Adam Strauss
Review of Aaron McCollough's Little Ease
(Ahsahta Press, 2006)

Little Ease , the fourth book of poetry by Aaron McCollough, meditates on the difficulty of daily existence; it takes theory, especially Foucault and his book Discipline and Punish , and enacts the issues of that work in dense, lyrical poems that, far from taking refuge in the rarified regions of academia, makes clear that the site of the truth in the theoretical is the quotidian, not some otherworld which only exists within the binding of a book. Essentially, these poems ask and explore the question of how to live both as an individual with individual desires, and simultaneously take place in a world of others, one both alienating and necessary.

One of the glories of this book is that it doesn't eschew traditional tricks of the poetic trade: as much as or more than theory, the forerunners of these poems are the Metaphysical poets, especially George Herbert. As Herbert carefully sequenced his poems to form The Temple, so too are the poems in Little Ease arranged to form a structure which, via echoing, develops its central concerns. The first poems in the book, grouped and titled “Prologues From The Reformations,” are what, at first, appear to be rather oblique prose-poems, but later pieces make the beginning clearer. An example of this can be seen with the phrase “beyond the illusion of the container.” In this poem, a “perspective box” is being written about; in the next section of the book, “Superliminare,” there's the line “as treason           is most inward/inward           is most treasonous.” Chiasmus is a superb device for representing the uncontainable: with this figuration, there's no clear border between things; instead, the effect is that of permeability, in which things both pass in and out; far from delineating clear-cut cause and effect, chiasmus instead suggests equivocation. As well, the white-space is an apt enhancement of the notion of the uncontainable: the spacing suggests that the words in the poem have a movement of their own, not that they are locked in-place in their type-setting.

The uncontainable is further figured in the section titled “Sonnets Manquets.” These poems are not strict in their adherence to either the Petrarchan or Shakespearean variants of the sonnet but, unlike many poems published as sonnets which have no rhyme or resemblance to an octet and sestet or three quatrains and a couplet, these poems do, via rhyme not punctuation, adhere to tradition, as can be seen with the poem numbered 4:

is just greatness and marvel absolute

the kingdom where I’m listening to limbs:

my thirty dollar wheelbarrow brims

with rainwater (mosquito eggs) the fruit…

This poem does not adhere to the Petrarchan form for its entirety, but, far from being a sign of failure, the breakdown makes sense: to follow the pattern exactly would imply containment. The rhyming in this stanza is particularly impressive because it does much more than fit the ABBA rhyme-scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet; containment is punned upon structurally by the fact that “limbs” which, generally, demarcate a skeleton or container, are rhymed to “brims,” so enclosure is paired to expansion; furthermore, the slight spacing between “wheel barrow” and “brims” visually enacts expansion or brimming. The issue of containment is heightened further because the rhyme-scheme of the Petrarchan octet does not alternate rhymes, but sandwiches them, so there is containment occurring via placement. The outer rhymes of this quatrain, too, pair the notion of containable to uncontainable: “absolute” denotes completion, or containment, whereas “fruit” connotes an ongoing process—a seasonal development not finality, noun bordering on verb, as for there to be fruit there must be a fruiting.

The section “From The Restoration,” may, ironically given the fact that “restoration” suggests containment, manageability, be the most difficult section of the book: the words are often sparsely arranged all over the page, and many lines and phrases are bracketed. The brackets make sense because they connote a breaking in by signaling an alteration, insertion of another word or phoneme, in a quotation. The brackets, like chiasmus, suggest permeability. Within this unstable matrix, there are points of clarity, however, so the section does not render itself unintelligible. The progression of phrases is not clearly linear, but any given segment makes sound sense: “Some narrow place enclos'd [perspective box where] sight/Or rather flight/[reminds of soul].” Seeing happens within the socket of an eye, within a container, but sight is, essentially, an act which moves one outward, and hence there's the word “flight,” so the tension between inner and outer are made clear in these lines. The bracketing of the phrase “reminds of soul” is particularly interesting because it relates to one of the book's epigraphs: “…the soul is the prison of the body.” With brackets denoting breaking in, then bracketing the word “soul” suggests that the soul can have an altering, controlling effect on a body. If the word body were in brackets nearby too, then there could be the hinting that the body too has this power but, instead, it appears to be that the body cannot break out, only be intruded upon—is, as Foucault writes, a prisoner of the body. This section of the book could be pointlessly difficult, the brackets decorative rather than heightening the potential to mean. If one is patient, there's much to be found here.

The final section, “Penalty,” is most notable for its use of the form of Herbert's poem “The Wreath,” whose subject is, in part, law-breaking, as seen by the phrase “my crooked winding ways,” in which the end phrase of one line becomes the beginning of the next one, but with the key words forming a chiasmus: “as from home/home from,” for example, in the poem titled “Prisoner's Wreath. Unlike the Herbert poem, these “Wreaths” do not have the same end-words for the beginning and ending lines, so the form this piece is modeled on plays up the sense of being uncontainable which earlier chiasmus has indicated. Herbert's poem, in completing that circle, lessens that effect, and makes the device emphasize neatness. It's lovely to see McCollough find a model for a form and then skillfully depart from it to his own ends. Like Herbert's poem, in which the poem's form cleverly subverts its content, obeying rules even as its speaker claims disobedience, the poems in Little Ease strike an ideal balance between sincerity and cleverness.