To See World in the World
Salt Publishing, 2003
108 pp. $14.99
Reviewed by Stan Mir
To read Aaron McCollough’s second collection, Double Venus is to be struck by its sense of commitment to poetry—and a democratic polity. Double Venus is a rarity within contemporary poetry because of its insistence upon the individual’s commitment to social ethics. In other words, these poems insist we must develop the ability “to love the world beyond my bed beyond/my love.”
From where does this insistence spring? McCollough says “the city in the poet/is a fact/the city on the island/a fiction,” in the prefatory poem “National Hotel.” The locus is the individual perception, or more appropriately, vision. McCollough’s poetics are visionary because they see a path, though it is a path that requires each of us to be equally visionary in our reading and in our lives. One, as well as one’s society, would be lost without an adequate vision of the world. Throughout Double Venus, as well as McCollough’s first book Welkin, the Objectivists’ ethos comes to mind. Louis Zukofsky writes:
An Objective: (Optics) – The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus. That which is aimed at. (Use extended to poetry) – Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.
McCollough’s poems embody this approach in that he has “an objective” and his object, though subjective, is the tremulous bridge between personal and public life, but his focus contains the addition of metaphysical insight one would find in the work of George Herbert or Richard Crashaw. In section 7 of “Democrack Pistols” the poet writes:
where man sees his treasure he says
there shall he also
place his heart (I think, like a cobble).
Rightly, the cobble calls to mind labor, or, how one pursues reward or salvation for the effort one places in his/her endeavors. There is a correspondence between Double Venus and George Herbert’s defining text The Temple, which charts the struggle of his desire to give himself up to God. Herbert’s poem “Employment (I)” begins with these lines, which are a fitting comparison to McCollough’s desire as well, “If as a flower doth spread and die,/Thou wouldst extend me to some good.” In comparison, Aaron McCollough’s work may not demonstrate the desire to give himself up to God exactly, but it certainly shows his determination, while modest, to surrender himself “to some good.” Neither Herbert nor McCollough ever forget there is a fallible factor in all of this; that is, human life is a precarious scenario.
But, it is not just about admitting this instability exists, is it? In order to see the treasure we must engage our lives, perhaps like Gandhi, and run the risk of being a “dirty humanist,” as the poet puts it, who has
…uttered that I under/stood not;
things too wonderful for me
and look outside
the work of history
the world works on
outside the move of history
and also it does not
No matter where one lives, work will have to be done, so it may as well be a type of work that involves love and appreciation. In a recent Harper’s article written by Mark Slouka entitled, “Quitting the Paint Factory: On the Virtues of Idleness,” there is a dichotomy of work and idleness explored that is compelling in relation to McCollough’s poetry. Slouka equates work with leisure in that it is sanctioned relaxation, but not relaxation that promotes any sort of contemplation. In other words, leisure is what the CEO does in the off hours. Idleness, according to Slouka, which is free and costs nothing, enables us to think about how we feel or how we should act in a given situation. Idleness allows us time to make ethical choices. So, it is clear McCollough’s attention to work does not concern office drudgery. Labor, as put forth by Double Venus, shares qualities with idleness as put forth by Slouka. In other words, work should be preparation for something more profound than the Christmas bonus. In the case at hand it becomes the ability to, after “preparing restless,” know something like “the wealth I count is/ the slow pace of my wife.”
McCollough sets up he and his wife in a paradigm that could just as easily be anyone and his/her spouse when he writes:
she/virgil: the task is endless
i/virgil: make good my failure
she/virgil: hard work is the only remedy.
McCollough, echoing Virgil in The Georgics, declares hard work as remedy. Virgil wrote, “Truth to say, on all must labor be lavished, and all be forced into the furrow and tamed at a great price.” In Virgil’s case his poetry said people should return to the land after so much war and in doing so things may begin anew. McCollough’s case is not much different because he calls for us to go to ourselves after “running from it//every speeding minute,” as if we are the furrows Virgil refers to. It is this working into ourselves that promotes what the best moments of idleness offers, which is the ability to unveil “a heaven” hidden by “our American nation” that “switches sources.”
The fourth and title section of Double Venus has several poems that use mathematical equations as titles. In a general sense these titles derive from Benoit Mandelbrot’s concept of fractals that was conceived about 30 years ago. Fractals have since infiltrated many areas of thought. For example, finance, sound diffusion, image decompression, fluctuations of sea level, etc. This non-Euclidean geometry, according to Miroslav M. Novak in Thinking in Patterns: Fractals and Related Phenomena in Nature, unites often-disparate scientific fields by demonstrating a common underlying thread that casts light on the classification and characterization of events and processes. Significantly, McCollough finds another use for fractals in his poetry. By the time we reach the last section of the book we have been presented with many different threads of thought. What McCollough does, finally, is fuse his multi-faceted approach as he casts more light upon his earlier ideas.
In the penultimate poem, “[(-0.5+0.56i) chang ming, july 1999],” we find these lines:
what was I reading in the world
how bearing on
by which I was changed
enough to see world
in the world
in my own
It is not a far leap to say the goal of Double Venus is to show us how to contribute more to our society and “love the world… beyond my love.” Changming, written as one word, is the name of one of the practitioners of Falun Dafa persecuted, but it is also the name of a Shaolin Master from the late 19th – early 20th century. Chang Ming, written as two separate words as the poem’s title has it, is legendary because of his commitment to his martial arts discipline, which also is a combination of Buddhism and Taoism, even while he was avictim to persecution in the China of that period. In Double Venus this poem rings especially true because it embodies the ideal McCollough posits throughout the collection, which is a fierce commitment to self and world in order to be “changed/momently/enough to see world/in the world.”
Stan Mir lives in Rhode Island. His poems and reviews have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Fence, Meanjin, Rain Taxi, and Word for/Word.