Some Avatars: Three Second Books from the Indie Press
Second collections of poetry are furtive beasts. Frequently, they contain poems that continue the preoccupations and formal experiments of first collections, but just as often, these new books dart in whole new directions. This is particularly likely if the first book was constituted, largely, within the crucible of formal training, say, a writing program or group. By definition, these second books lack the splash of debut. So it was with a mixture of empathy and curiosity that I picked up the three second collections that came across my desk this fall: Sarah Marcus’ They Were Bears, Michael Collins’ Appearances, and CK Kubasta’s Of Covenants.
The history of second collections in English-language poetry is a troubled one, in which it is clear that even the most confident poets have faced publishing again with anxiety, whether they admit to having rushed into print or end up rejecting their first books in talking about their new ones. In lyric poetry, this anxiety is likely to produce avatars as opposed to spokespersons or implied authors. Avatars, in this sense, are first-person speakers which are overly conscious of themselves as projections and acutely aware of the limitations of language to fully map the open worlds of their concerns. While reading through the very different formal and aesthetic choices of these poets, I began to suspect that the speakers in these three collections can almost hear themselves as they think aloud their lines.
They Were Bears is a collection of 42 lyric poems, divided into three more or less even sections. The titular metaphor is dominant, but less so after the first section, during which the idea of “bears” transforms from predator and threat to totem animal with which the speaker soon identifies completely. This transformation is recognized, explicitly, in the final stanza of the final poem, “But Mostly There Were Bears”:
I want you to tell them
I was a bear, and I am
laid with bears.
And you were the one,
strapped with meat,
so pregnant you crawled back.
The poems break down an abusive love affair, and the lumbering grief of its traumatic end. The metaphor and its implications are familiar, and, indeed, Marcus depends upon the ancient human fascination with these unique creatures of the forest. These are poems of survival and of having survived sexual assault, meth, its use and manufacture, and the isolating emotional abuse ubiquitous to the children of the rural poor. The culmination amounts to a personal record, often savage, of wandering the wilderness of deep woods, mostly literal, where it is safest to make a little noise as you go, giving the unseen beasts notice of your passing. But our sympathies, like Marcus’, are with the bear, who should not survive, but does, and, moreover, will not silently recede into the deep woods of our imaginations.
The standard mode of the book is direct address and the tone is often confrontational, if not defiant. It is the insistent enacting of poems like “Suffer not yet our eyes to hunger for your face,” rather than the rawness of diction and tone that suggests something palpably more present than the usual, contemporary lyric voice.
You skip the flat rock,
and the fish scatter. I’m so wet
these clothes are useless.
Fuck me in the woods in the place
by the pond. Bend me over—I’m bleeding
and you’ll still want to.
The poems of the second and third section continue the direct address and show an affinity for the mythic. Their geography ranges sometimes across the continent, but the settings are still usually extreme: deep winter, mountains, or desert. The last poems travel from the forest of fly-over country to the suburbs, north and west from Alaska to the Florida everglades, where the poems recreate a different kind of isolation and a return to a more recognizable way of life. The authenticity of Marcus’ voice is the key to the success of this movement, and these latter poems make clear that the wilderness and its creatures are still with her, as in the following lines from, “Ecosystems: Mangrove”.
Name them Great Blue Heron when you change your mind
Cattle Egret twenty years from now Least Bittern I will
still be starving for a scrap
of your sky Glossy Ibis we are impossible
In the fifty poems of Michael Collins’ Appearances, readers will trade deep forest for the well-worn sea shore, where Collins’s representative has intentionally sought silence, or at least, unhuman ambience. The title of the book is suggestive of the mood and everywhere in this book is the desire to see beneath the surface of things while simultaneously finding delight in surfaces. Collins cultivates a state of mind that is prepared for, even anticipates, apparition. Glimpses of that other world beneath the shimmering reality of the everyday are implied in these poems more often than claimed, though on occasion, a claim is staked. This brief vision, though, is undercut by an intrusive and common reality which forces the speaker to return to his senses, as in the poem “Ars Poetica,” whose title affirms the centrality of the dynamic:
…a bird conveying
branches up to the top of the flood lights
of the harbor’s baseball diamond,
building a nest in which fledglings will learn
how to fly between two worlds. Hence,
for a moment, she seems my soul,
teaching me to perceive in this landscape
the shapes of psyche; then she is a bird
This same trope is employed in a later poem, “Prayer”:
Thank you for this sacred gull,
swooping and circling through the noon
blue sky, so my eye could trace
in his invisible wake
the shape of wind, soul through spirit,
spirit through soul; it was thunderous
as it approached me—then transfigured
its visage into a model plane’s
robbed me of the obvious god-
image I apprehended…
Here it is the speaker’s imaginative reconstruction of another human-made reality—the gull as model plane—that snaps him back from his contemplation and spiritual hunger.
The perspective throughout Appearances is consistent, and it’s a conventional one, almost out of time in its Romantic desire to seek refuge from the habits of urban contemporary life. We can picture the poet, alone, walking the trodden shore, seeking attunement with the liminal landscape and its pure and natural inhabitants. But to seek such attachment is not without irony, and the speaker is correct to allow the evidence of human activity to remain so present in these poems. This is the avatar Collins has conjured up, complete with the comfortable structures, diction, even titles that recall whole anthologies of similar stances. The danger of maintaining this perspective in poem after poem is a certain over-earnestness in the voice, an over-earnestness that can carry away even the most careful among us, encouraging us to utter new coinages like “uncorpsed” or phrases such as “my soul compels me to take in this translucent…”. In fact, it is the artificial tells through which the speaker of these poems seems more avatar than traditional representative of the poet. Appearances succeeds because Collins often acknowledges the foolhardiness of his attempt, as in the beginning of “Eclogues,” both the longest and most formally ambitious poem in the book.
I came to this harbor unconsciously.
Seeking a mother made of breeze 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…
But it is also in lines like this that I perceive Collins’ anxiety that the representative he’s constructed might become aware of itself. Instead, Collins allows, eventually, the same self-deprecating attentiveness to sublimate the self entirely, as in the final poem of the collection, “After High Tide”:
The tide rose over
its confinement, now
from all of this harbor,
from all of the deeper
waters beyond, a small pool
lingers between the sea-
wall bricks and the sandy
dirt behind them on land.
The irony of seeking refuge from the human world on the New York seashore is kept beneath the surface of the lines and the indwelling voice becomes “a separate thing, already/losing itself.”
The most formally ambitious of these three second books is, unquestionably, CK Kubasta’s Of Covenants, which consists of three sections of 45 poems, plus Appendices and an untitled introduction to the first section of the book and epigraphs for the others. These poems use the blank spaces on the page projectively, sprawling out through indentation and spacing. Long lines predominate, but there is also a good bit of prose and conventional lineation, most consistently employed in the second section, “The Covenants.” The long lines and wide spaces also allow for the dark comedy of juxtaposition. Here’s the opening to “The Poet & the Thylacine”:
The largest marsupial carnivore that ever existed
45 minutes about how helpful a poet’s wife
dog-headed pouched one
can be to his career. The sending of submissions
the last member of its family
the organizing of files
The disparate subjects begin to braid together like the strands of a double helix as the poem ends, linking together the sad fate of the Tasmanian Tiger with a craft talk on poetry.
Kubasta plays with vertical space too, as many poems begin or continue after an atypically long break “beneath the fold.” The effect give the reader a sense of the book as scrapbook or handmade heirloom rather than published volume. The poems themselves encompass an impressive range of subject matter: histories both regional and personal, farming techniques, the complications of genetic coding, family trauma, grief and romantic loss. The avatars of these poems, for there are more than one, are the disembodied scholar that begins the collection and the adult woman who repeatedly goes home again, often reluctantly, seeking recovery or reckonings, descending as an adult the grandmother’s basement stairs.
The shelves wear her
handiwork, mason jars
blue with dust, soggy pickles,
Wooden shelves ensure circulation, do not conduct.
Ideally, to avoid frost and freeze, dig deeper than ten feet…
As you can see, these avatars vie for space-time throughout the book, though the scholar seems to supplant the lyric “I” completely in the second section, often directly addressing the woman who, significantly, does not reply, only to relax a bit in the final section. Like the Tasmanian tiger and the poet, the two avatars seem to merge in the four(!) prose appendices that end the book.
The beginning of a migraine requires stillness. It is the iced edges of a millpond, of slough, of shallow-bottomed lake. Edges that thicken and round. the pain comes with any movement too sudden that slides the edges of ice against each other.
My favorite section of the book, though, is the second one, titled “The Covenants,” in which the voice tightens a bit and coherent anecdotes replace collage as the primary organizing technique. You can learn a lot from these poems. Here’s a bit near the beginning of “The Covenant of Irrigation”:
the day is divide into moving the machines
the position is monitored by GPS
the central pivot is more efficient
the saturation plotted and mapped
when you drive through the arc of glitter you must
roll up the windows this water is poison more dangerous
than heat on your face
Anaphora increases as a rhythmic device as you move through the collection and at the end of this poem, the new controlled line paradoxically makes room for moments of praise. “this surfeit this abundance this blessing this slantwise/spray at the end of the day.”
It’s common for a poet to abandon the comfortable persona of her first book in putting together her second, but sometimes you get a deepened commitment to its artifice, an avatar evident by both an increased awareness of technique and an expressed anxiety about poetic world-making. This can be generative and produce pleasurable and pleasurably-startling effects. As it happens, these three collections delight because their poems approve the enacting power of words as often as they lament the inadequacies of the language.