A Spectrum of Aesthetics, Part II: Arda Collins

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Off I 75 in North Georgia

The following passage continues where I left off in the first post about contemporary poetry.

Contemporary poetry, and contemporary art in general, reveals the Zeitgeist of the 21st century–we seem to live in a moment in which we are reevaluating the myths that motivate us; as a culture we question the roles language, poetry (or art), science, and religion play in our lives. This reconsideration of reality has produced eclectic collections from both younger and older poets.

Each of the books we discussed this semester in our contemporary poetry course, in varying degrees, serves as a barometer of our country’s mood as perceived through the feelings and thoughts of the individual poet, although the psychological and emotional landscapes differ in their representation.

I will identify some essential questions that underlie or motivate three of the individual projects, examining poems from It Is Daylight by Arda Collins, Matthew Dickman’s All-American Poem, and Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife. My hope is that these sample poems will serve as emblems for the poets’ overarching motivations to write, as well as illustrate the wide spectrum of aesthetics in contemporary American poetry.

Among the books we studied, Arda Colin’s It Is Daylight represents the collection least inclined toward the Romantic ideal of union with nature. Luis Glück, who chose Collins’s collection for the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize, characterizes Collin’s poetry as “savage, desolate, brutally ironic” (vii).

Glück later states that “[a]t the heart of the poems is shame, which results not from something the poet has done, but rather from being” (vii). Even though there is an overt depiction of shame in Collins‘ collection, I would say the heart of her poems also contains a desire to understand what being alive means to a neurotic speaker (whom we shouldn’t confuse with the author).

Her satire of suburbia implies a certain amount of anger on the narrator’s part.  The anger points to the speaker’s frustration at finding herself in a life she can’t entirely understand.  Her minimalist style, with its minute focus on the ordinary, refers to a longing to penetrate and look past the everyday world we find ourselves in.

She depicts the human desire for transcendence through art as quaint, almost as if she were a teenager who won’t admit her real feelings out of fear of rejection. An example of her satire of Americana, or kitsch, is her poem “Pennsylvania” (61).

The list of artifacts the speaker remembers from Pennsylvania serves as an indictment of a suburbanite’s attempt at sophistication or decor: “ … There were wood clocks/ and a cuckoo bird in the panoply; chest of drawers/ engraved with silver acorns[.]”

Her descriptions provide a shared laugh with the reader, especially if we recognize ourselves in her satire of a middle class person who tries to imitate the upper classes.

Her poems of social isolation and despair are more easily understood by reading the following statement she makes in an article titled “Poetry as Process of Inquiry” from the Poetry Society of America: “The process of inquiry is one place that poetry comes from.  Another way to say this might be that poetry is the emotion of the act of thinking[.]”

If one views her poems from the perspective in which Collins describes poetry in this article, her work takes on new meaning. As a writer, she tries to make sense of the banal world in which she finds herself . She pokes fun at society for creating objects that copy art, but are not art in and of themselves.

Why these objects don’t transcend the everyday  is one of the themes of her project. By contemplating the failed attempt at art, she creates poetry, which is ironic in and of itself.

Later in the article, Collins explains that she finds motivation to write in “the desire to know, feel, or imagine something, to conjure a scenario, as a form of emotional intensity.”

Her serial poem “Dawn” (67), which is a type of black humor (and a visual pun, considering the poem enters the mind of a serial killer) comes from the place of inquiry Collins describes in the above quote.

Some might question why she would explore the psychosis of a serial killer. Does she want to shock the reader? Is she trying to show that poetry can do what fiction and film do, only better? As a society no one seems to question why Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was written or made into a movie. The mind of a serial killer is a frightening, nauseating place to be, yet Collins also allows the character to express moments of beauty:

There wasn’t a calf
or a person,
there had been no
killing. He put his arms around it,
made up its soul. (67)

If Collin’s quest as an artist was to question what would be like to experience life as a serial killer with all its complexities and social isolation, she achieved her goal.

I think of  the Eastern concept of yin and yang, and how the material world contains the potential for both good and evil. To pretend the dark side of human nature doesn’t exist puts us as a people in danger of committing evil or malignant acts. By not writing about these themes we deny their existence.

Collins questions the nature of reality through her exploration of the human psyche. She creates a character who talks to herself, as she illustrates in “The Sound of Peeling Potatoes” (7). In a list of images and sounds, she writes: “talking to someone in your head/ who bears witness to your thoughts” (7).

The character talks to herself because she doesn’t think there is a God who will listen to her prayers. But I would argue that because the character obsesses about God, she holds out the hope that a god, or something besides the humdrum reality of suburbia, exists.

However, the speaker denies a personal God who sits on a throne above the clouds. In fact, her final poem “Snow on the Apples,”  satirizes an infantile concept of an Almighty Creator when she writes,” God’s going to a dinner/ where they’re having lamb chops/ and veal stuffing with/ roasted almonds and fig sauce…” (92).

Collins does not break new ground in her criticism of theology–Wallace Stevens cast doubt on modern theology long before Collins in his poem “Sunday Morning,” but her imagination and sense of humor do point to a humorous view of an old theme.

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