“You Make Your Life; Your Life Gets Made:” The Weight of Inheritance In James Arthur’s The Suicide’s Son

The Suicide’s Son
James Arthur
(Signal Editions, Véhicule Press, 2019, $14.95, 77 pp)

James Arthur’s second collection of poems, The Suicide’s Son, is a challenging book with philosophical heft, which doesn’t surprise, given that his earlier work has been described as earning “nearly every award, fellowship, and grant an emerging poet could hope to win.” Arthur has already established himself as an inventive craftsman, able to move deftly between religious, mythological, historical, and personal topics while writing free verse lines that at times cleverly incorporate rhyme and meter.  In The Suicide’s Son, we encounter his mastery of individual lyrics, but the collection is more than the best of his journal publications. It gathers in the mind as a single text as Arthur both poses and answers questions about the ideas, objects, and traits we broadly inherit—as family members, as members of a culture, as animals—and how we respond to the often troubling content of that inheritance.

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

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.

The Task

At first the alcohol-heavy finish pooled or
Ran down the wood, dried like corners of sagged flesh.
When wet, some portion of it wouldn’t spread,
Would remain partial and uneven.

He imagined cloth made of spun metal fibers
Able to smooth the blotched and crystallized surfaces,
Or brushes and solvents that would produce chromatic ripples
The grain in his old chest-of-drawers had.
He made up a way working with the sun and an electric fan.
It needed less finish, a heavier stroke.