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Book Review: 'The Missing Mountain: New and Selected Poems' by Michael Collier

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Published October 27, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.


The Missing Mountain: New and Selected Poems by Michael Collier, University of Chicago Press, 196 pages. $20. - COURTESY OF MICHAEL COLLIER/UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
  • Courtesy Of Michael Collier/University Of Chicago Press
  • The Missing Mountain: New and Selected Poems by Michael Collier, University of Chicago Press, 196 pages. $20.

The title poem of Michael Collier's newest collection captures the poet at his best. "The Missing Mountain," originally published in Dark Wild Realm (2006), combines images of specific objects and memories with lush description and satisfying philosophical twists. The unrhymed yet tightly controlled stanzas are composed of lines with a natural musical quality, somewhere between loose tetrameter and everyday speech.

"'Oh, wouldn't it be nice,' I used to sing, / and the mountains all around me answered, / but not the question I had asked."

The Missing Mountain: New and Selected Poems showcases a lifetime of art by Collier, an editor, educator and former Bread Loaf Writers' Conference director, including works from his seven previous publications. The Cornwall resident has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and the Pushcart Prize. He served as poet laureate of Maryland from 2001 to 2004 and is a University of Maryland professor emeritus.

The Missing Mountain opens with selections from "My Bishop," published in My Bishop and Other Poems (2018). Composed primarily of linked prose fragments, the long poem recounts a complex friendship between the poet and a disgraced Catholic bishop who was directly responsible for a cover-up of child sexual abuse but evaded prison. Forty years after the poet left the church ("serene now, vivid in the radiance of my disbelief"), the bishop suddenly appears at the poet's father's funeral and offers to hear the poet's confession.

In an epistle filled with equal parts condemnation and empathy, Collier conveys this surreal experience with generosity and flashes of anger. Addressing the bishop, he writes:

A fondness for you stirred in me not as a kind of pity for what you'd become but for what I realized you'd always been: a short, insecure man with a compassionate heart, proficient at following directions but lacking the common touch — and whose timidity was now a form of cowardice?

The question mark at the end of such a direct statement moves the poem beyond judgment to sincere rumination on human nature. But later lines express outrage: "All those priests you moved unbeknownst from parish to parish, I see them in Hell, wearing their genitals around their necks instead of the white collars of their office," Collier writes.

There's no easy way to approach a subject as emotionally fraught as sexual abuse. Perhaps that's one reason poetry exists: to bend language in a way that makes sense of the unsensible when everyday words fail us. Collier writes in a prose-like mode, allowing the narrative to unfold as his descriptive powers shine through. Sometimes he evokes disgust and pity simultaneously: "A white pharmaceutical rime crusts the corners of his mouth," he writes of the bishop near the end of the poem.

"The Storm," another long poem from My Bishop and Other Poems, is a meditation on mortality centered on the Air Florida Flight 90 crash in 1982. Collier alternates between unrhymed quatrains and free verse, weaving in memories of his father's death, a college roommate's suicide and the time he saved a woman from being assaulted in a violent neighborhood.

Michael Collier - COURTESY OF MICHAEL COLLIER/UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
  • Courtesy Of Michael Collier/University Of Chicago Press
  • Michael Collier

These loosely braided stories of loss and violence gather a cumulative power and charge the "storm within a storm" — the poet's description of the weather leading up to the disaster. Ultimately, the plane's wreckage itself becomes animate: "fully / what it was, torn off its body, a wounded appendage, an explosion / of peeled-back skin."

Religious imagery and Greek mythology color many of Collier's previous publications. The Ledge, a finalist for the 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award, references Odysseus and Telemachus, Sisyphus and Christ, Jesuits, prelates, and Mary.

Occasionally, these allusions become so frequent that they feel like comically academic name-dropping. For example, in "Pay-per-view," from The Ledge, the poet likens the sound of the scrambled porn channel on a hotel TV to music that "the Harpies might have made for Sisyphus / each time he reached the hilltop." Zeus, Pandora and the four winds have cameos in the poem, as well.

One of the strongest poems in the book, "Ghazal," also from The Ledge, forgoes most such allusions; it's also one of the few formal compositions in the new collection. "When I was young I couldn't wait to leave home / and then I went away to make the world my home," Collier writes.

Ghazals originated as seventh-century Arabic poems of love or mourning. Traditional ghazals adhere to strict rules: At least five linked couplets, which also stand independently of one another, must end with the same word. A rhyme precedes that last word, reappearing in every stanza as the poem unfolds. For example, ghazal master Agha Shahid Ali's "Tonight" opens, "Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight? / Whom else from rapture's road will you expel tonight?"

Collier's take on the form doesn't rhyme but stays true to most of these formal constraints, including an especially deft final couplet. Traditionally, this final pair of lines incorporates the author's name, often using clever wordplay: "Never let me forget: colliers mine coal. Michael's an angel. / In heaven as on earth the coal of grief warms the soul's home."

New works in The Missing Mountain tend toward animals: Owls, possums, bees, falcons, goats, foxes, crows and turtles populate them. The final poem, "Tree Beyond Your Window," consists of 12 tightly compressed lines in which the face of a turtle seems to appear in the gnarled bark of an autumn tree. "It wants to know, like an accuser in a dream, / what you have done with your life."

Lyrical questions demand lyrical answers, and the book concludes with the turtle reaching out, as it "implores you / to pull its ancient body from the tree." Collier's invitation to the human imagination feels urgent, as if the natural world were beseeching us to look twice before it goes missing.

From The Missing Mountain: 'Goat on a Pile of Scrap Lumber'

He lowers his head like a fur-covered anvil,

as if he knows all things in the world change.

His eyes are bisected by a horizon line of yellow light.

You're wondering what might happen if you move closer.

There's a language we speak to ourselves and one we use for others.

I told you, he's lowered his head.

Nevertheless, you can see for yourself he's chewing.

What he swallows becomes his rumination.

I too was attracted to someone I did not understand.

With each other we were bestial — that's not too strong a word.

Although at first, at first, when our foreheads touched, we were curious.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Lyrical Questions"

Speaking of Michael Collier, The Missing Mountain