The Washington Post
Dark Wild Realmby Michael Collier
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The award-winning poet Michael Collier’s elegiac fifth collection is haunted by spectral figures and a strange, vivid chorus of birds: From a cardinal that crashes into a window to a gathering of turkey vultures, Collier engages birds as myth-makers and lively messengers, carrying memories from lost friends. The mystery of death and the vital absence it creates are the real subjects of the book. Collier juxtaposes moments of quotidian revelation, like waking to the laughing sounds of bird song, with the drama of Greek tragedy, taking on voices from Medea. As Vanity Fair praised, his poems “tread nimbly between moments of everyday transcendence and spiritual pining.”
The Washington Post
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
BIRDS APPEARING IN A DREAM
One had feathers like a blood-streaked koi, another a tail of color-coded wires.
One was a blackbird stretching orchid wings, another a flicker with a wounded head.
All flew like leaves fluttering to escape, bright, circulating in burning air, and all returned when the air cleared.
One was a kingfisher trapped in its bower,
deep in the ground, miles from water.
Everything is real and everything isn’t.
Some had names and some didn’t.
Named and nameless shapes of birds,
at night my hand can touch your feathers and then I wipe the vernix from your wings, you who have made bright things from shadows, you who have crossed the distances to roost in me.
HOW SNOW ARRIVES
The pine trees stood without snow, though snow was in the air, a day or two away, forming in the place where singing forms the air.
“Mother?” is what I heard my mother say, said in such a way she knew her mother didn’t know her, as if they stood beneath the trees and breathed the singing air.
How frail the weather when its face is blank or, startled, turns to find its startled self in a child’s voice, flake by flake of the arriving snow.
“Mother?” is what I say, as if I didn’t know her, standing blank and startled where she stands beneath the trees amid the singing air.
Three days after our friend died, having dropped to his knees at the feet of his teammates, we are sitting in a long, narrow, windowless chapel, staring at his casket that runs parallel to the pews.
It’s like a balance beam or a bench you could sit on floral sprays around it, a wooden lectern behind, and a priest nobody knew, a man I’d seen in the parking lot, pulling on a beret and stamping out a cigarette, all in one move, as he emerged from his car, holding a black book.
And now he is reassuring us that our friend is in a better place, that God, too soon, has called him home, a mystery faith endures.
Occasionally he looks down to check his watch, the habit of a man who always has a next place to be, which must be why he barely stays to finish the job.
Our friend had the most beautiful voice and his guitar was as cool and smart, soulful in its registers. When he played, he gave his body to the music, his eyes closed sometimes and his head bent, sheltering what he made of himself, his fingers knowing the next place and the nexthis voice, too taking each of us with him.
ABOUT THE MOTH
If you think the dead understand silence, then why do they light their hems
and burn in dresses? Why do they fan their wings against screens and windows as if they wanted in?
Why do they show their wiry contraptions dusty with age and almost useless?
They only want to wake us with their light unraveled from upper darkness.
They only want to hear us speak our reassurances.
Love will conquer, the heart endures.
And when they’ve leftflames, dust and franticwe want them back,
not the friends and parents they once had been but their new presences, sharp, unequivocal,
buoyant in their crossing back and forth, inhabiting the condition they’ve become.
I was waiting for the frequency of my attention to be tuned to an inner stationall mind but trivial matter, wavelengths modulated like topiary swans on a topiary sea, and not quite knowing where the tide would take me.
In the darkness where I kneeled, I heard whispering, like dry leaves. It had a smellbeeswax, smoke; a colorblack; and a shape like a thumb.
That’s when the door slid open and the light that years ago
spoke to me, spoke again, and through the veil, an arm, like a hand-headed snake, worked through, seven-fingered, each tipped with sin. What the snake couldn’t see, I saw, even as it felt what I felt or heard what I said.
Then along my arms boils and welts rose, on my back scourge marks burned. I counted nails, thorns.
In my mind, inside my own death’s head, I could hear: “Please, forgive me. Do not punish me for what I cannot be.”
Copyright © 2006 by Michael Collier. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
Michael Collier has been the director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference for five years and has taught English at the University of Maryland, College Park, for fifteen years. His previous volumes of poetry are THE CLASP AND OTHER POEMS, THE FOLDED HEART, THE NEIGHBOR, and most recently THE LEDGE, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Collier is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, NEA fellowships, and the Discovery/The Nation Award, among other honors. He resides in Maryland.
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