If someone had the gumption to go around and ask everyday Americans to name a poem, nearly all of them would certainly supply an answer. One might hear, as a reply, Poe’s “The Raven” or Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred” or Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (though this last may be mistakenly referred to as “The Road Less Travelled”). But if this same pollster were to ask these citizens to name a single volume of poetry, a collection, how many would be able to come up with a title? It’s easy to imagine that, with the exception of books named after a single poem (e.g., Eliot’s The Waste Land or Ginsberg’s Howl), many would remain silent here.
Yet, as we know, poets spend a great amount of time organizing their collections, meticulously arranging poems in a particular order to communicate a particular arc or narrative with their book. But we’ve been taught to celebrate individual poems, not collections, which means that there is a whole category of creative expression being largely ignored. This is a shame because one of the great potential joys of a poetry collection is the way in which poems speak to each other and even rely on each other, the way these connections can transcend the power of single poem.
Take, for instance, Carl Adamshick’s Saint Friend, a collection made up of only ten poems. Because of the limited number of poems here, Adamshick’s arrangement is particularly important to the success of his book. But, as stated above, poets spend a considerable amount of time making these choices, and Saint Friend benefits not just from the impact of single poems, but from the cumulative effect of all of them.
The collection opens with the wonderful poem “Layover,” a seven-page meditation on airports, friendship and lost time. After noting, in the opening line, that “They keep paging Kenneth Koch at the airport” (a line that clues us into the sly humor of the piece), Adamshick turns contemplative:
It is yes until I die. And when I die,
I want to be paged once a day in an airport
somewhere on this earth, so people
will think I am just running late or lost,
will think I am in transit, sad about the last
embrace, or sad to leave the city of snow
and bridges, or eager to land, to walk
the small wooden streets of my house.
One city, once a day. I wish that for everyone.
An unknown elegy briefly filling the ears
As the title suggests, “Layover” focuses on a narrator who is stuck between things, who can’t fly and must wait in a purgatorial realm of thought.
The next poem––even longer at sixteen pages––takes the persona of someone who most definitely did fly: Amelia Earhart. Entitled “Pacific” (referring both to the ocean into which Earhart disappeared and the adjective meaning “peaceful”), moves through much of Earhart’s life, including her stillborn sibling (“Could I live / through a loss like that,” she asks) and her father’s penniless death in 1930 (when she thinks of her “abandoned” father, “it is with pity, the emotion / a parent most fears”). Flying “above rainfall and cloud,” she can’t help but think, somewhat obviously, “One could disappear in this.”
The loss of a mythic figure is followed by the rueful (and 19-page long) “Near Real-Time,” which traces a month of death and life, of pain and sorrow. The narrator, cryptically recording the events of a February, declares, “You will never know life without death,” and that “hope has killed many,” and that “A plane will open its belly” and “drop / its luggage of explosives.” Appropriately, “The Mathematician,” the next poem, takes place, in part, “five weeks [after] Hiroshima.” “I know death is a friend,” the narrator says, “you can feel sorry with.” All these poems––all narratives in some fashion––lead to “A Map to Now,” which transitions the reader into much more elegiac and specified lyric pieces. Gone are the overarching stories and the length, as well as the personas. Instead, three short odes follow: “Emily,” “Michael,” and “Thomas,” each containing sad ruminations on pain and loss.
Saint Friend opens with a narrator in an airport, moves into the sky and looks down over the world, then, inevitably, like Earhart’s plane––or any flight for that matter––it comes back to earth again, to people, before rising again with the last two poems. “Everything That Happens Can Be Called Aging” and “Happy Birthday” lift the collection up, ending it on a shyly optimistic note. “I have more love than ever,” we’re told. “Our kids have kids soon to have kids. / I need them. I need everyone / to come over to the house, / sleep on the floor, on the couches / in the front room.” The narrator needs “it all flying apart.” The final poem goes as far out as possible, beginning, beautifully: “The universe is infinite / and somehow expanding. / If you believe what people say / then you believe each of us is at its center, / and if it’s your birthday today, / it will also, somewhere, / be your birthday tomorrow.”
Adamshick’s poems need each other, not because they’re not good on their own, but because the combination of them, one after the other, creates tensions and echoes that only exist when they’re presented in a collection. This sort of mutual illumination is common in well-written and capably organized collections, and it’s a vital component of Saint Friend. Recently Tony Hoagland published a book of essays entitled Twenty Poems That Could Save America. A noble effort, to be sure, but maybe, instead, we should come up with twenty poetry collections.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a regular contributor to The Millions,The Rumpus, and PANK, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Georgia Review, Colorado Review, Chautauqua, Necessary Fiction, Black Heart Magazine, Tarpaulin Sky, and Thrasher Magazine. He is currently in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is at work on a novel.