On Pain and Poetry
Little Ease by Aaron McCollough. (Ahsahta Press, 2006). 124 pp. $16.00
There is a level of comfort in using beautiful language to discuss disturbing subject matter. Audiences want calamities to be pretty, or not simply macabre. When unsettling truths are revealed through eloquent, aesthetically pleasing art—i.e. an unfairly imprisoned man describing his captivity with the eloquence of a poet—then the art seems to exert a kind of control over the offending act, exhausting it, exorcising some of its horror, and placing it at a less threatening distance away from the reader.
Aaron McCollough’s Little Ease does not work this way. McCollough has no interest in using his eloquence to dress up suffering, to distance the reader from uncomfortable truths, or to feign a wisdom that he doesn’t have. Although Little Ease is never morbid or gruesome, its unrelenting search for truth, for the juncture where pain and memory meet, presents a challenge for even the most devoted reader.
This is not to say that Little Ease isn’t well-written or a pleasure to read. It is, admirably so. Little Ease is an accomplishment of craft and style. It is a relatively lengthy, dense work that manages to never lose its linguistic tension. Through this spiraling collection of poems (that may or may not be a single cohesive narrative) and a corresponding variety of voices and tones, McCollough uses many of the structural troupes of contemporary experimental poetry—stuttered rhythms, multivalent diction, expressive typographical spacings, and intentionally elusive meanings—to convey a level of emotional resonance that is often missing from contemporary work.
The challenge for readers then becomes following where the language leads, as McCollough not only addresses suffering directly, but uses his full array of poetic gifts to uncover signs of it in even seemingly innocent places. This means that, like the prison-house for which it is named, Little Ease is—at times—cramped and rigid, almost confining in the concreteness of its subject matter. The eye that crafts the book is so perceptive that it sees signs of pain everywhere. That starkness forces the reader to adopt unnatural postures, leaving little room for the reader to breathe easily, let alone become truly comfortable. Yet, McCollough did not construct his Little Ease to punish. Instead, he seeks to use his creation to educate, edify, instruct, and enthrall his readers, all of which he ultimately succeeds at.
At its core, Little Ease is deeply invested in divisions, oftentimes investigating division in more and more minute detail until it reaches the almost-atomic severances that exist within personal identities, coherent ideas, even within single words. Much of the book is devoted to exposing these fissures, to showing how much of what is considered whole (physically, spiritually, or mentally) is at least porous, or split clean through.
However, in this respect, McCollough goes a step beyond many other experimental poets. Instead of merely criticizing or destabilizing accepted notions of freedom, memory, or suffering (the main subjects of the book), McCollough constructs his own alternatives, new systems and definitions for these troubled terms. To this end, McCollough makes it the paradoxical work of his poetry and its repeated returns to division to deny the notion of separation. In creating the splintered world of Little Ease, McCollough recasts the imperfections and fissures of the experienced world as a commonality of existence, one that suggests a profound connection, closeness, and interdependence, rather than leaving us with disconnection and isolation. In the vision presented in Little Ease, the world is not simply split into discrete units. It is split so completely and so finely that the pieces have all pressed back together so that the parts are indistinguishable.
Thankfully, this is all more than mere philosophical busywork. McCollough makes sure that all of this rumination actually has a dramatic point, never weighing the book down with needless gravitas. This abstract focus also works because of the force of McCollough’s observational prowess. His eye for physical detail and knack for terse, expressive descriptions is so keen that at times the poems (many not named) don’t seem to be separate compositions as much as a single overflow of sketchy, yet evocative images. In “The First Poem of Jan Vandermeer” carefree youth is captured by an image of a “(camaro hood / propped up with a hockey stick)”. Aside from being immediately accessible and pleasantly odd, this image captures the fragility of youth and all of the lost innocence and hope with which it is associated. The poetic image is the foremost concern, and even as it runs seamlessly into the larger significance of the book as a whole, the mechanics of clumsy or obvious “meaning” are kept well out of sight.
By the end of the book, McCollough has twisted the explorations of the poems in Little Ease to lay out his final, and most daunting, challenge to readers: an uncynical (and atypical) optimism. Pure un-ironic hope, in the face of a world where suffering is the norm rather than the exception. Hope does not come easily or conveniently in Little Ease (nothing in this book is convenient), but it does come, as the wandering path drawn by the poems leads not out of darkness and into light, but further into darkness until the traveler can somehow see past the dark, or through it. For McCollough, the isolation and loneliness alluded to by the title of the book are painful—and he painstakingly catalogues them—but they are, in the end, not all we have.
A perfect example of this distressed optimism appears late in the book, in the stunning “Adam Names the Diseases”. Here, the titular diseases which afflict humanity are all given human names:
from the mountains between jerusalem
I see them kreutsfeldt jakob lou gehrig
before [my] eyes sad noysom dark in which
the bandage “reeks” the landscape has no term*
This connection, wherein the illness and afflicted are the same, blurs all borders, even the final ones between life and death / corporality and spirituality. As McCollough writes in the second stanza of the poem, “in living death in dying living lies” .
Even at the very fringe of human experience, McCollough chooses to do more with his poetry than merely deconstruct. As elsewhere in this book, his catalogue of careful images and meticulous phrases draw a strange, palpable optimism out of what—in a less wise work—could be simplistically chaotic. Here, division and incompleteness allow for access across seemingly impassable barriers. The afflicted can become the healer, and sickness is the only certain access we have to a cure. Here, again, McCollough takes an impressive risk: to propose a duality where the two halves interpenetrate so completely that the system ultimately isn’t a duality at all, but an integrated whole.
The implications of this hope (hard-won) and this duality (that really isn’t) could be headache-inducing, but McCollough avoids this problem by grounding the ideas in so many surprising little details that by the end of the book, these conclusions—as counterintuitive as they may appear—seem natural, even essential. In its original usage, Little Ease may have been a cruelly ironic name, but as the title for this collection it fits exactly. McCollough’s poetry does offer ease, even if it is an ease that can only be appreciated after all of the suffering that has come before, and clouded by the awareness that suffering may come again.
Reviewed by Steven Byrd
Steven Byrd recently received his MFA in poetry from NCSU.