The Pragmatic Stylist: On Michael Collier’s My Bishop and Other Poems

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My Bishop and Other Poems
Michael Collier
(University of Chicago Press, 2018, $18.00, 81 pp)

Some poets write in a style so consistent as to be almost instantly recognizable. Think Brenda Hillman’s shifts in linguistic register or Charles Wright’s philosophical intonations. Such stylists use a pervasive mode, phrasing and diction to create a reliable framework through which we experience the world of the poem – the poet’s world. One might say the advantage of this level of stylistic consistency is that we get to learn, in some detail, just how the poet finds meaning in the surrounding environment. How does the poet think? The style will tell us. The trade-off to the stylist’s approach is that any peculiar thing, event, or relationship encountered by the poet risks losing its peculiarity under the pressure of the stylist’s need for particular language. Style becomes, in effect, a solution to the problem of how to finish a poem and a reproducible lens through which we see the world as the poet does.

I am tempted to add Michael Collier to the list of notable stylists. He is a poet of considerable appetite for description, as his writing has long showed, and he leverages an observational mode to create strongly suggestive language that often strives for metaphorical impact on a large scale. His attention to the external world’s details would seem to mitigate the effect of sameness created by his stylist’s lens. By directing our attention to his carefully drawn descriptions, he implicitly prompts us to find the other elements of language in his poems that make them resonate with meaning. We become more active participants, since the poems often lack extensive assertions that could more quickly tell us how to read them. But this consistency cultivates a kind of personal reserve on Collier’s part. We receive the finely described world of the poem, yet sometimes wonder where Collier is in all of it. However, in his new collection, My Bishop and Other Poems, he writes in a variety of styles, and in doing so, draws our attention to the value of letting the poem’s subject determine the style, revealing himself as much more of a pragmatist searching for a broader expressive palette.

“My Bishop” claims the front spot in the book title, but it’s notable that eleven poems precede “My Bishop” in the order of the collection. Some readers may peruse the Table of Contents to look for interesting sounding titles, then skip to a selected poem, but it’s worth reading this book front to back. Doing so establishes familiarity with his descriptive mode employed in these lyrics and one prose poem, and how they allow his thematic concerns to emerge. Collier composes “A Wild Tom Turkey” as one long sentence. Filled with subordinate clauses and present participles, it proceeds in measured fashion, so that the different aspects of the tom turkey’s mating behavior are carefully presented. The turkey appears

across the road brewing his voice

with deeper and deeper percolations
of what sounds like “I’ll fuck anything
in feathers,” stopping now and then
to display his fan and perform a wobbly
polka, chest heavy as he breasts forward
but never closing on the hens who stay

in wary steps ahead, conversing only
with themselves, their spindly heads foraging…”

The drama develops until the male is “both bull and matador” as he forces the hens deeper into the grass. The poem concludes with something unseen but which “sounds like murder.” Collier writes with a great deal of confidence here. Besides some light metaphorical treatment of the tom and his behavior, the poem is a single swath of description. Without the speaker strongly characterizing this activity, we are drawn to identify the significance ourselves. A problem with male sexual behavior that’s relevant to humans as well? A depiction of power and how it invites abuse? The poem is written as an invitation to readers to determine its greater import themselves. If one is left wanting anything at the conclusion of the poem, it’s more time with the speaker himself – who is this person making such loaded observations?

Collier employs this technique to more complex effect in “Jefferson’s Bees,” a four part sequence that includes reported speech from his mother, a summary of Thomas Jefferson’s notes on beekeeping, and an excerpt from an eighteenth century beekeeping manual, in addition to the speaker’s own observations on bees. Each section works on the reader by providing evidence about bees, both about their behavior and about human attitudes toward them ranging from Jefferson’s time to the present. Each section also creates a level of disquiet that builds as the poem moves forward: the first section begins with bees, but swerves oddly to the speaker’s admission that his mother would call Brazil nuts “nigger toes”; the second section suggests that, in Jefferson’s preoccupation with the apis honey bee, he was failing to consider the fate of the native bombus bumblebees; the third section captures language from the beekeeper’s guide that seems to strike an analogy between the management of bees and patronizing attitudes one might have about slaves. The final section describes the positions of the now empty beehives at Monticello, but also contains the one explicit assertion of the poem: that the hives have been, “like everything at Monticello, restored to an idea / that has not survived its own foreclosures…” The evidence of the preceding sections quickly collects under this assertion as the poem ends, leading us to understand it as a kind of case study in the social psychology that also produced the institution of slavery. The precision of the description and the subtle framing that pulls the reader along make this conclusion all the more compelling in that one feels like a participant in the characterization of the provided content. One doesn’t simply take the poet’s word for it.

The personal anecdote about his mother’s racist term for Brazil nuts resonates strangely within “Jefferson’s Bees.” Collier states that her mere use of the term “was enough to pass that thinking on to me.” One guesses that he means that the image stuck in his mind, not that it encouraged him to be actively racist — or maybe it actually did. We can’t be sure, and this uncertainty adds weight to the anecdote. In the midst of this examination of a social phenomenon, we carry a personal note about the poet himself, just enough to suggest the impact of the phenomenon, an effect that tantalizes as much as it reveals anything clearly.

The frequency with which Collier creates this effect of suggestive reserve stands out among the poems that precede “My Bishop,” but there are moments of stylistic variation as well. The lovely “Early Summer” and “To a Lemon” create a lyric diptych for the reader, full of sensuous descriptions that have an immediate impact. “Emily Dickinson” ponders eternity in the image of ruminating cows. Still, it’s notable that the somewhat cryptic “Koi” concludes the book’s second section. Here Collier’s reserve is at its most pronounced. The imagery is exquisite, and one feels thrown into the world of the speaker and the encounter with a school of koi. Though the speaker plays a role in the narrative, the focus remains on the fish, and outside of some careful metaphors, we learn nothing about what the speaker thinks of his experience. Collier, it would seem, is putting a fine point on the importance of the physical world and on his need to draw it carefully for the reader, so that we are let into these poems to piece together what’s provided. Collier’s compositional impulse feels egalitarian in that it foregrounds the validity of our personal readings of these works. The experience of the poet is transparent, and the reader’s experience comes to the fore.

Into this context comes “My Bishop,” a prose poem written in twenty-two sections and in a style distinct from the poems that precede it. Collier writes an account – a memoir of sorts – of his relationship with the unnamed Bishop of Phoenix, beginning when Collier was a boy and ending in an imagined future. His mode is principally narrative, though many passages ring with the acuity of his descriptions of the characters and scenes. The conflict arises from the fact that the Bishop allowed multiple priests to abuse boys sexually in Collier’s childhood diocese for years. The poem is mostly addressed to the Bishop himself, who, in the telling, learns about Collier’s emotional turmoil and fraught relationship with the Church in the years after Collier leaves Phoenix and prior to his father’s funeral, at which the Bishop unexpectedly appears.

One notices the degree to which Collier readily divulges his feelings about the story he tells. Gone is the savvy reserve he uses to lay out the scenes of the shorter poems. We have instead Collier himself struggling with pain and uncertainty in his relationship to his faith, to the Catholic church, and to his friendship with the Bishop. In doing so, he introduces a refreshing level of vulnerability into the collection. The prose narrative form has been chosen, Collier implies, to fit the subject matter at hand, one rife with political and psychological issues that call out for individual expression. Collier speaks with an urgency here that touches directly on the suffering that the abused boys underwent, and drives the anger Collier feels at those both responsible and complicit. Collier himself states that he feels “fondness” for the Bishop, yet he speaks with bluntness about meeting him again:

Fondness aside, when you showed up at the funeral home, I realized how much I disliked you, which surprised me, and not even the grief I felt for my father could forgive it.

I thought to myself, Why do you think you can just show up here?

Who do you think you are?

This passage comes near the end of the poem, after numerous accounts of how the Bishop’s malfeasance has disturbed Collier’s life and others’. Its art lies in the way it constellates Collier’s anger, which by now has become our anger as well. Of course, Collier is saying these words to himself, not out loud, suggesting that Collier never openly confronts the Bishop . The poem’s final section reinforces this idea when Collier states, “I pity him \\ It’s what we do. \\ I pity, dislike, and am fond of him.” Anger gives way to resignation, which feels like a failure in a poem that charts numerous failures — from the Bishop’s inability to account for his misconduct, and his inability to step outside the confines of his role and training to repair his relationship with Collier; from the Catholic Church as the context in which the violations of the story happen; and from Collier’s own uncertain response to the Bishop. These problems create a great deal of pressure within the poem, striking us in a very personal way. One wants more resolution than Collier gives, and by creating this tension, Collier is emphasizing the depth of the issue and its complexities. It’s no simple task to discard a relationship that has affected you in a profound way, even in the presence of wrongdoing.

In “My Bishop,” Collier solves the problem of how to connect the reader to the speaker by placing us very close to himself, a kind of intimacy that leaves only limited time — and need — for observations of the physical world. Extensive description for this subject might make the poem compete unfavorably with the many journalistic accounts about the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals, or create an unnecessary dynamic by drawing the reader into the speaker’s world, as in a novel. In this case, it’s the relationships between people that matter, and Collier’s techniques illuminate that.

It’s interesting that the poems in the book’s second half show a broadening of technique. It’s as if we readers, having experienced both the reserve and the intimacy of the opening sections, are free to experience their interplay. “The Storm,” in particular, showcases Collier’s ability to draw on conventional narrative, tangential observation, extensive description, confession, excerpts from other poems, and from publicly available information, to create a single meditation on “the problem of living” and the role of art amid the intersection of one’s personal and social history. Collier’s style may hinge on his descriptive mode, but description by no means defines it. He is willing to take these poems where they need to go to establish a rich relationship for readers between not simply what the poet sees and how he sees it, but between the reader and the poet himself. All of this requires, not surprisingly, numerous techniques and approaches – a diversity over which, thankfully for us, Collier is in firm command.