(Poets and Poetry in America)

To read Michael Collier is to confront a series of contradictions. Although he was part of the generation that came of age during a decade of intense social and political activism, a generation caught up in the agenda of civil rights, women’s rights, and the peace movement, Collier’s poetry speaks of a fascination with the domestic landscape of his own childhood. His vision recalls Edwin Arlington Robinson’s compassionate portraits of the misfits and eccentrics of Tilbury Town.

Although he has worked as an activist on issues ranging from local education reform to environmentalism, Collier writes verse that seldom touches such hot-button contemporary questions but is rather focused on the unsuspected dramas that occur next door and down the street. More interesting, despite his academic background, Collier writes verse that is accessible, gently musical, and inviting. Reassuringly immediate, such verse exploits the natural inflections and collisions of sound that occur in colloquial English. Collier finds such unadorned language sufficiently musical to sustain the rich tones of verse. More notable, his verse forsakes the expected academic posturings of ironic distancing and cynicism; Collier’s vision is at once compassionate and humane, exhibiting a depth of emotion for his characters, who exist along the margins of the ordinary.

Collier is clearly fascinated by things, by gizmos and machines, by the sheer mechanical complex of the contemporary world: “I’m a consumer,” he has said. “I like things. I’m fascinated by the mechanical world.” Collier is ultimately, however, tuned to the subtler interior worlds of those who come in contact with such machines—their vulnerabilities and eccentricities amid the overwhelmingly technical culture of the modern world.

The Clasp, and Other Poems

The opening poem of The Clasp, and Other Poems, “Ancestors,” sets Collier’s agenda: He admits that he descends from village dentists, and the poem captures those long-ago, often difficult surgical excavations into the “fleshy rose/ pulsing in the root like the heart’s/ faintest hint.” By comparing the rotted tooth to the heart, Collier offers the image of the clumsy dentist’s painful surgeries as fitting metaphor for the work of the poet, necessarily rooting out the painful experiences of the heart, explorations that may seem barbaric but are essentially therapeutic. Despite being barely in his thirties at the time of this collection’s writing, Collier clearly felt the gravitational pull of time, the uneasy responsibility of memory, and the heavy intrusion of recollection.

These poems exist simultaneously in two tenses, crossed by the shadows and dreams where the forgotten and the neglected persist: “I don’t believe that what we lose/ is lost forever.” Collier draws on those occasions when the difficult past unexpectedly resurfaces: rummaging among old photographs, conducting otherwise innocuous conversations, being suspended delicately between sleep and wakefulness, ministering to an ailing loved one.

In the poignant “Eyepiece,” Collier struggles to glimpse the moon through a neighbor’s telescope, only to find his view unexpectedly blocked when the scope snaps shut. Such denial of a fuller view unexpectedly compels him to remember his college roommate’s suicide and to concede how, eventually, everyone will similarly, suddenly, inexplicably disappear. Despite the heavy pressure of the past, the persistence of memory is revealed without sentimentality or melodramatic anxiety. Musically, the poems are executed with languid sounds, with rich, long vowels and rolling consonants in a meticulous orchestration of stresses and syllables that effect a quiet, hushed reading appropriate to verse that exists on the border between past and present.

The Folded Heart

Collier’s second collection, The Folded Heart, reinforces the premise of his first: There is no larger perspective than that of the personal past. As the title suggests, here is the gift of Collier’s heart, investigations into his past that are neatly, precisely fashioned (folded) within the lines of polished verse. Gathered here are recollections drawn from Collier’s childhood and adolescence, narratives of his family and his Arizona neighbors, episodes that are cast in verse not to indulge nostalgia or inflate ego but rather to explore the dimensions of each experience.

Few poems are written in the present tense, although “Tonight” is a beautiful exception, in which the poet considers the view outside his office window. The mood of the rest of this collection is consistently retrospective and somber. Careful detailing makes vivid a past that Collier, distanced in time from the events, finds nevertheless pressing and immediate. The sound of the poems is appropriately gentle, a weave of soft and rolling sounds that quietly create rhythms through the light beat of syllables, one stanza frequently flowing uninterrupted into the next without the harsh intrusion of punctuation.

As though following William Carlos Williams’s dictum “no ideas but in things,” Collier is able to fashion a symbolic landscape without heavy-handedness. For instance, in “Lagoon,” he recounts a boyhood episode when he accessed a closed golf course to steal lost balls and was chased by a guard dog, whose pursuit was ultimately curtailed by the course fence. What does the dog symbolize? Under Collier’s manipulation, the dog becomes a multilayered symbol that suggests more than it means: It may represent lost youth, the thwarted hand of authority, the uselessness of rules for a boy, the shattering intrusion of the dangers of the adult world, or, perhaps, the sheer thrill of disobedience. Thus, Collier ranges over his adolescence—recollections of performing in a third-grade theater production, purchasing a pigeon from a crafty neighbor, playing air guitar, skimming a dead bat...

(The entire section is 2445 words.)