We live in a global economy that saturates us daily with needless information through forms of technology we reach for without thinking. We numb ourselves with diversion and brands, with Facebook, Twitter and “smartphones” to avoid directly experiencing what we’re thinking or feeling. To write about individual experience, then, and to do so successfully, beautifully, is quite a feat. This is why you should read Michael Collier’s sixth collection of poems, An Individual History. Once again, Collier proves his mettle in a series of exceptionally crafted poems that seek to name and understand the world through a set of singular, particular experiences—his own.
Collier’s poems refuse to submit to a culture that has come to hold the individual suspect or in contempt. Many offer poignant but unsentimental family portraits made with vivid detail, with images that are remembered, hence recovered and immortalized. We’re given the mother’s sewing machine imagined during “a day of translucent patterns, pinking shears, and pins,” the father’s knee at ninety-two, a “dread spectacle / betrayed by Bermuda shorts,” the grandfather’s missing eye, “a frozen slab of milk-white ice that light never thawed.”
One of the very best poems in the collection encapsulates the sociocultural milieu of the mid-twentieth century and the place of the family within it. The title alone earns our praise by immediately locating us in time and place. Here in its entirety is “Grandmother with Mink Stole, Sky Harbor Airport, Phoenix, Arizona, 1959”:
It rode on her shoulders
flayed in its purpose of warmth and glamour.
Its head like a small dog’s and its eyes
more sympathetic than my mother’s eyes’ kindness
which was vast. Four paws for good luck
but also tiny sandbags of mortification and ballast,
and in the black claws a hint of brooch or clasp.
Secured like that the head could loll and the teeth
in the snout’s fixed grin was the clenched “Oh, shit!”
of road kill askew in the gutter. This she wore
no matter the weather and always, always,
when she stepped from the plane and paused,
at the top of the rolling stairs, she fit her hand
to her brow against the glare of concrete and desert,
not a white glove’s soft salute but a visor
that brought us into focus. Mother and Father waving first,
then oldest to youngest, dressed in our Easter best,
we were prodded to greet her, she who gripped the hot,
gleaming rail, set her teeth in the mink’s stiff grin,
and walked through the waterless, smokeless mirage between us.
She who wore the pelt, the helmet of blue hair
and came to us mint and camphor-scented, more strange
than her unvisited world of trees and seasons,
offering us two mouths, two sets of lips, two expressions:
the large, averted one we were meant to kiss and the other
small, pleading, that if we had the choice, we might choose.
The poem reflects the power of poetry to say what otherwise might not be said or told about individual lives and experiences—what might otherwise be lost, misrepresented, or misunderstood. For example, we learn from reading the entire collection that the grandmother in the poem was institutionalized for five decades. The poem makes us want to laugh and cry at the same time because it’s written as both elegy and love poem.
It pays tribute to the plight of the grandmother and the young family while bringing to life the hideous and glamorous artifact of the mink stole while the sun glares off the glinting metal during the big-jet era, the golden age of travel. It also demonstrates Collier’s deft craftsmanship, his ability, for instance, to recognize that the poem is best served by couplets, as they let him control the pacing of the poem as he coordinates both the lyrical and narrative elements he makes work together. Finally, what makes the poem so magnificent is its freedom from self-conscious gesturing on the part of the poet. The speaker doesn’t get in the way, and therefore we get to experience the poem and the world created by it.
After 9/11, many self-important sounding poets dramatically swore off the personal in their own and others’ writing, claiming that the world had changed so completely, so tragically that there was no longer room or reason to write about the personal or autobiographical. Thank goodness Collier didn’t, and hasn’t, adopted that mindset. As he shows us so adeptly, so skillfully and beautifully in his newest collection, it’s precisely in the face of tragedy and loss that such poems must be written and read.