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Michigan Bookmark: “Appearances” functions as a spiritual guide of sorts for the non-believer

Saddle Road Press, 2017

Michael Collins’ second collection of poems, Appearances, functions as a spiritual guide of sorts for the non-believer.  The poems follow Collins’ trips to an unnamed harbor park “where the temporal opens to the depths” and the writer is “daily stumbling onto tiny mysteries.” Collins’ meditative approach to life’s mundane rituals stands out among contemporary poetry collections, begging philosophical questions of the reader and making subtle pleas for conservation along the way.

In the harbor, the natural and built worlds meet, and Collins revels in his encounters with small creatures like ducks, pigeons, crabs, and fish; as well as fishing boats, children playing baseball, and even garbage clinging to the rocks and mud at low tide.  

We are each ourselves at the harbor: Runners run, readers read, children play, I wander within myself within the world

Those lines from the poem “Esse In Anima” offer a purpose for his daily jaunts: to find the self and one’s soul among all the outside noise. 

For Collins, the soul he’s looking for is composed not of primordial stuff, as in many Judeo-Christian conceptions, but of worldly images of the stunning and mundane alike. In the poem “Portrait of the Soul,” for instance, we encounter the utility of the built world:

The harbor’s a flurry of work: juggernaut mowers crop the lawn, bushes are trimmed, the sand is combed and brushed away from the walkways, a team sweeps and lines the clay courts, boats bustle with gossip and cleaning

Though Appearances is unique in its meditativeness, there is a quiet ecological argument underpinning Collins’ poetry: If these creatures and settings have beauty, they are worth saving. Or, as Collins phrases the concept in the poem, “Nature:”

A dragonfly menaces the curious, gatekeeper to this rough, slumbering sanctuary where nature redreams itself, within human construction. I look in; I do not trespass

The wisdom in poetic attention is akin to the wisdom in environmental stewardship, Collins argues, and that is to notice, without disturbing, what lives.

This is not to suggest that Collins naively treats nature as some peaceful idyll. Beginning with the first poem in the book, “Poem for a Predator,” Collins grapples with the violence that persists in the natural world.  “Do you hate me or crave me past sanity?” he asks. 

Either causes the pleasant and polite to wolf down others’ lives.

There is a brand of violence in soulless politeness, he argues here, and when he writes the following:

My soul has no use for this human kindness today, wants to gaze through the surface of this water, the overcast sky’s mirror

Somewhere in this tender space between sentimentality and bitter observation Michael Collins’ poems find their quiet purpose.

John Freeman publishes poetry under the name "Cal Freeman." He's the author of the book Brother of Leaving, and the chapbook, Heard Among the Windbreak. His newest book, Fight Songs, is out on paperback.

Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.


Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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