Star Lake

Arda Collins
The Song Cave ($18.95)

by Dobby Gibson

“Poetry seems especially like nothing else so much as itself. Poetry is not like, it is the very lining of the inner life,” wrote C.D. Wright. She could have been addressing the work of Arda Collins, an aeronaut of inner weathers whose poetry sounds like no one else’s more than her own.

Collins’s first book, It Is Daylight—which Louise Glück selected for the 2009 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize—has become somewhat of a cult classic for the way it explores the tense borderland between our public and private selves, the interlocution of its oddball personas, and the pleasures of its jittery surrealism. The house-bound paranoia of It Is Daylight has become only more resonant amid the pandemic and our violent, dystopian nation-state.

If you’re a fan of that book, Star Lake may take you by surprise: The archness and dark humor are gone, and in their place is a significantly sparer, more tender, and even vulnerable poetry. There are still flashes of humor, and more than a few traces of Collins’s signature disquiet, but there is also, well, quiet. It’s been fourteen years since Collins’s previous book, and it feels as if she has inscribed that time, and that silence, into the very text of Star Lake itself:

The trees and sunshine
and sky in the quiet town
where I live. Here
at the main intersection, this kind of summer day
reminds me of driving
and loneliness;
I’m grateful to still be myself.

As she writes elsewhere in the book, “it’s been decades since I started this poem / and now it’s tomorrow.” In many of the poems, one hears the poet’s gears re-setting, senses her searching for a viable peace.

While the diction is simple—nouns like “tree” and “sunshine” and “sky” populate Star Lake—Collins offers a look at what happens when a poet uses these elemental tools often, and in multiples. As Mahmoud Darwish wrote, “Extreme clarity is a mystery.” This is a book of intuitive gnosis, of Beginner’s Mind, and it’s a book in which the question mark, another tricky rhetorical device, also flourishes:

Where is the poem?
The wind is the poem!
I spend the day carefully.
At night, the night sky
comes in: past skies follow. Cold wind,
night wind, white wind,
blue wind, snow wind, slight wind . . .

In an odd way, the poems of Star Lake are even more introspective than It Is Daylight. Certainly, they are more personal, as in “My Mother’s Face”:

    I will have this argument
in my mind, under a blanket
on a light gray afternoon
exactly like my mother’s face.

Along with elegies for family there are inquisitions into the nature of the self, a suite of love poems, and a thread that explores Collins’s own place amid the diaspora following the Armenian genocide. All of this makes it a difficult collection to pin down—to its credit.

The book’s publisher, The Song Cave, has done important work as a kind of search and rescue operation for under-appreciated poets such as John Keene, Alfred Starr Hamilton, and Lionel Ziprin, alongside offering a steadier lineup of millennials and New York School types. In this, it feels like a good fit for Collins’s offbeat lyric making. “I still can’t believe the ending / of this book / isn’t what I thought / it was going to be,” writes Collins, also voicing the reader’s own thoughts at confronting this surprising, long-awaited second collection.

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