It is Daylight
Yale University Press
Collins’ debut collection is a labyrinth of canny insights and domestic interiors which reveal the speaker’s elaborate methodologies of hiding and self-exposure. Caustic and pithy indeed, as Louise Glück praises in the foreword, but the persona herein often strikes the reader as more defenseless than arch. In “Garden Apartments” the speaker is nearly incapacitated: “What if someone died, or got fired,/ or vomited alone in the middle of the night? . . . I was so ugly, I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to drive.” In “Bed Poem,” the speaker rejects “diagnosing plastic containers” and “planning a group library day/ with the hookers/” for giving faux-reassurance to another: “‘Futility is what’s keeping the horses alive!’”
One of the speaker’s greatest fears is that god’s arguments with Henry Kissinger have greater merit than the speaker’s own arguments with god. What else to do in this context but observe life with equal parts terror and excitement from within the enclosure of a house or car? These sites represent safe vantage points from which to speak, as well as laboratories in which the speaker dresses her wounds (“I can’t say I mind being flogged,/ but I also don’t do much else”) and reflects on the phantasmagoria of the natural world.
“Pennsylvania” exemplifies Collins’ refusal to pitch her tent in any one camp of contemporary poetics in favor of a poetic of formal inventiveness and play: “ . . . I woke up/ for what I hope/ will be the last time/ in Pennsylvania. It was early/ and the room was blue./ The eyes of the person/ lying beside me/ were also blue,/ and it was hard/ to make out/ the difference.” (Also from “Pennsylvania”: “When I was a small child, I tried to/ build a low stone wall/ like ones I had seen/ in my inner romanticism.”) The image, for Collins, holds sway: several of the poems, such as “Snow on the Apples” evocate the act of witnessing through image (this witnessing is displaced in “Over No Hills,” when a man with a “bow-legged cowboy walk” appears: “He’s our witness, how awful.”)
The truest joy and most perfectly imagined Platonic horror of It Is Daylight is sight. From “Not For Chopin”: “Listen to him describe what you would be like/ if you were blind, sitting in a chair . . . content, unable, unwishing, to recall desire, or sight.” Alternately, the speaker expresses the pleasure of “merely seeing” in “Parts of an Argument”: “I enjoy using my eyes without the idea that my sight is for anything. The limited image is carried into my mind while I breathe.” This poem gives rise to two thornily complex definitions, of god and heaven. Of god: “When I look at the sky, I know that the forceful feeling it produces is an interface of my mind with space and light, but I have trouble placing another entity in this configuration . . .” Of heaven: “I don’t believe in heaven, but I think heaven would have to do with acquiring knowledge like never before through interaction with the landscape and with other beings.” This speaker’s gaping skepticism is capable of making even desire into a monument of history. From “Neptune”: “The air is made out of statues and dead people./ This is why we have sex together.”
In a world where God needs to be invented (“Since/ there is no god, you have to be/ both you and god”) before becoming a figure for indecision (“I thought god would support this decision, but god seemed to be of two minds about it, and that also made me angry”), Collins’ has created a poetic dialogue wherein essentially nothing is taken for granted, not even the detritus of narrative (“The Goldilocks theory of the universe is in play”). The speaker evades ironic desperation by cleanly distinguishing between artificiality and truth, self and other, right and wrong. In “Dawn,” the speaker traces the psychopathology of a killer who mistakes a human for an animal: “He slit a zoo . . . It was only one calf./ It turned out to be a person,/ not a calf. The calf/ made sounds . . . Blood filled the grass . . . He hit the person in the face . . . He slaughtered a bear . . . It’s wrong to kill.”
Despite an occasionally uneven progression, there are more than enough unequivocal moments of true originality to orient the reader through Collins’ tundra of “unexpurgated/ soil and frost,” which both mourns and celebrates a life “yoked to the mantle/ of state/ violence/ and love indistinguishable/ from privacy,” such as the defiantly Galileo-esque moment at the end of “Pool #10” when the speaker asks to be beaten with a stick in order to issue her heretical version of heliocentrism: “Day is night! Day is night!”
Whether referencing sunlight, or another desired object altogether, one of the book’s most memorable lines, in “Central Park South,” is Collins’ simple formulation of the most basic desire of all: “I want it to be permanent.”
Virginia’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, The New Republic, Notre Dame Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She frequently contributes reviews to several publications, including ForeWord Magazine.