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Reviewed by Andrew Vaisius
The Commons is Stephen Collis’s second installment in what he has called “The Barricades Project,” and his third book of poetry. “The Barricades Project” can be described as the literary equivalent of amassing street detritus to obstruct the usual flow of capitalistic traffic, or from another perspective, hauling down the fences put into place by the language of economics – specifically capital. In either case we are dealing with revolution—necessary powerful actions and ideas in a time when the ascendancy of economic parlance has eclipsed basic human interaction.
In other words, greed and money permeate our thoughts and language. We speak of economic depressions as if they are controllable; we converse as if cancer is a war to wage against and is winnable. Collis says, “Let’s remove capital from our language and see what happens.” He means to do something about this, and he sounds and smells like spring. He forces us to look at language, not tabulate with it, or pragmatically push forth our “like-a” “kinda” “oh yeah” rushed sensibilities.
Collis knows that language should be expansive, without boundaries, tricky, and curiously listenable. “sky storms surface”—three nouns, two nouns and a verb, or a noun and two verbs? Collis works the language and walks us through a landscape unlimited in a temporal sense. We walk with him and the English pastoral poet John Clare, and the Americans Henry Thoreau and Robert Frost, but we hardly recognize their foreignness to our times. Collis takes us out of modernity per se. He possesses such a round ear to words and sounds: “built subtle shack on common / turned back clock solitary nary / chipmunk dug borrowed mowed berried” (73).
His words suggest other words which slow down the processing of his words. On common/ uncommon, borrowed/ burrowed, berried/ buried—yet wherever I travel with these tangents they always serve to amplify and expand the poetry. Like the best poetry, this poetry keeps calling the reader back to her own life. The Commons is a wild (as in wilderness) walk through a jumble of words and scramble of phrases with no punctuation, and signposts, if they appear, point madly in all directions. Ultimately Collis charges the reader with the responsibility of being creator.
everything miracle spore sated geometry
found equinox thrusting words having
no connection into all parts
of every sentence boot jack
for instance taking liberty nothing
this many hands picking sense
to gather scrutiny shared provenance (63)
Words like beauty, pleasure, and liberty do not sound hackneyed. Instead, their writing sounds synonymous with persistence. Collis is slightly off-step/beat, just out of range of any comfortable assumption, and a good shuffle away from clear understanding. This is not poetry that leads, but includes. It is a welcome philosophical divergence in popular culture.
This review first appeared in Prairie Fire Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2011).