LITTLE EASE by AARON MCCOLLOUGHANDREA BAKER Reviews
Little Ease by Arron McCollough
(Ahsahta Press, 2006)
In many ways, Little Ease troubles me. McCollough writes as a distant, but psychologically aware and keenly watchful thinker. He renders a subtle moral angst with phenomenal control and depth of feeling, but, here, even feeling seems to be navigated by a removed intellect’s, “cold humors,” as the breath roams disconnected, “above the city’s face far from the body.” I am not a reader easily sympathetic to such intellectualized remove, but I do find that if I invest myself and allow the poems their speculative voice, they unpack a startling sadness and awe: “Old wobbly world tearing down you make me hate me/ You fling light around your dark flung fill.”
Little Ease was a small (4’ square) cell in the Tower of London, which denied captives sufficient room to stand or lay down, instead forcing them to remain in a cramped squat. Little ease, the cell, is an apt image for Little Ease, the book, which foregrounds a quiet sense of constraint imposed by the speaker’s distrust for the physical, sensory world. For instance, in the book’s opening poem, we are asked to, “Consider the perspective boxes of Samuel Van Hoogenstraten.” Hoogenstraten worked for a time in Rembrandt's atelier where he grew fascinated by light and perspective. His boxes are diorama-like structures of realistic interiors, rich with shadow, light, and rooms seen through painted doors. McCollough asks us to consider these boxes, and then asks, “where the painted light falls and where the painted shadows crouch… what do you consider?” His angst is both existential and ontological. He seems confounded by both the subjectivity of experience and the object that has spurred experience.
This restlessness is a major theme and one of the many way in which McCollough echoes George Herbert. The second section of Little Ease is titled "Superliminare," the Latin term for a joist above a door or window, and the title of Herbert’s poem of mystical warning to those approaching his poetic altar.
McCollough’s Superliminare poems, though, are domestic with “household gods” who smile at “the man… tying the woman’s shoe// in the street.” These poems have upbeat, staccato rhythms, a good deal of formal play (another Herbert trait), and playfully address constraint in passages like, “I am like my marriage// which is like// a good war” or “in lying down// again I offer god// an image of my death.”
I can only think that McCollough has intended these poems of fragmentary real world grounding as a threshold. The next sequence is written in the voice of Jan Vandermeer, a character for which I can find no reference, so I assume to be fictional. These are poems in which, “the light ignites itself// reveals the signature of distance/ the silhouette/ inside the trunk.” Each line becomes a lyrical, melodic structure. We are given the instruction “As no one asks the threshold how the light works// Just saunter through and halleloo.” We’re told “the world is fair// And foul it reaches for me reaching for it.” Here, again, we have that distance. We learn that the speaker and the world reach for one another, but their reaching only highlights the strain of their interactions.
In the following section, "Sonnets Manques," the playfulness extends into humor:
and you know x the neighbor cat got hit
one cat-long wound x turned upon itself
in the right lane (take away x what’s left)
the street that runs from Flint to Bowling Green
However, both the precise staccato and graceful lyricism of earlier sections are gone--instead, poems are presented awkwardly without internal musical structures. “Manques” translates from the French as “lacking,” so I assume this styling is entirely intentional. Here, I admire McCollough’s facility and control, but am unsure of what I can take away from many of the more rambling passages such as:
the task of taking on a skin like rose
we’ve tried to grow them petal and stem
are skin like taking on a film of soot
Detroit the city of roses and phlemgm
What color Jesus Detroit what resolve
After these ‘lacking’ sonnets, we face the multi-voiced "From the Restoration." It is in this section that Little Ease stakes its claim. Here, when reading, I find myself looking away from the text and into my white walls, stunned by what an impeccable work of art this text has become, but also exhausted by the large effort required to make my way through.
The poems are now very bare, words are scattered across the page with no steady music to carry the reader through. Instead, distinct, disembodied voices come and go in bracketed, half-bracketed, and un-bracketed passages as themes return, expand, and then drift. Take only the first page, rendered here as best I am able:
[ my urchin spirit]
[::which is the] Fonder choice sun? shade?
[if Adept Lu chooses one, how can the other be wrong?]
li t t
To the space I was am now in
in a column [my narrative excuse]
bred in Fetters under
[the rail between the stiles]
Here we have bondage: “little ward,” “My task/ Work,” “the space I was am now in,” which I presume to mean the body, further labeled, “a column,” as if the body’s walls are restrictive. As “Fetters” is capitalized, I googled it and found that they are a leading manufacturer of bondage equipment. The bracketed material functions as self-reflexive editorial comment, “[my narrative excuse],” and “[or charge],” or, with the mention of Adept Lu, a Taoist leader reportedly born around A.D. 796, they also stand as entirely other strands of thought.
These weavings are overwhelming, but fascinatingly well-coordinated as the text both addresses and demonstrates constriction. Elsewhere, the theme of bondage is expanded to consider the puzzle-like constraints and freedoms of married life, “[I] gave my [shelter] to a woman.”
We have only one short passage that approaches a place of rest:
This only hope relieves me, that strife
Is another[r] name
in this light
elected / pains and slaveries
Toward the end of this section, we have no resolve, but what is perhaps a proposal for alleviating some degree of suffering:
plant it round with
Or sweet Lyric Song
The final section, "Penalty," demands much less from the reader. Many of these poems are titled, “Letters from Prison,” or “Prisoner’s Wreath.” Interestingly, there is no sense of guilt or wrong-doing in the prisoner’s voice, which is in keeping with the concept of living as its own prison.
Herbert is again at play here as the “Prisoner’s Wreath” poems reflect Herbert’s “A Wreath.” But, where Herbet’s poem identifies his “crooked winding ways” with the wrapping of the wreath, McCollough is confined within the circular structure: “This charcoal way surrounds my spot in dust.” Herbert offers the physical wreath to God as a temporary gesture, until he is able to live, “straight as a line, and ever tend to thee,” and, “give thee a crown of praise.” McCollough doesn’t address himself to a personal God or any singular other. Instead, he offers a generalized, “Leisure here at my expense try this leisure,” and I’m reminded again of the earlier,
This only hope relieves me, that strife
Is another[r] name
My own reading of Little Ease is not yet final. I expect it will be several months before it migrates from bedside table to bookshelf. For now, I remain simultaneously engaged by and ill at ease with its methodology. It would be easy to point out that such a work does not intend my ease, but I’m not ready to dismiss my desire for more connection through gesture and emotion and less through a demonstration of the intellect’s constraints.
Andrea Baker was the recipient of the 2004 Slope Editions Book Prize for her first book, like wind loves a window. She is also the author of the chapbooks gilda (Poetry Society of America, 2004) and gather (moneyshot editions, 2006). Raised in Florida, she now resides in Brooklyn, NY where her apartment is small and entropy upsets her. She maintains a blog at andreabaker.blogspot.com.