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Witness, Appropriation, and Revelation
The Poetry of Philip C. Kolin
Devon Miller-Duggan

Perhaps the most profoundly twenty-first-century question in literature is who has the authority, let alone the right, to speak in the voices of Others or about the experiences of Others. The question itself is a product of our growing, and problematically incomplete, understanding that first, the Other has a voice and that this voice has an authority that the voice of the privileged does not and cannot have, and that, second, that voice has too often been catastrophically silenced. There is a reason dissertations will continue to be written addressing this tangle for decades to come. In truth, we may never produce a clear set of boundaries. Perhaps we should rest with the question, recognizing that the question itself is far more important than any pat answer or set of rules could be.

There is also the issue, raised tantalizingly (and very briefly) by Theodor Adorno in his 1955 collection of essays, Prisms, of whether, after Auschwitz, poetry can even be written without committing barbarism. According to that measure, there should be no poetry after the deaths of Emmett Till or Tamir Rice, or after any of the other hundreds of racial and ethnic atrocities we watch scroll across our screens day in and day out.

There is really no knowing what the famously mandarin Adorno meant. The word that is translated as “poetry,” Gedichte, is complex in itself and may only refer to lyric poetry. And Adorno himself emphatically retracted the version of the statement (that it would be impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz) that came to be repeatedly misquoted. But the idea, in any of its versions, that mass horror visited by humans on other humans somehow disables or renders uncivilized the making of certain kinds of art, is to re-­dehumanize humans. We can do that perfectly well without any help from Frankfurt School philosophers. To suggest that either the lyric or the narrative voices of poets be limited to their own narrow demographic locations of authority is to ghetto-ize poetry and poets. It is to silence the witness of art.

So when Philip Kolin makes a book of poems about the brutal murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 Mississippi, he takes on the full weight and complexity of all those questions about appropriation and propriety, as does every writer working with anguished, catastrophic material. It is definitely possible to get it wrong, most often by writing with the focus on the largeness and importance of the poet’s confrontation with emotionally ravaging material. And here the issue of the Lyric Voice is crucial. Poetry about historical catastrophe, about historical sin, needs the voice of witness rather than the voice of the heart’s bleeding. The material does the bleeding for the poet, and the poet’s feelings need to be, in W. D. Snodgrass’s sense, tactfully quiet. Happily, this is the approach Kolin is careful to take. It is the voice of witness that allows a ­privileged white male to speak ethically through and of the experience of Till and his family. It is a kind of confessional voice, but not of individual sin. It is a scapegoat’s confession, and it intends to change its readers’ lives, to lead them to something that might begin to approach redemption.

 

In Kolin’s poems, sometimes Till himself speaks—always from the grave’s time-­extend­­ing perspective: about his dangerous breech birth, about his Grandmother Alma, about his first absent and then dead father Louis and his mother Mamie, about whistling, about being a ghost, about Dwight Eisenhower, about the Freedom Riders and Viet Nam and Dr. Martin Luther King, about Chicago, about Trayvon Martin, about becoming a patron saint in the struggle for real progress. In the book’s final poem, “The Canonizaton of Emmett Till (August 28),” Kolin inscribes the murdered child onto the scroll of the sacred:

In Mississippi, apart from the natural
order, they filled you with gashes and holes—
you wore a Pentateuch of wounds.

You share a feast day with
St. Moses the Ethiopian,
the patron saint of the mother continent.
Demoniacs also tried to invade
his flesh with the enmity of pikes
and the pride of fullers’ clubs,

But you bled more.

Earlier, Till himself proclaims “Emmitt’s Second Resurrection:”

I have come back
from eternity
for a second chance

to tell my tongueless tale

and claims a common bloodline in “Emmitt Till to Trayvon Martin”: “You could be my grandson… / Our bodies became witnesses / to crimes we did not commit.”   

The major accomplishment, though, of Kolin’s poems, both those in which Till speaks and in which he is spoken of, is to make the voice of a charming and already angry fourteen-year-old boy break the reader’s heart with its spark and life. He carries a Woolworth wallet with magazine pictures of pretty white girls he knows he will never meet, he wears a fedora he believes changes him from “…some stuttering Bobo…” into “…a man / waiting for the world to wink back.” In “Emmett Till on Whistling,” the boy asks “Did those bigots think our breath or lips polluted / their sanctified white air?” In “Had I Lived,” Till claims “…I would have worn sunglasses / like Stokely Carmichael, or Tiresias,” and goes on to predict that

I would have married a Senegalese girl named Ouida
who escaped the slaver’s lash
300 years ago,
her eyes wise as pomegranates.

Too often, saints become as bland and generic as the plastic statues that are supposed to recall them. This Emmett Till is not a composite of all murdered black men and boys. He is specific, vivid, opinionated, real, even as he is contextualized by figures ranging from Dr. Martin Luther King to Mahalia Jackson and historicized by his conversations with Trayvon Martin.

Kolin’s earlier collection Departures (Negative Capability, 2014) is also rich with meditations on history, race, southern-ness, God, grief, family, and love. The book’s first section, “Childhood Encores” takes an adult’s bluntly accepting view of the disjointed weirdnesses of childhood’s perceptions: angels, sugar, and hominy all populate a Delta Christmas; a feverish child tries to inhabit a Dr. Seuss book; an aunt makes up stories about an archangel and puppies to explain away the terrible noises of domestic abuse in an upstairs apartment; a legally-blind cousin is drafted toward the end of World War II and dies in Luxembourg; a black man becomes famous for his association with Enrico Fermi because of the inconceivability of a black man learning physics. As the voice in these poems tracks its own growth, the speaker decides to major in English in order to “…learn how to be polite / in front of cats…”, waves on a Memorial Day beach “…have gotten a lot smarter since 1776…”, and a subversively feminist teacher at what seems to be a Catholic women’s college teaches her students to find “…archangels in the margins.”

The book’s second chapter, “Men and Women in/out of Love” also combines bitterness and affection. It speaks, for the most part, of women. Brides “layered in Vermeer slips and petticoats…” leave gardens full of wilted corsages; an eighteen-year old light-skinned black woman is punched by the white man sitting next to her on a bus when he notices that she is trying to “pass”; a woman dates a succession of wrong men and ends up staring at empty picture frames and reflections of her own wrinkles in shattered mirrors. History intrudes here, too, in the young black woman; in Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretary longing for her lover, FDR, even as she works during the days for his wife; in Katherine Hepburn, whose voice sounds like Mrs. Roosevelt’s and whose loves also leave her alone; in Sylvia Plath; in Queen Victoria. If these poems too often speak directly to their subjects as if those women needed their lives explained to them, they are nonetheless full of respect and honest curiosity, clear attempts, as are the other poems in the section, to sort out and map the lives of women who did not conform to the norms of their times. The heroine of the section, though, is the not-famous Miss Dottie, a Church Lady extraordinaire:

Miss Dottie thinks God is a gentleman
As she arranges perfectly bound hymnals
In a row before the sanctuary.
He always rewards good manners, she insists,
And his order of service saves us
From the embarrassment of spontaneity.

How is this bulwark of Churchly Manners the section’s heroine? Because she can hear “…flowers growing in his voice…”, believes the Holy Spirit is God’s florist, and it is she who “perfume[s] / The altar for Sunday morning services.” While Miss Dottie would probably disapprove of sneakers beneath servers’ robes and acolytes with tattoos, or just not know what to make of them, God, the Holy Spirit, and church are the homes of her heart, and her heart sings and dances with them.

The book’s third section, “Obsequies,” opens with a funeral rite for fall leaves that concludes with the simultaneously blunt and whimsical question, “Is recycling reincarnation?” This may be the book’s central question, since all of its explorations of histories constitute re-cycling back to memories, individuals, and experiences, which does re-incarnate them—even the fallen leaves have a new kind of life, of incarnation, on the pages. Some poets revise while they recycle, but the poems in Departures reincarnate their subjects by turning them over and over, paying close, thoughtful attention. It is the sort of reincarnation that was implicit in the famous nineteenth-­century Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz’s assignments where he sent students home with simple specimens and directions to write ten pages of close description of the leaf or feather or preserved fish, then sent the same students home the following day and the day after with the same specimens and the same requirements for ten more pages. The story has him greeting his exhausted, terrified students on the fourth day with some version of “Now that, gentlemen, is Biology!” If paying attention to specimens in a thousand ways is biology, it is also, surely, a form of reincarnation. The poems in “Obsequies” turn their subjects this way and that, paying attention to and conversing with their subjects, which include Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. “Waiting for Beckett” mentions that a cord (in this case a “sexton’s cord”) can be used to lasso and retrieve a breach baby, an image that also appears in Emmett Till’s introductory poem, and ends with a lovely, cheeky, truth-telling pun:

The train was late;
The station so lonely.
Thousands waited for
The posting of yesterday’s schedule.
It’ll be on time.

The same mordancy—a mixture of frustration, rage, and understanding—pervades the section, especially the group of poems about New Orleans, Katrina, and the hell of the Superdome. “The Slaver Superdome” begins, “Herded down like the black sheep / Of internet America / They were sealed in the belly…,” so that the infamous stadium becomes, all at once, a slave ship, a ­sacrifice-consuming god, and Jonah’s fish. The poem ultimately chooses the slave ships as its controlling image, ending:

The slaver still sails across a sea of grief.
It is rigged again for the journey
In sister and brother ships
Docking in Houston, Detroit, Chicago.
Written on every manifest:
Destiny.

This is a confession, an irony, and a statement of grief, the result of paying hard, repeated attention.

The section ends with “Passover in the Camps,” in which Kolin weaves an italicized almost-Haggadah between stanzas of explanation and commentary about aspects of the Final Solution. This is a lot to take on, and the poem doesn’t succeed on the same level as Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek” (I’m not sure any Holocaust poem by an Anglophone writer does), but it manages to bring an almost impossible mixture of biblical commentary and midrashic insertion, factual history, and sheer anguish together into something that achieves grace as it builds to an act of contrition.

After the ending of “Obsequies,” the only place left for the book to go is “Revelation.” Even with Wallace Stevens making an appearance, this is the most explicitly Christian of the book’s sections, including poems titled “Adam’s Three Gardens,” “PECATA MUNDI,” “Fish,” and “Mother Teresa’s Watch.” The same ironic knowing, a form of loving, pervades it. Adam’s third garden is populated with “…blood-seared thorns and stargazer lilies / pressed into a crown: God calling us / back to paradise.” “PECATA MUNDI” is a list poem, not unpredictably, but the list itself is full of twists and wise surprises: “…loincloths, recriminations, wounded tongues, / …firstlings with slit throats, anger’s mark”— and ends with “thin souls” selling their eyes for “rich men’s buttons.” Its revelation is that the world is damaged and self-damaging. This may not be a revelation most readers find surprising, but it is one that affirms our experience of a world that resists recycling and can’t make its mind up about reincarnation, let alone Incarnation.

The section, and the book, close beautifully with a poem about a secretary, a woman. Though there are an increasing number of male administrative assistants, the field is still very much dominated by women, and, like faith and poetry, is one of the things that keeps the world functioning. Kolin’s secretary is “…martyred by pinstriped despots…”, but perseveres in the face of the world’s male “rancor” because “…she [knows] why God made her” and “[f]rom her seventh floor she [can] almost see / the Beatific vision.” It is amazing, and a large piece of grace, how often we manage to survive our histories and our griefs on the frail strength of an “almost.” It is that “almost” that drives these two books by Philip Kolin.

 

Devon Miller-Duggan teaches creative writing at the University of Delaware. Her poetry has been published in Rattle, Shenandoah, Margie, Christianity and Literature, and Gargoyle.

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