and Jon Anderson, who taught at the University of Arizona, where Collier received his Master of Fine Arts.).
The poems about memory are particularly effective. His poem "Strands of Hair in a Used Book" is a beautiful rendering of the Proustian notion that random objects can take us back to an earlier time and its powerful impacts. Finding two strands of hair, "One light, the other dark," in a used book of poetry, Collier observes that they leave "behind what the poem leaves,/an almost/invisible presence."
In his poem "Len Bias, A Bouquet of Flowers, and Miss Brooks,"
Collier weaves together three stories that seem at first to be unrelated. Len Bias was a young African-American college basketball All-American, destined for fame, who died of a drug overdose in 1986 before ever playing a professional game. Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and U.S. Poet Laureate. She wrote a poem in 1960 about Emmett Till, the young African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Collier finishes his poem with the final line of Brooks' poem, "he is sorry," tying together the tragedies of Till and Bias in an unconventional but effective way.
The interweaving of these three individuals, whose stories unfolded over a 50-year period from widely different spheres of life, is an excellent example of what poetry can do in a limited space without detailed references. If you did not know of Bias or Brooks or Till, the poem might have appeared to be interesting but confusing. Who is Len Bias and what is he sorry about? Who is Ms. Brooks? But with Collier's end note and a few minutes with Google, the story unfolds in all its fullness.
This is typical of Collier's work. It takes some time, some effort, some digging, and some thinking to fully appreciate his talent with words that weave the past and present together.
His long poem "My Bishop" gave me an entirely new frame for the tragic sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed the Roman Catholic Church. The young Collier was an altar boy in Arizona where two young priests served his parish. One went on to become a bishop who Collier met again years later at the funerals of his father and then his mother. Collier's feelings for the eponymous bishop were complicated by the priest's collusion in moving predators from church to church instead of exposing their crimes. The other priest was evidently an abuser who had been shielded during his entire priesthood but, ironically, was remembered in his obituary with "fondness" by parishioners in his last church.
The confusion both as a child and as an adult ("I pity, I dislike, and I'm fond of him"), the unintended collusion of his parents with these priests and the lack of acknowledgment and atonement by the Church are combined into a long and deeply felt poem.
The other long poem, "The Storm," connects five events from Collier's past that appear to be unrelated until their outcomes are combined in a single taut sentence in the poem's final stanza. Collier sketches brief vignettes of his time as a young married man living in the District of Columbia at 747 Tenth St. The address is used as a mnemonic stand-in for the Air Florida jet that crashes upon takeoff into the Potomac River in 1982. He connects that event with the suicide of a college friend, the mugging of a woman outside his apartment, and
his father's connection with Charles Lindbergh and brings all of those
elements together into a beautiful and emotional work that ends with a transcript of one of the Air Florida pilot's saying, "God, look at that thing ... that don't look right."
The pilot was referring to the instrument panel, and Collier broadens that "don't look right" observation with his personal look at the Catholic Church's sexual predation, the deaths of people such as Len Bias, Emmett Till and his friend James O'Laughlin, the mugging, his parents' deaths and on and on. But he doesn't despair. Rather, he searches for comfort in nature, the love and friendship of others and the traditions of literature.
I find that writing a review about poetry is more difficult than writing about a novel, short story collection or a volume of non-fiction. Writing prose about poetry, what Coleridge has referred to as "the best words in the best order," always reminds me of the quote widely attributed to the comedian Martin Mull, "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." How does one communicate in prose the beauty and depths of poetry, a literary form that moves beyond prose to address our innermost feelings and observations about the natural world, people and their relationships to each other? As Robert Frost put it, "Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words."
Nonetheless, since my goal in BookMarks is to draw readers' attention to important new works, let me just urge readers to find this book, read it, read it again and think about it. Whether it wins the Vermont Book Award or not, it deserves a place on your shelves.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Cambridge, Mass., and Brownsville. He can be reached at EpsteinReads.com where you will also find more than 1,000 suggestions for what to read next.
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