|Day Unto Day
Poems by Martha Collins
|Milkweed Editions, 2014
Reviewed by Emily Mohn-Slate
This April, the Internet will be flooded with legions of poets writing a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month. Whether or not you decide to answer the NaPoWriMo call, you might do well to pick up Martha Collins’s sixth full-length collection, Day Unto Day. Collins invokes an older source than NaPoWriMo—Philip Pain’s Daily Meditations and Quotidian Preparations for Death, said to be the earliest original verse published in America (1666). Pain wrote four six-line verses each day for sixteen days; Collins wrote one poem every day of one month each year (and she is still writing them—Night Unto Night is in the works). The book takes its title from Psalm 19, “Day unto Day uttereth speech, / and night unto night sheweth knowledge.” In this Psalm, David is full of praise for the world God has created, and deems God’s law “perfect.” But don’t let the title fool you: this is not your ordinary poetry of meditation or praise. The law of this book is attention; it is the “eye always open.”
Day Unto Day consists of six sequences of poems, written over the course of six years. Jean Valentine calls these poems “little lights which sometimes sound like prayer.” Each spare, musical poem is indeed a “little light,” which Collins shines on the mundane, the philosophical, the political, and the cosmic. Collins has said that she set up rules for herself as she wrote—some governing the number of lines in each poem, some governing the repeating patterns. One of the most compelling formal choices is the repeating pattern in the first and fourth sequences, “Over Time” and “Moving Still.” The last word of each poem becomes the first word of the following poem. Thus each poem spins into the next one, carrying forward an image, a sound, a word; the repeated word is a hinge that opens onto the landscape of the next poem. Collins plays freely within this structure, crafting a cyclical, layered meaning that echoes throughout the book.
With its focus on loss, mortality, and the natural world, the first sequence, “Over Time,” seems to shift away from the political engagement of her recent books, Blue Front and White Papers. But near the end of the sequence, the “newsy world” enters in poem #22 in the form of the World Series and partisan politics:
God is not a Republican
Democrat Yankee Red
Sox fan of him or her—
But him is whom our bed
is holding, him my one is home
again, oh bless him keep him safe
this little time that is our life.
God becomes entangled with sports, politics, and the recovery of the speaker’s beloved. Collins offers us life as it is lived, the boundaries around experiences inevitably porous.
The final poem of the first section considers mortality as it loops back to the first line of the first poem in the sequence: “not.” The speaker is keenly aware of her own waning time. However, while Collins gives us the language and image of negation, the speaker’s voice remains crisp and strong: “I’m here, much / less less. Not yet not.” “Not,” a staccato metonym for death, signals the way Collins approaches death at intervals:
Over and over again
and again, time
after time, stone
upon hallowed stone.
More than bones, ghost-
thin skin, I’m here, much
less less. Not yet not.
Reading this book demands that you quiet your mind to hear the “hum of words / under words.” These poems model a way to pay attention to the world through a close examination of a particular image, object, or phrase. Within the structure she has set forth, Collins plays with white space, dropped lines, and a variety of voices and tones. Her unexpected syntax continually engages the reader in making meaning. She is never stingy with her sonic pleasures. For instance, take the lines from the third section, “Under Green,” “creeping phlox on an old grave,” or from the third section, “Coming Through,” “Because we are snow, snow / on bones, snow hearts with snow / veins branching out into stick / fingers.” Because of Collins’s linguistic play, we need the moments in which she touches down to give us a more grounded image: “My love checks / his blood now, wet rubies / on his fingers.”
Emerson wrote, “The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.” We are made aware of this thread connecting all of us, with its potential for good and for terror, perhaps most intensely in this poem:
Centered, surrounded by pines, one
could forget the uncentered world
except for the parallel cables and wires
scratching the landscape, the cloudless sky,
stretching all the way to a vest strapped
to a six-year-old boy who is told that flowers
will spray out if he touches, here, this button.
Collins lets us see her mind at work, attentive to the ebbs and flows of our complicated world, to try to figure out “how to save / what’s been lost oh little world.”
It’s as if each poem in the book is a frame within a series of stop-motion pictures; the overall form stays the same, with slight variations of length, spacing, and structure. Within each poem and sequence, images change and recur, colors weave in and out, speakers lament and praise and question. These poems evoke momentum as much as stillness. They show us how we often are stuck in the same places, while the stuff of our lives recurs, whether it’s ongoing war, the fear of losing one’s parents, or a religious holiday. Isn’t this what we often need, and what drives us to keep a journal, to meditate, or go to therapy—to pay attention enough to see the contours of our quotidian lives so that we might be able to change something? As Collins puts it—“seeing things is changing things.”