I have an affinity for language—this is not a spectacular revelation by any means, but as a writer, words are constantly swirling around like the leaves of silver maple trees that surrounded where I grew up. When I was a child, I used to have contests with my friends to see which leave would win first. Of course, winning here meant whichever leaf fell from the tree to the ground first. Similarly on rainy days, I would be fascinated by racing raindrops on windows and would cheer on the droplets as they snaked their way from the top to the bottom. Those early formative experiences played their role: I am still fascinated by how and why things get to where they are going. All roads lead somewhere and this fascination led me to what I currently do: write. Circling back to my love of language, I’ve been struck by the word discovery lately.
Discovery, which comes in part from the Old French word descovrir, which means “to uncover, unroof, unveil, reveal, betray.” Initially, my word-radar buzzed over the word betray. That’s not the case anymore. Rather, it is now drawn to the word unroof , which I’ve been meditating on lately. Paired with the word discovery, my brain has been thinking of my father who currently serves a CFO (chief financial officer) of an insurance firm by east where I grew up. As a child, my father was raised to love many things on his own accord, as well as with heavy encouragement from those who walked the same hallways he did. He was raised in a household that relied heavily on family and faith. Consequently, it’s no surprise that one of my father’s first heroes was his father.
My Pop Pop was a well-admired doctor in the field of family planning; where I grew up, I can still find people who tell me “Your grandfather delivered my children,” and my face will grow red with pride, knowing he had such a widespread impact. It’s nice to hear stories of him, especially considering I knew him myself for only a couple months, because he passed away in October of my first year. In addition to his career, I know he liked a good drink, fostered good company, and encouraged my father and his siblings to dream. Though, he also kept them grounded and focused on the path that lay ahead. That way, they kept their heads out of the clouds enough to know where they were headed, which I don’t fault him for in the slightest.
My father would have been my Pop Pop’s youngest son— a connective thread between my father and me. Growing up, my father had many dreams growing up ranging from becoming a professional baseball player to an astronaut flying into space. Speaking from my own experience, my baseball career certainly doesn’t merit a baseball card and I often threw a tantrum when a parent would leave the house, let alone the idea of seeing them drift off into space. Forget it! I wouldn’t have any of it. But that’s the wonderful thing about dreams, we all have them, and we all make our own paths.
Historically speaking, man’s desire to go into space was rooted in proving which country was better—the United States, freshly minted from its rousing World War II victory, but also its forgotten war: The Korean War. Rivaling the United States was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a country who assisted the U.S. just enough to get their piece of the pie that was Europe, but also one who reeled the loss of Joseph Stalin who died in the early 1950s, a couple years before Sputnik sputtered into space. My father was not born until after, but he was in prime age when Apollo 11 occurred—he would have been ten. That was fifty years ago just a couple days ago.
I connect these memories with the words discovery and unroof because to imagine my father becoming unroofed fosters much creative thought. But even with the vastness of space filling my thoughts, I also desire to understand my father’s internal galaxy of excitement and desire as it tangled with fear and uncertainty.
I know full well there was a day my father first dreamt of being an astronaut.
I also know one day those dreams stopped.
It could have been because of Apollo 13 which will be also 50 years old next year.
It could have been because of the Challenger which happened over 30 years ago.
It could have been a personal, unaffected-by-outside-events decision made by my father.
All I really know for sure is that one day my father put a roof on his dreams of becoming an astronaut and dreamt other dreams as he forged his path in the world. I’m sharing this anecdote about families and space because I’ve recently read and re-read, and read again two books that challenge the way I understand the vastness of human experience and memory. Aaron Coleman, author of Threat Come Close (Four Way Books, 2018), and Alison C. Rollins, author of Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) have created words that, as Toi Derricotte wrote, carry the unfinished business of the past forward and, as a result, provided indelible and undeniable insight into the galaxies they possess within themselves.
I discovered the work of Aaron Coleman the fall of 2016 during my second year of graduate studies. One of my goals as a graduate student was to attend as many poetry readings as I could find and afford to drive to. As a result, I often drove the two hours to St. Louis and consistently felt two things: I was extremely grateful for the opportunity and I often wished to hang out for longer than ten-to-fifteen minutes after the reading instead of having to drive the two hours back to the city on the river where I lived. As it were, I met Aaron Coleman on a cold October evening in St. Louis and I was immediately hooked. Coleman was reading at Left Bank Books (Awesome Independent Book Store Alert!) from his chapbook St. Trigger (Button Poetry, 2016). The book itself has a stunning cover and breath-taking poems.
I admit, when meeting a poet for the first time I usually read whatever I can find on the internet at least a week before the reading. I also try to take notes at the reading. Even further, I try to read along with the poet. That didn’t happen the night I saw Coleman read for the first time. I’ve now seen him read twice more, even having the opportunity to read with him! Backing up, I gravitated toward Coleman’s voice and the haunting nature of his words: …Someone I knew once/spoke aloud to no one: Who broke me open? (from “On Surrender”) Coleman’s ability to give life to the specters in his head, and on a larger scale, his readers.
Aaron Coleman possesses a skill that is perhaps not learned formally, but rather through the tried and true method of putting words to paper: vulnerability. From the very first poem in Threat Come Close, “Very Many Hands” (a poem that appears in two other iterations), the speaker of Coleman’s poems confesses:
I am made of what I am afraid to remember.
The internal rhyme of that line forces me, as a reader, to stay in the words and helps to serve as preparation for the internal excavation of self, but also the external interrogation of place in one’s world. I can’t help but think of the Yusef Komunyakaa line: I’m a man. Cut me & I bleed. Coleman not only shows us the cut, but also the bleeding, and in his words:
…I know something of what we name
pain, but what of it, me, precisely, is doing the dying? (from “On Disembodiedment”)
Threat Comes Close is divided into four parts and each section houses Coleman’s saints. These range from St. Inside and Not to St. Window to St. Accessory. Also included are varying poems On Forgiveness, On Disembodiedment, On Surrender. I was also struck by the creative discretion used by Coleman to force the reader to turn the book to read his poems in order to physically interact with the poems at hand. Lastly, Coleman channels the poetry-by-definition magic rendered by A. Van Jordan in M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A (W.W. Norton, 2004). These employed approaches helps create and mold Coleman’s own personal voice.
The first example of this definition-turned-poetry is titled “Rich” which appears near the close of the first section. Using Van Jordan’s lead, Coleman offers his readers a definition and then provides an example:
2.a. Having great worth or value: Remnants of mother’s voice echoed beneath their praise, inside his spine: we may have enough, but we ain’t rich, at least not like them; don’t forget your hands are broken mirrors, how they splinter money-colored clouds.
It’s no accident to see that the definitions are quick and direct—like a jab, and then Coleman’s speaker hits harder with the example. There’s such physicality in Coleman’s poetry which is admirable and memorable. The second half of the second definition pushes this further:
Made of or containing valuable materials: It wasn’t their new world’s prospects that changed them: they’d become rich with what they’d lost, and because of what they were losing; you could tell by the way it swayed their frames, curved their minds.
I am made of what I am afraid to remember echoes through this poem and the other definition poems as Coleman’s speaker(s) try to escape definition only to truly find themselves shaped by the very words themselves. I say speakers because Coleman believes in speaking from more than just his own “I” voice, in an interview, he states:
I hope when people see the “I” that they don’t just see me but see that as an opening to see themselves there. I hope that “I” is open or vulnerable enough that people can see something of themselves in it.
These definition poems effectively illustrate this idea from Coleman as he graces the readers with the speaker’s experience with language, but also encourages readers to explore how language has effected them personally. Take these lines from “After” for example:
…We: fragments of you. And I am made
by loss. I may never love, hear, and know
the child with the mind I had before.
There is no denying the strength that absence plays in our lives, but by sharing those absences, there becomes something new entirely. And that, in part, is the strength to tell the story of “after”—something that Coleman does time and time again. Even still, Coleman’s speaker admits memory’s shortcoming, which to me, is strength still, he closes “After”:
…What I remember is everything, but
I know that can’t be.
I came to Alison C. Rollins by way of a reading in St. Louis as well; she read with Lyn Hejinian in a stunningly-architected museum. Rollins, who currently serves as a librarian at the School of Art Institute in Chicago, read poems with such visceral nature and haunting language that, like Coleman, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the work. The fact that she’s a librarian proves important; Rollins’ poems serve as a catalog of life’s experience. They explore as blurb writer Terrance Hayes wrote “the small and large darknesses”, as well as the concept which I meditate these days: to become takes a long time, which is from her poem “Public Domain”. What I know as well is that while, Rollins read six or seven poems, they stayed with me long after; I had a new poet on my radar, and that feeling’s one of the best I know.
Alison C. Rollins’ book is divided into three sections and begins with two memorable epigraphs, one from OutKast and the other from Jacqueline Woodson. Similar to Aaron Coleman’s definition poems, Rollins employs several of these styled poems throughout, in addition to (self-)portraits, references to poets such as Carl Phillips, Roger Reeves, and a myriad of musical and historical influences. Not to mention, there’s a stunning experimental poem in the middle of the book, “A Valid Archive”, take my word when I say you’re going to dig that poem. Just like Coleman’s poetry is distinctly his in light of his influences, it is without doubt certain, that the poems in this book are Rollins’. What’s revealed is a voice that is tender, as well as engaging, and rewarding in its reading.
Many of the poems housed in Rollins’ Library concern duality; among these, life and death, light and dark (more exact—exposure and shadow), sin and forgiveness, shame and safety—I could go on. What makes these poems of duality successful is present in the very definition of duality—a contrast between two concepts—which demands varying perspective. Varying perspective is a strong suit of Rollins and, to illustrate, I’m inclined to think of a poem early in the book titled “To Whoever is Reading Me”. The poem, and poetry found in the text, is laced with the fiber of Jorge Luis Borges, who exists in the book as a frame in regards to surrounding the words and holding them up as well. The poem fascinates me with its self-awareness as it reads, in part: This poem—not alive, but the remains/of a construct known as will. It’s extremely fitting that a philosopher like Heraclitus makes a guest appearance as well, in addition to his idea no man ever steps in the same river twice. Rollins’ use of this line is effective, and makes the line breaks especially near the poem’s close, even more powerful. The poem closes:
Be wary of how the translator twists
my words, these ruins he interprets as
alive. Why do you dread being forgotten?
Know that in some sense
you are already dead.
Talk about a close! The repetition of the consonant ‘t’ proves haunting like the tick of a clock, the idea of words as ruin, the dagger of a question, and divided self, an idea by the specter in the poem: Jorge Luis Borges. Whew! So much movement in only five lines. If you told me Rollins was a magician, I’d believe you without hesitation.
Don’t believe me? Just read this poem.
I’d like to circle back to Rollins’ poem “Public Domain” which has haunted me since I heard it that blustery January night. The poem is divided into three, distinct sections while being linked as a riveting log of memory and experience in light of trauma, it opens: You catalog by hand, playing librarian in your dead/mother’s house. What follows next is a myriad of personal effects that leaves me wholly affected, ranging from “a balanced checkbook” to “back copies of The New York Times” and various food items. By listing the contents of the house, the speaker of this poem is connecting with its readers in a way that I found truly, agonizingly real. The poem continues:
Which was your father’s bad ear? The one that lost
most of its hearing in the war. There is life in the eyes
unspoken. Your very pulse a secret algorithm, a soft-
ware designed to track your browsing history.
Notice here the bodily detail: “bad ear”, “there is life in the eyes/unspoken”, “your very pulse a secret algorithm”. These details drive the poem forward with their collective strength, but looking at them individually also reveals solo strength. Also, similarly to “To Whoever is Reading Me”, the line breaks execute effective tension, “…the one that lost…” still gets me every time.
Pressing forward, the catalog of loss continues:
An open casket on view for the whole church to see.
Her genetic code made available for live streaming.
You copyright the notes in the margins of her Bible.
The intellectual property preserved. Shaky cursive
her signature trademark…
Truly, this poem, as I see it, succeeds at every turn and serves as an anchor in this memorable debut. Truly, this poet, as I see it, succeeds time and time again, and if my you’re looking for a book, I cannot recommend Library of Small Catastrophes enough.
Stephen Furlong is a recent graduate with an M.A. in English from Southeast Missouri State University. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Pine Hills Review, and Yes Poetry, among others. He also had a poem in A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault which was edited by Joanna C. Valente and published by Civil Coping Mechanisms. He can be reached at @StephenJFurlong on Twitter.
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August 17, 2019