Arda Collins’ second full-length poetry book, Star Lake, comprises a series of observations, thoughts, and memories that give the impression that both a weaver and a poet are at work. Each poem is deeply textured and felt, akin to knotted wool or a seagrass basket, encapsulating time and exploring the interactions between atmosphere, language, knowledge, and emotion. Collins’ spatial poems knit together the natural world––trees, light, stones––with her specific history of violence, loss, and survival. She feels her way back to places of origin, including growing up in a family of survivors of the Armenian genocide. With poems that jump through landscapes and time, as well as the natural, modern, and internal worlds, Collins interlaces reality, memory, and imagination.
The scenes she renders are as sweeping and shape-shifting as clouds. Atmosphere is its own presence throughout Star Lake––it is what holds smaller moments that are at once murmuring, expansive, and alive. The poems’ landscapes emanate from their forms and images––they are transmissions of experiences of the self, natural phenomena, and time. Reading the collection is to exist at the edge of daily life and the sublime, or in a blue swath that is both beautiful and difficult:
All there is is forever,
an apricot tree and stones in the dust, the edge of your soul at your face.
A war happens
far from you, and inside
your face is where it lies. The sky is blue
and all its corollaries have only ever been that
your family of refugees is eventually free.
The nameplate from the mailbox, a jewelry watch in the back of a drawer.
Your great-grandmother carried her children
across the desert, your grandmother, her sister, their brother
your mother, her sister,
their brother who died,
you, your sister;
weren’t you at this?
Didn’t we survive someday?
In this excerpt from “Late Summer, Late Winter, and Genocide,” Collins reflects on her family’s experience fleeing the Armenian genocide, the systematic uprooting of Armenians from their homeland, and the mass deportation and killing of Armenians during the first World War. Collins finds traces of this violence contained in the present: at “the edge of your soul at your face,” on the mailbox, and “in the back of a drawer.” Memory––especially for families anguished by war––is inscribed in space, unable to disappear even after more than fifty years. The trauma of the genocide follows Collins across Star Lake, inextricably bound up in her perception.
The use of second-person narration moves readers into a perspective closer to Collins’ and embodies a distance from these violent events. “Didn’t we survive someday?” Collins asks desperately. “Someday,” an inconclusive placeholder for defined time, evokes the future more so than the past. While readers embody “you” and “we,” Collins is not so sure of the scene herself––the memory is unstable, somehow existing in the past, present, and future. “Weren’t we at this?” she wonders. The poem is at once an invocation and an evocation, inviting readers into the memory, which becomes an interpretation––an imagination or recreation of an honest event.
In “Wuthering Heights,” Collins entwines humor and seriousness, beginning “I need to play this small blue saxophone” followed by a description of persecution and displacement:
It’s been moldering in my cousin’s basement,
transposed in my mind
as my childhood basement,
for many years. It was gnawed and spit in
by at least seven Armenian children,
my cousins, who, like me, sprang from the women
driven from their homes
while their husbands and fathers were seized and murdered. Over time
we appeared. Every note
is like a pothole when I think of the day
I couldn’t control myself
and blew in it. I felt a passing knowledge
something else would happen.
Then thunder and a rainstorm.
It was like opening a book.
As the poem unfolds, “I need to play this small blue saxophone” becomes a harrowing, animate memory. Collins is pulled to the instrument as if time were tactile, held inside the saxophone itself. This obsession with the physical creates a palpable sense of loss and the ways it carries through generations. Through a single object, Collins traces a lingering memory of her family’s history. Here, in a shift into the first-person “I,” she places herself at the center of the piece. Contrasted with “Late Summer, Late Winter, Genocide,” this poem emits from a clear speaker as she recounts her family’s personal losses. In both, Collins uses the poetic form to encapsulate the experience of reflection and grief. By the end of the poem, “I need to play” is reshaped into a deep, personal need to acknowledge her family’s past.
Collins’ stunning line breaks and use of white space accumulate to gorgeous shapes and pauses, which become intrinsic to the poem’s images and feelings. The speaker concludes:
is called “Wuthering Heights”
because the house in that novel is an ongoing
contraption of consciousness,
time, and space. Now can we
Collins’ book is equally a contraption of consciousness, time, and space. The final question, “Now can we / be together?” befriends readers and reaches for a lover before departing. This is typical of Collins’ poems, which do not follow a single moment for very long. What keeps the speakers from lingering? Shyness, evasiveness, or unending inquisitiveness?
In each of these poems, there is a reaching for and fascination with what is at a distance: the chasm between the language, experience, and that which lies in spirituality, history, and nature.
You can’t go inside an anthill or between the ridges of bark on a tree, or sleep inside a flower like an insect. These places are small and always very far away, and so you can’t go there. You would have to use a microscope to see the details of these things, the way you would use an opera glass to see the emotion in the singers’ faces or a telescope to see the surface of the moon … Where is my mother? Is she near or far? Like a neutrino or like a moon? A whale I imagine, or the white air over the pond on a summer evening?
“Scale,” one of several prose poems folded into Star Lake, moves away from the Armenian genocide and into the perspective of a speaker considering her relation to other life––she is in the presence of worlds that she cannot enter or occupy. The speaker distinguishes between the space inside of her and the physical world: though we perceive and find language for our surroundings, we are not any closer to them because of it. There are events happening around us all the time that can be hard to parse from the events we imagine. Blurring the images of “a whale” and “white air,” which have similarly beautiful sounds, deftly embodies this.
Collins’ interest in the “far away” folds back on a brief moment in William Faulkner’s Light in August, which has lived inside of me for many years:
Fields and woods seem to hang in some inescapable middle distance, at once static and fluid, quick, like mirages. Yet the wagon passes them.
Star Lake seems suspended in this place of betweenness––a careful gaze attuned to the ever-shifting “middle distance” (this also being a title of a poem in the collection). Collins creates a landscape that is as infinitesimal as it is a reachable place of arrival; contains moments that are there, briefly, before merging and blending into others; and is unplaceable between darkness and day. Collins places readers here, in a liminal spot that captures what’s at the heart of her work: investigating the strange areas between perception, image, and emotion.
It is early spring as I write, and Collins’ beautiful images lift off the page before me––sunlight over grooves and branches lowered with new green leaves.
Life billows out
tomorrow, a swirling heart
what you look like,
mother of pearl;
morning sun between the pines’
black lines; an atom in a shadow; a lake through the trees.
Rings on the water open
how I hear.
Star Lake is a constellation of inquiries––a search to understand, feel, and remember. Collins’ richly detailed landscapes twist into wonder and disorientation, feeling their way through time and space. Here, in her poem “Early,” and stitched throughout the rest of her work, Collins’ poetry blends natural imagery with the perceptual, rendering vivid inner and external worlds. Collins’ devotional act of attention is gorgeously sculpted, deeply stunning.
EMMA DALEY lives in New York’s Hudson Valley and is an assistant managing editor for MAYDAY. She recently completed a poetry thesis at Bard College and, since, has studied at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Center for the Book Arts, and with writers Emily R. Hunt and Sheila Heti. Her prose and poetry have been published by Bard Papers and Small Orange, and is scheduled for release in Cleveland Review of Books. She enjoys all things marine-related and is working toward a Master in Library and Information Science.