Book Review: It Is Daylight by Arda Collins (Reviewed by Andrew Chen)

It Is Daylight by Arda Collins
Yale University Press, April 2009
Review by Andrew Chen

This past May, Arda Collins, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, came to the University of Chicago as part of the Poem Present series, reading from It Is Daylight, her first collection of poems. Tall and thin, with an almost adolescent lankiness, she possessed the gentle incertitude of an awkward teenage girl. Her soft, charming monotone matched her appearance and demeanor as well as her poetry of timid surveillance and meek action, at times ironic and at others strikingly emotional. Her poetry is a result of much craft and control; the anxiety and animation in the poet’s voice carefully ebbs and flows, coupled with an irony that manages to remain connected and personal as part of a crafted persona. This was evident as much in her voice as it is on the pages of her collection.

In her foreword, Louise Glück writes, “Collins has invented a persona: Welcome to my world, the first poem seems to say, and for the next ninety-two pages, we are her mesmerized audience—nobody escapes.” Collins’ poems possess a certain hypnotic quality that affects us acutely. Her images are effortless, quiet, and in their lulling quality, unexpectedly beautiful. In “The Sound Of Peeling A Potato” she opens,

Polished shoes, and the world shines in them like a heaven.
Green grass on a sunny November afternoon
and the Leaning Tower of Pisa just in sight.

From the very start of the poem, Collins gives us simple, tested images and constructions. She uses images of grass, heaven, and Pisa, and situates the reader by simply stating the weather, month, and time of day. Rooting the poem in such simple imagery from the start, she runs the danger of being cliché at times; later in the poem—“Lovers at a wintry lake / covered at night with snow.” Again, the observational images of love, nature, and weather, and the cleanness of language seem to toe the line of simple reiteration of what poets began writing centuries ago and what many poets today have largely abandoned.

Yet Collins is doing more than that; she exhibits an understanding of her contemporary readers through her command of these pleasantly unassuming images and their gentle, lulling effect on us. She may be referring both to the lovers and to what has generally come before in the poem when she writes, “They’ll wait five hundred years / while they sit and listen to a potato being peeled.” Collins writes of a quiet half century that passes, an epic passing of time, juxtaposing it with the epically mundane things—the sound of peeling a potato, for example—that fill up such time. Now we begin to understand her project and her use of the images and language, now banal and overused, which have filled the epic space of poetic history. And because of this lulling continuum between the mundane and the epic, the poem’s end is striking:

Not for all the blue sky will they know,
not for all the summer grasses, not for the creamiest cheek
that turns its lips the same forever for a lover on train over a hillside.

A sweeping portrayal of humanity comprises the greater part of the poem, a human history quietly filled with routine tasks—which are reinforced by the outward banality of the imagery. Against this background, these blue skies, summer grasses, and the rambling, constricted construction of the final line are unexpectedly salient. As Glück predicted, we are mesmerized by Collins’ simplicity—and by the end of this mesmerizing process we are struck by her precise, attentive reinvention of these constructions and images.

Yet readers may encounter some difficulty with Collins’ crafted persona. Sometimes Collins’ insistence on outwardly trite and unspectacular images gives us the sense that Collins is hiding from herself, afraid to commit to any specific vision of self and of the persona she seems to want to craft. In “Spring” she employs images and objects that reappear throughout the collection, such as food, lights, and houses. The persona of the poem seems to define herself against and in relation to this recurrent imagery. At the start of the poem, she is “making a roast”—producing something tangible that is hers, a physical stamp of the self in the world. Yet soon thereafter, “When I went back in the house, / the roast was burned black / and the bread was hard,” and here what had been her marker of self is ruined. Even though she “was getting hungry,” she at this point instead “felt afraid / of seeing the refrigerator light go on.” At the end of the poem, her decision to leave the house and purchase food represents an intermediary place between cooking for herself and going hungry, thus providing an intermediary place of self-definition against these images of food. The poem finishes,

I could get in the car right now
and drive all night,
as soon as I had a sandwich.
Turkey, tomato, mayo,
Swiss, lettuce. It was exciting.
I still had my shoes on. I drove to a truck stop.
It was bright inside and I loved the world.
I bought a sandwich and ate it from my lap while I drove.
When I pulled up to my house it was quiet.

Even in these last lines the persona seems to change her mind about what is vital to her own identity. Despite her fear of light in her own home, she is stimulated by the light of another building in the world. The car she drives becomes an intermediary and ambivalent place of inhabitance, just as the sandwich is an intermediary object of self. Then when she pulls up to her home, there is an ominous note of uncertainty. Throughout the entire poem, Collins continually redefines herself in terms of these other things, always noncommittal and always rejecting old notions and replacing them with new, less assured ones; in redefining these images and notions and sprinkling the self amidst them, she manages never to commit to any particular identity or trust any portrayal of self. She is constantly in between, in suspension.

At other times, we observe the persona’s explicit unwillingness to commit. In “It Is Daylight” Collins writes, “Many houses are abutted by hedges. / I don’t like this, but I wouldn’t take them away” and later, “I felt somber and excited about to go into my house”—a blatant paradox. Similarly in “Garden Apartments,” “They were basically ugly. / It’s no one’s fault though” first qualifies her judgment with “basically” and then makes a point not to blame anyone, almost apologizing for her statement.

It seems as if this young poet is searching still, searching for a semblance of self-understanding within an emotional and physical place. She hides herself sometimes and flaunts herself at others, but in the end we are left wondering what Collins wants us to do with this volatile and charming but ultimately idiosyncratic persona. Despite the wonderful craft and command of irony Collins so clearly possesses, we may just have to wait for her next collection for any sort of commitment to a defined self. Until then, however, readers with a certain level of patience will be quite content with It Is Daylight.

Andrew Chen is a third-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where he studies English. He writes mostly poetry but tries to branch out as much as he can. He is a contributing editor for The Midway Review as well as a member of the editorial board of Euphony, which he likes very much. He grew up in New Jersey and spends as much time there as he can afford.

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