Sunday, March 22, 2009

Self-Portrait With Severed Head by CD COLLINS

Self-Portrait with Severed Head
CD Collins
Ibbetson St. Press
Copyright 2009
Pages =56


A thoroughbred herself, CD’s dedication (epigraph) for the book underscores her love of contradictions and her canny sense of humor; not to mention her love of horses:

She ran with the heart of a locomotive,
On champagne-glass ankles.”
From a Washington Post writer on the death of Eight Belles
from fractured ankles.

The book’s production, with a violet and black cover of a dark-haired woman lying dead or unconscious and a woman on the upper-right holding a camera between her naked knees sets up the use of photography in the collection: four gorgeous abstract b&w photos marking the four sections: “Element,” “Spoken Songs,” “Incognito,” and “Prodigal.”
(The “Spoken Songs” section opens with an on-stage shot of CD at Berklee College of Music.)

In this book there is an almost perfect fusing or alternation between narrative memory, rhymed and unrhymed, and pop-culture imagery and dream. The musicality and the female presence or essence is strong. It’s like Chrissie Hynde’s wailing: “Gonna use my arms, gonna use my legs, gonna use my style….” And while CD sure knows how to spin a story and create beautiful metaphors in and around it, she herself never leaves the poem, as if it were a special room she won’t leave unlocked.

“I love the fragrance of grease
from exhaust fans
into the winter morning,
walking past on my way to the factory,
how steam billows into clouds
my hands
two blue stars
in my coat pockets.” P. 7, “Subtracting Down”

Hands, her hands, the labor of hands, is a popular theme in this book – used literally and metaphorically. As if, jolted from a nightmare or a surreal dream, CD always finds her own hands to recognize her humanity and reality of self. Eyes are the other mighty part of the body—as she says, “they shoot with a camera instead” – talking about hunters in “Moon Again.” Or, in the poem “Diamonds,” she writes:


are so necessary,
for cutting emeralds, rubies, glass
the perfect substance for the task.
Give me diamond chips in a velvet box.
I’ll grind them with my eyes to dust.”

And in the poem “Everyeye,” a signature poem for the collection, she writes:

“I can see but my eyes are closed.
I can see but I keep my eyes in my pocket.” P. 24

In the title poem, “Self-portrait with a Severed Head,” CD displays what Joni Mitchell once wrote was “the hope and hopelessness I’ve witnessed all these years….” It is an example of a brilliant juxtaposition that Collin’s uses to startle us into reflecting throughout the book:

At first she says: “To touch is to change.” And that freedom to love, to intertwine, to “finish a lover” as she says in a later poem, seems the essence of sensual bond and hope. But the poem ends with a very different image:

“I imagine all our cascading faces
smiling larger than ourselves,
fixed and absorbed through my eye,
and think how small
our souls must be by now.”

When hunters “shoot with a camera instead” this seems a metaphor for poetry also, for it is a means of survival and sometimes a way of the thief, capturing the world around him/her, when the world has no real choice but to be captured. That is also a way of describing the craft of poetry, I think, though others might disagree. And it also seems an allusion to the photos in the book that serve as exquisitely strange place marks.

Again in spoken songs, CD infuses her dry (maybe Southern?) humor into an epigraph: a popular joke to some in the world of celebrity tracking. But the joke serves only as the tip of a poem that is about much more. It’s called “The Blues.”

“If Mama Cass had given Karen Carpenter that ham sandwich, they’d both be alive today.”

I must admit, never having heard the joke, I had to giggle. It’s so absurdly funny the way we know that Mama Cass died on a ham sandwich and Karen Carpenter died of self-starvation.

The actual story of the poem intermixes memories of high school parties and her relationship to the boys, the boys that may or may not have been sent off to the Vietnam War.

“You needed to be smaller than him
so he could protect you,
Once he starved himself for a month,
eating only bananas.
He was a pacifist.
He looked like Jesus,
With his long hair and suffering face.” P. 32

She invokes the music of Abbey Road and Purple Haze, Janis Joplin
And the sit-com characters Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore…

“You listened to their voices,
Described them like wine.
At least they had voices,
you seemed to lose yours,
drinking White Russians in snowstorms, running fast….”

p. 31 The Blues

And then the joke at the beginning; the fateful twist of Mama Cassie’s choking and Karen Carpenter’s anorexia comes down to hunger, famine even, or cannibalism that we all eat each other’s faces and images and stardom somehow: Or want them, or sacrifice for them. There are martyrs and there are Queens and it doesn’t matter when you’re young, you “eat them” because you actually want, as CD has brilliantly and through years of evolution found, her own voice.

“It was Karen singing,
in the end she looked like your old boyfriend, Jesus.
You are starving,
And she is singing,
And this is what you ate.”

p. 33 The Blues

“Spanish Mountain” – one of my favorite more abstract poems takes the landscape and objects of a foreign land as metaphors for other things: For me, it gives the section a fine Mediterranean glaze:

“Roof tiles are candysticks
Sun is white smoke
God is brown dust
Marble chip is dawn shard
Sleep is colossus.”

p. 35 Spanish Mountain

There are fairies in the gloaming, there are her mother’s old dogs she hears over and over despite their absence, there is always a CD finding her heart against a severed head but dangling that head into so many road maps we can barely fathom it. She is one of the best poets at word play I have read in years and her feminine intuition is matched by her great respect for the grounded strength of the real world. I would highly recommend you read this book, from Doug Holder’s indie operation that gains depth, range and excellence every year in its writers works. Brava to CD Collins.

Lo Galluccio is a writer and vocal artist who lives in Cambridge, MA

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