» Book Review
Not a Museum to Nostalgia
Appearances, by Michael Collins
Saddle Road Press, 2017
84 pages, paper, $16.00
“No one wants to hear / impressions of the natural world,” Louise Glück warned twenty-five years ago, tongue-in-cheek, in The Wild Iris. “It is / not modern enough.”
Writing about the natural world in 2017 is an even trickier business. In Appearances, Michael Collins’ second full-length collection, however, the natural world becomes the imperfectly perfect site of one man’s struggle to hold onto the fraying pieces of himself within the whirlwind of a numbing, urban, twenty-first century life. This doesn’t, however, turn into a sentimental journey marked by luminous insights or an elegy to environmental ruin. What we get, instead, is a disarmingly genuine and intimate collection of all the thoughts a person walking every day around an ordinary harbor thinks, and all he’s seen, in poems that build convincingly on plain, deliberately understated images: ducks, clamshells, old people sunbathing, gulls, fish, oil spills, and water, lots of water.
That Collins himself realizes the potential perils of his quasi-Romantic undertaking comes through loud and clear in several poems, and adds to the charm and complexity of his speaker. Take the opening section of “Eclogues,” one of the stand-out poems of the collection, placed near the end of the book:
I came to this harbor unconsciously.
Seeking a mother made of breezes and waves.
One of those sublime lies the soul will tell
to trick a depressed man up out of bed.
Even after I reasoned this was silly,
I still liked it here, so I wrote poems
to honor the landscape for its own sake,
lending my voice to the slumbering fiddler
crabs and their marshland and ducks and swans and clams,
feeling rather magnanimous, thank you.
What’s notable here, apart from the skillfully timed humor, is how subtly—and unexpectedly—the speaker glides from state to state, and from tone to tone. From the high mythical arch of “Seeking a mother made of breezes and waves,” the opening couplet drops to a hard stop, a hard silence, before making a complete about-face. This is just a lie I tell myself, the speaker admits, because I’m depressed. In the third stanza we get another shift: I knew this wasn’t true all along, but I still like being at the harbor and trying to write. The poem goes on by acknowledging that nature isn’t “some museum to nostalgia,” before reaching the realization that “there’s nothing to fear or worship here.” In closing, Collins offers an effectively understated image of the speaker holding onto a fence as a storm approaches. Hairpin turns, psychological acuity, and self-effacing humor—we get these, fortunately, throughout Appearances.
This passage from “Eclogues” illustrates another pleasure of this book and a hallmark of Collins’ style: ingeniously compact philosophical statements. What is a “sublime lie,” exactly? That could be the thesis of its own essay. And on death, in “Katabasis,” the speaker observes: “It is not / an event; it is / a perspective, growing / slowly in each unique / separate sight.” On death and nature, in a passage about gulls shattering clamshells, “Seawall” gives us this to chew on:
. . . no words
to name an act murder. Nature, pure
the world is only this cycling;
there is nothing
I must render.
Cleanly sculpted, with line breaks that let us savor the full meaning of this poem’s simple but resonant words, we get a weird chill from realizing that killing holds no moral content in Nature and that our seeing, as poets or otherwise, has zero bearing on any of it. And finally, on what it means to try to turn experience into words, “Myth” plunges us headlong into a fast-moving philosophical and personal meditation. Set in short lines that zigzag down the page as quickly as the concepts metamorphose from one to the next, the third-person speaker “walk[s] until / the jagged harbor is / a circle, walking until / he is himself, until / he is also the self / he is not.”
But perhaps what’s most compelling, most likable, about Collins’ work in Appearances is the raw persistence of his struggle—rendered fully and quietly visible to the reader—to commune with the soul that’s ‘out there’ in the natural world and also in us. “[A]ngel i know you here in flesh / i will not release you / until you bless me,” demands the speaker in “Genesis.” And like Jacob wrestling all night with the mysterious angel that could be God himself, that struggle in Appearances is often bittersweet. Moments of restoration and solace come as we watch leaves swirling in the water (“Fall”), a grown man hugging his dog (“Poem for a Predator”), enormous snowflakes falling down as in a winter globe (“Creation”). Keen disappointment, even outrage, crop up, too, in poems like “Dead Fish,” where a whole species dies helplessly in polluted water. But for every blissful pair of retirees whooping over a newly caught fish (“Communion”), Collins seems to tell us, there’s a plastic “Shop&Stop bag / that hangs from the chain link fence thrashing.”
That there is no final resolution at the end shouldn’t come as a surprise. A mandala has no starting or ending point, as the circular shape of “Harbor Mandala,” a late poem in the book, reminds us. We find in this poem that, despite the speaker’s private agonies and raptures, “ducks nap silently / in the oak shade.” There’s something comforting in that. And something true, if not comforting, in the act of walking by those ducks while carrying our own, completely other, merely human, emotions. The joy of Appearances—its gift—is placing us in these moments again and again, through winter and summer, high and low tide, elation and despair, so we can experience that open, shifting, mandala’s shape of apprehending the world as silly humans.