It’s hard for me to imagine an art that’s not fundamentally intuitive, but some work foregrounds that aspect more than others. It’s been thirteen years since Arda Collins won the Yale Series of Younger Poets with It Is Daylight, a book as strange and spare as it was lush and vivid. I trust that kind of interval—thirteen years—sign of long slow work. Intuition, one hopes, leading the poet through the maze of experience. Such an interval can bear the best fruit, painful as it may be to the writer waiting for fluency. I don’t know whether the long process was painful or sublime for Collins, probably it was both, but in any case The Song Cave has just brought out her long-awaited second collection, Star Lake, and it is a very moving and somewhat mysterious articulation. An elegy for her mother, an elegy for her father, and a tour de force of her style: delicate, intuitive precision. Listen to the way the poem “Old Snow” unfolds, the way each short line both fits perfectly with, and also stands apart somehow, from each line that follows it:
I miss you so much
waking, whisper to you,
it won’t ever be
and can’t know
just how dead;
separated this morning
by the window and the bed,
where is dead?
I see it when I see you.
Or this, the opening to “112”:
Life is fucking hard,
a pond that turns
darker, the world over, a forest
turns red. You are so
strangely in my purpose bred.
I sucked on your tongue
while your blood
told me something …
Collins, who grew up on Long Island, daughter of a journalist and a mother who stayed at home to look after the children, mostly eschews direct biographical reference, but at key moments in this newest book she draws explicitly on personal history, such as her mom’s Armenian heritage, almost as if it’s an instrument she’s neglected:
I need to play this small blue saxophone.
It’s been mouldering in my cousin’s basement,
transposed in my mind
as my childhood basement,
for many years. It was gnawed and spit in
by at least seven Armenian children,
my cousins, who, like me, sprang from the women
driven from their homes
while their husbands and fathers were seized and murdered. Over time
But the poem resists lingering on biography, and leaps away, even as the speaker plays the instrument of history—
is like a pothole when I think of the day
I couldn’t control myself
and blew in it. I felt a passing knowledge
something else would happen.
Then thunder and a rainstorm.
There’s a sense that anything can happen in these poems, that they are just as interested in that “passing knowledge” as they are in whatever got the poem going in the first place. The plainspoken is interrupted by dashes of song—“prose lows woes,” Collins writes in one poem—and although the speaker of another (many of these are persona pieces, fictions near to the poet’s life but never quite overlapping) says, “My life seems short and uninteresting,” the poems are anything but. They insist on a subtlety fueled by small surprises, shifts in the language and shifts in what the poem seems to be about. And what they are about, partly, is what all poems are about: the passage of time, the living in time, being marked by it, scarred by what it takes away—but also by the mysterious wonder of its continual unfolding, the continual is-ness of life, unfolding in language. The book’s opening poem imagines a “Far-Off Day,” and tries to get hold of it across the span of years. “There’s a castle in the distance yonder,” the poet writes, “like the poem of a third grader / imagining medieval ways.” The castle, that distant day that nonetheless arrives, that must “slide down a river to a railway,” must “come to time.” A poem, in the hands of this artist, is a record of the persistence of that day’s coming, and what it brings, and what the river takes as it goes.
JESSE NATHAN: I’ve never quite been able to pinpoint the difference between form and content in a work of art, there doesn’t seem like a clear line. And that feels so beautifully true in your poems. And meanwhile, your work does seem to have discernable settings and flashes of narrative in it. I’m curious, how do you think about subject matter? How or when—at what point in the process—do you tend to know what a poem is “about”?
ARDA COLLINS: I wonder if what you may be noticing about narrative and subject has to do with the many kinds of imaginative activity that lead to a poem. If you think of subject as what preoccupies the imagination, then you might think of form as a means to reveal it. I feel as you do, that form and content occur together as the poem occurs. As I go towards a poem, I often feel as though I’m approaching something colossal but invisible that I can begin to see through the kinds of formal elements that you mentioned, settings and pieces of narrative. This movement is like a view of a mountain that never seems to be in exactly the same place. A poem often begins this activity through a tone—a phrase or even just a word that gets its emotional charge from the way it’s said, meaning the way I hear it in my head. Or it’s an image or a memory, and the poem opens up from the tonal or aesthetic qualities that surround it. That can feel a bit like imagining a movie; it’s a story that begins with an image and the image turns into a memory of something that never happened, but it describes the feeling of many other memories, or contains memories inside it. This happened in a poem I wrote called “Story.” While I wrote the poem, I was thinking of a period when I was digging holes to plant apple trees in my front yard, and also about parts of the Eric Rohmer movie Boyfriends and Girlfriends, which I saw a very long time ago and which has an ongoing place in my imagination. There are numerous shots in that movie of wind blowing the undersides of leaves on a sunny summer afternoon that’s also full of shadows. There’s something downcast in those scenes and I remember feeling amazed that Rohmer was able to identify that image as part of a certain lonely feeling on a summer day. I recognized many experiences of seeing the undersides of leaves in the wind, and also the kind of loneliness the image expresses about the characters. The association was so strong that I imagined the movie and my experiences with wind, trees, leaves, and summer over many years. All of it combined and became part of the memories of my imagination, as opposed to the memories of my actual personhood, meaning the memories of my experiences of the external world.
For a long time, I thought that my poems had intrinsic subject matter, in the sense that the context of my life was their backdrop and origin. Then I realized that no one noticed any of the context or subjects of my poems because the poems had gone elsewhere. That was fine because the subject wasn’t the point. Still, I sometimes felt like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” gesticulating as he explains himself, unaware that he’s incomprehensible because he’s turned into an insect. My desire to be understood intensified during a period when the circumstances of my life changed and took on a new urgency. Both of my parents had long illnesses and died within a year and a half of one another. My mother’s family survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and I grew up with them. My family’s experience cast a long shadow and had always been part of my poems, but after my parents died, it felt necessary to be explicit about what was on my mind in a way that was different from before. I was very unused to this, and so I needed to find a way to speak. That sense of necessity may be what is sometimes thought of as having a “subject.”
Rae Armantrout’s poem “The Subject” does a lot of what I’m thinking about in terms of how a speaker transforms their emotions through formal elements that feel like a story. Here is the first stanza:
It’s as if we’ve just been turned human
in order to learn
that the beetle we’ve caught
and are now devouring
is our elder brother
and that we
are a young prince.
This story has everything: it evokes the contradictions and horrors of the human condition by drawing from Kafka, whose story refers to the subject of profound misunderstanding; there are elements of a fairy tale or parable; there’s a compelling protagonist, and although we don’t know the details of the protagonist’s outcome, we know enough, which is that he’s probably going to inherit a kingdom since he just ate his brother. If we take his brother to be Kafka’s beetle, as Nabokov describes the insect in that story, then “we” as Armantrout says, are the “young prince” about to inherit the struggle to be understood. The most important part to me though, is not that there’s a story here, but the semblance of a story. The emphasis is on the point of view, which is the sensation of the speaker’s imagination, the way the first line feels like the mind entering into profundity out of nowhere, and then making up a story that comes out of this feeling. We see the speaker imagining, we see their desire to tell a story, and that is the poem.