Presences by Caroline Collins. Parallel Press, 2014.
Review by Judy Swann
Death has no dominion in the quiet, alert verse of Caroline Collins’ Presences. Everything that was and is lives: the people, the animals, the rocks, and the water:
The surfeit of mosquitoes and sweat,
the endless calls of jays and crows…
(“At the Ceremonial Mound”)
of stark land
and rich soil.
…pulling other waters
into its stubborn, furious pulse
…where our fathers who have no names
lie facing the dawn, with limestone coffins
collapsed around them…
(“In the City’s Oldest Cemetery”)
Collins doesn’t pull lilacs out of a dead land, she plants her own feet on rich black mud; and the earth remembers her just as it remembers the people who walked there before, carrying the dust of their villages. Her alternatively lyrical and narrative voice is as much an archeologist’s as a midwife’s. Her poetry “conveys a complexity of feeling, a style that embodies emotion…a sense of the deep past resonating behind a line” as Tom Sleigh valorizes in his essay “Six Trees and Two White Dogs…Doves?” (Poetry, March 2015, p.606)
She does understand death, after all, as is clear from her eulogies for Black Hawk, the Cherokees of New Echota, and even Me-she-thi-po-wi (the big river) itself. There is no need for her to inject any pathos into the story of Black Hawk — and she does not. Yet it is hard to confront the tragedy at the intersection of native peoples with “my kind” and not resent the blood-soaked, word-staked betrayal that Black Hawk and his people endured.
was hard, its vowels like dark caves,
its promises like limbs that never heal.
That he is painted in his chains, that his bones are shopped around, history confirms that these things happened. Collins shows us how his day comes to shadow his night:
The only way he can sleep,
he says, is to remember
the smell of the grass
the rippling cornfields
the sound of the river
shearing its banks
in the spring…
until morning comes
to shred the garment of dream.
Collins is an Illinoisan transplanted to Georgia and part of her identification with Black Hawk is their shared longing for home.
I am not home until I scent
The sour dregs of feed grain
Dropped by rumbling trucks…
I am not home until the Mississippi sings
Its lullaby, hushed and steady, insistent…
Surely, it is true that when a loved one dies, a piece of their soul lodges in those who are left behind to love and be loved. Surely, a piece of Black Hawk’s soul is alive here:
I am not home until I stand beside
this mile-wide tide that trumps all others,
rolling along slowly, until I breathe
this ancient, mud-thick, fish-rank river.
Every poem in Collins’ Presences acknowledges the Midwestern prairie, its treacherous weather, its torn body, its “scant consolation.” The poet has accepted the truth of the prairie and is at peace with it, as Black Hawk was when he journeyed across the water.
Judy Swann is a poet, essayist, editor, translator, analyst, blogger, and bicycle commuter, whose work has been published in many venues both in print and online. Her book, We Are All Well: The Letters of Nora Hall, appeared in 2014.