Life’s been way too busy but I did want to get a post out this week to shoutout a few notable poetry collections published recently:
Janel Pineda’sLineage of Rain (Haymarket Books) is a dynamic collection that I’m happy to see out in the world. I’ve been teaching and admiring Pineda’s work for years now. Check out her poem “Rain” to get a sense of her compelling lyricism.
Fossils on a Red Flag by Amelia Díaz Ettinger is a powerful collection of poems that interrogates the (mis)use as a gunnery and bombing practice site by the U.S. military of Puerto Rico’s Isla Culebra. This work grapples with what is lost in the language of official government orders and, by doing so, sheds light on the human and environmental costs. With sharp turns of lyricism and image shaped by the insistent voice of witness, this collection honors the history of los Culebrenses who have spent generations gathering “baskets of loss / —[and who] still gather after so many hurricanes.” Like the queen conch, present in a series of these poems and whose shell is a symbol of survival and beauty, Fossilson a Red Flag presents a vision of perseverance.
–José Angel Araguz, author of An Empty Pot’s Darkness
This week I am proud to feature the work of Quintin Collins whose debut collection The Dandelion Speaks of Survivalarrives this month from Cherry Castle Publishing. I have been admirer of Collins’ work both on and off the page for a few years now. As an activist and organizer, Collins has helped foster a dynamic community as assistant director of the Solstice Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program.
On the page, Collins’ work is marked by a direct engagement with the physical world, lingering over it with a curious attention that pays off in nuanced and fateful meaning. In his poem, “Exegesis On a Chicken Wing,” the act of eating is given space so that it is honored but also meditated on in a way that gives over its essential stakes. That to be human is survival and celebration–this is a key message in Collins’ work.
In “This is Where You Belong” (below) one encounters a similar engagement with the physical world. Through a catalogue of a neighborhood, the poem ruminates over the coming and going of many lives with such clarity that nothing feels ephemeral despite its fleeting nature. Like Galway Kinnell, Collins writes of place with a gravity that is accessible and essential. One feels the weight of “The American flag, / two hundred fifty pounds of polyester” flapping over the life the speaker is witness to, but also feels the horizon it flaps against, made up of human life and sky.
About this poem, Collins states:
“This is Where You Belong” introduces the landscape of The Dandelion Speaks of Survival. The collection exists because of the setting, which is a Chicago suburb that derives much of its culture from the city. I like to describe it as a watered-down diet Coke version of Chicago. Following white flight and the destruction of certain projects in the city, we had a lot of transplants from the city throughout my childhood. Plus, even those of us from the area originally had a lot family with deep roots in the city. So I wanted to capture the intersection of suburb and city, as well as the shifting demographics, mundane sights, childhood joys, and a bit of the ethos of the late 90s/early 2000s.
This is Where You Belong
Where the Sears Tower casts a shadow across the land, this is twenty-five miles southwest of Chicago. A wheat field cleared for a billboard that announces an outlet mall that never broke ground.
& this is the Zenon J. Sykuta Elementary School playground where kids broke skin against mulch. Splinters swam in blood, boys kissed girls, lips wetted with dares.
& this is Atkin Park, where a sock-swaddled padlock swung an eviction notice to an eye. Blood speckled hopscotch squares.
& this is Chris’ backyard, where concrete chipped knuckles, where boys chased a jump ball, shared sweat, put up shots for games of twenty-one, wobbled defenders.
& this is the creek ditch where victims emptied pockets of a few bills, Pokémon cards, & Frooties. Big Moe peddled away on someone’s Mongoose. He always said he was coming back.
& this is Kostner Avenue where kids flew downhill on the same bike, arms extended, wind coasted over palms.
& this is another U-Haul truck going. & this is another U-Haul truck coming. & this is another U-Haul truck with a belly full of furniture, engine idled for arrival or departure.
& this is a For Sale sign. & this is a For Rent sign. & this is a For Rent Sign.
& this is the streetlight on 180th, outside St. Emeric, where Keith’s mom whooped him in front of all of his friends because sunset then stars beat him to his doorstep.
& this is a Cutlass Supreme with 24-inch rims that rippled bass down Ravisloe Terrace, up Idlewild Drive.
& this is Country Pantry. That’s the AMC Loews. That’s the Walmart where teens posted up in the parking lot, loitered around their mother’s sedans, revved their hips to summer hits.
This is Country Club Hills, where I-57 & I-80 lace like fingers interlocked over the city. The American flag, two hundred fifty pounds of polyester, flaps over the land.
Also, check out this event where Collins will read from this collection later this month along with poets Meg Kearney and Chloe Martinez.
Quintin Collins (he/him) is a writer, editor, and Solstice MFA Program assistant director. His work appears in many print and online publications, and his first full-length collection of poems is The Dandelion Speaks of Survival (Cherry Castle Publishing, 2021). His second collection of poems, Claim Tickets for Stolen People, selected by Marcus Jackson as winner of The Journal‘s 2020 Charles B. Wheeler Prize, is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books in 2022. See more of his work on qcollinswriter.com.
One of my favorite things about poetry is how it can not only detail an experience but also be an experience. The intimacy of language to be known and shared between us, to be changed and yet hold despite the changing, speaks to the human experience in a way that is simultaneously of the mind as much as the body. In Radiant Obstacles (Wipf & Stock 2020) by Luke Hankins, one encounters a poetic sensibility aware and after such simultaneous experience.
Take the poem “The Night Garden,” a short lyric which engages with some of these ideas despite its brevity:
I am the waterer of the night garden. I can hardly see. I water what I remember being there.
In four lines we have a narrative and a turn that defines that act of remembering. That alone is stunning. But what makes the poem speak to the human experience is the parallel blurring implied by the fact of the poem and the poetry within. The fact of the poem sets a two-line narrative about the night garden; the other two lines, then, reflect back this narrative as the ephemeral act it is narratively and in language. The garden that can barely be held in the speaker’s vision is parallel to what the poet has rendered for us on the page. Through brevity, clarity, and thought, Hankins is able to evoke an intimacy similar to the remembering the speaker engages in.
Radiant Obstacles is threaded with such moments of intimacy that acknowledge what lies beyond language. Whether it’s empathy felt by a son for his father with whom he shares a phobia of enclosed spaces and, despite it, accompanies his father on an elevator, or the acknowledged humanity shared between a bartender and her regulars, Hankins’ work is able to meet the concrete world with its rough edges and linger long enough so that new meanings give over.
This work after the various intimacies implied in language is approached at times indirectly via formal choices. The poems in this collection range from prose poems, short lyrics, and indented open field experiences across the page. One dynamic outlier in this vein is “That Than Which” which finds Hankins taking a quote from Anselm of Canterbury and repeating it over and over, each repetition shuffling the order of words and adding to them. The experience created in this experiment is dramatic. Where the epigraph holds as a solid construction of sense, the statement’s reconfiguring via the poem works away from that sense and into other senses. This approach on the part of Hankins evokes another type of intimacy, that of language as something both shared and constructed, able to adhere to and diffuse meaning not just in his handling but in our being along for the ride. What makes the poem remarkable is that the experiment, rather than shutting us out, welcomes the reader into its wrestling with meaning.
And yet, “wrestling” may not be the right word here. Through a kind of lyrical volley and parry, Hankins invokes the idea of language as a “radiant obstacle” in and of itself. As language fails to connect fully yet consistently draws us to it despite this failure, each poem is an endeavor on both the part of poet and reader toward exploring what can be found through being thwarted thus. “Tree Rings” (below) is a good example of what I mean. Here, the speaker meditates on both language and trees; by doing so, he explores the ways humans imbue themselves on the world, and vice versa. The difference being, however, that it all remains a one-sided conversation. Much like prayer, these ruminations ultimately lay bare the richness and sorrow to be found in the human want for a connection beyond ourselves.
Here is a history that does not concern you, a making apart without the imposition of form, a shapely patient expansion, except not patient because it is mindless. But you cannot help regarding the sawn trunk allegorically (devoted becoming, then the desolate crash through other limbs). Do we not also expand ourselves and thus can speak of the slow sorrow of the trees even though we know they are not sad, not slow, except in our perceiving? It is enough to perceive a thing for it to bear the force of truth. So, the hillside stands of trees driving minutely upward through mindless centuries. Their jagged symmetries unerringly perpetuate and the soft new leaves, the supple branches giving way to the wind seem just like us, though they are not.
Question:How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?
Luke Hankins: My poems have frequently been criticized—especially in an academic setting—for being “overly” abstract. But many of the poems, both historical and contemporary, that impact me most profoundly share a deep engagement with abstract idea and reasoning. That’s not to say that those poems don’t usually engage with the concrete as well, but that they clearly revel in and deeply depend on idea in a way that, say, an Imagist poem does not.
Concretion has for decades been the accepted American poetic doctrine—and, yes, it is an important tool that novice poets typically need to learn. But it’s emphasized to such an extent that our poetry gets bled of complex thought, and consequently we risk losing our very ability to engage with abstract thought.
T. S. Eliot wrote that for John Donne an idea was as immediate as the scent of a rose. I worry that we stand to lose that capacity of mind. My poems attempt to revalorize idea and the ways that language can operate in the abstract. My poems are not devoid of concretion by any means—and some are entirely concrete. But as a whole they intentionally lean on abstract constructs.
Question:There seems to be a distinct conversation happening through the range of formal choices across individual poems—some lean toward direct narrative, others evoke rapturous undertones via indented lines, while still others engage with repetition. Was this intentional? What formal aesthetics do you see this book reflecting?
Luke Hankins: The variety of stylistic and formal approaches my poems take is certainly intentional. I could discuss the thinking underpinning the different approaches, but I prefer for readers to form their own opinions and reactions in that regard. What I will say is that I often tire of poets who write poems, year after year, that are essentially interchangeable in terms of voice, stylistics, and formal characteristics. Naming names is generally frowned upon, but he’ll keep making money, so here I go: Does the world need another Billy Collins poem?
I don’t intend to settle into a formulaic approach to writing poems. Each poem, for me, must be a venture into uncertainty—of voice, of idea, of form.
Special thanks to Luke Hankins for participating! To keep up with Luke’s work, check out his site. Copies of Radiant Obstacles can be purchased from Wipf & Stock.
Luke Hankins‘ most recent poetry collection is Radiant Obstacles (2020). A volume of his translations from the French of Stella Vinitchi Radulescu, A Cry in the Snow & Other Poems, was released in 2019. He is the founder and editor of Orison Books, a non-profit literary press focused on the life of the spirit from a broad and inclusive range of perspectives.