A few weeks ago, I realized that there was something — strange  – about Arda Collins’ It Is Daylight that kept pulling me back in. But her voice was so unlike other poets that I’ve returned to over the years; it got me wondering– what exactly do I like about these poems?

So I started by dissecting “The Sky As With Bells, As With Nothing In It” line by line to figure out how it was working, or at least how it was working on me. Today I’m looking at another poem of hers, “Garden Apartments.” I’ll try to keep this to a close-looking rather than a close-reading, but, you know, there’s only so much objectivity you can keep. So, here’s what I’ve scribbled in the margins, more or less…

(continued below)

Photo of Arda Collins

Arda Collins: 2008 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition.

[click HERE to read the full poem]

In “Garden Apartments,” Collins has (like she does in so many of her poems) used a succession of seeming banalities to build a larger poetic truth from the trivia of the speaker’s day.

I was in the car.

I passed a school.

I didn’t really know where I was.

The appeal of these lines seems to be in their anti-lyrical thrust. So many writers (myself included) can tend to stretch each line towards something that SOUNDS poetic. In doing so, I think the sinews between each word can become a bit stretched, too, weakening the line. Arda Collins, however, uses seemingly ordinary, plainspoken lines in order to reveal the speaker’s true strangeness, doubt, and insecurity as those simple lines tumble together on the page.

Taken on their own, the lines are terse, sturdy, direct, certain. And yet they serve to construct a portrait of a character rife with self-loathing and confusion.

I smelled her shampoo

When they passed, and I felt afraid of the day.

There is a great tension between the tone of the poem and its delivery: complicated speaker, simple language. Initially, the poem struck me as a kind of Frank O’Hara-style “I did this / I did that” sequence of thoughts and events. But Collins begins to use these moments to disquiet the reader. The speaker is listing irrefutable certainties. It is raining. She is in the car. She passed a school. Etc. However, these certainties are quickly used to demonstrate the speakers own self-directed distrust. She questions things that are taken as givens.  A couple examples:

I wonder if I were outside

If I would get wet.

Ummm…. yeah. You would. What a weird thing to question! It is raining, after all.

I passed a school.

I didn’t really know where I was.

I had lived near here for a while.

Hmmmm. Well it sure SEEMS like you know where you are based on your physical reference points. At the very least, you SHOULD know where you are.

 They were basically ugly.

It’s no one’s fault though.

Ummm, again, someone designed them (the apartments) that way. So yes it is someone’s fault.

Another subversive way in which Collins employs these individual lines of certainty is to create a sense of linear narrative speed while the sequence of events unfolds counter to that momentum. [Once upon a time, I did this; I did that. 1, 2, 3. The end.] However, in the reality of the poem we’re never allowed to get that grounded or safe with the flux of time. The poem is actually more like 1, 2, 3, -3, -2, 0, 6, 7, 4, 5.

The lines’ simplicity allows for a kind of rapid-fire percussive effect. And for me they seem to build towards cadences that conclude (or cycle over again) on the pivot point of the word “day” (and one time in the poem with the word “night”). Collins is using words that reference specific time in order to adjust the timing of the lines.

I wondered what I would do the rest of the day.

People were running their lives from here.

I can’t help but read a pause after the earlier line, a moment to ponder along with the speaker. Then in that rest, potential energy builds and we begin again into the poem from a radically different place. The shift in tone is jarring. “People were running their lives from here.” Suddenly there are other people (though still imagined by the speaker) populating her thoughts. The perspective shifts, or gets tweaked in the same instant that the rhythm of the poem rests. Does this suggest danger in stopping? Is there risk in slowing down the continuation of events? Perhaps the speaker finds safety in the mundane tasks of the day.

They had the rest of their lives. It was just like the other day.

Again, upon the mention of “day” there is another shift. This time, it is a literal shift in chronology. Tension builds in the cognitive pause, and suddenly we are ushered into a memory of the not-too-distant past. And again, with the shift in approach, timeline, and tone, there is another shift: the imagined people of the previous section turn to ACTUAL people.

I smelled her shampoo

When they passed, and I felt afraid of the day.

Fascinating– that particular fear, and how it is introduced; but for the purposes of keeping on task here, I’ll simply say that, again, Collins uses “day” to turn us. The shock of the “afraid of the day” remark gives us pause, not just temporal pause, but a kind of new caution or trepidation. What follows?

The rest of the walk was better.

Oh, well I’m glad your fear was so paralyzing that you got over it quickly enough for the rest of the walk to be better!– but that the fear stuck out enough to be remembered by the poem. This speaker is WEIRD! Utterly inconsistent, untrustworthy, or just simply confused. And perhaps only slightly less confused than the speaker, WE are jerked back into the poem’s present tense:

It smelled like rain in the car. There was no one around.

Back to the now of solitude, where aloneness has a kind of meditative quality “I heard my jacket when I moved.” Where god “loves this place.” The speaker has control over so little that loneliness is the one safe element in life. Even the dangers presented in the poem (death, unemployment, vomiting) they’re all imagined as happening to someone else. The speaker is safe in her solitude, vigilant to protect it,– perhaps why the closer interaction with other people unsettled her so much.

And with the last reference to “night” the tone and rhythm shifts again back to the impersonal:

The apartments were wood on the outside.

Impersonal, safe, clinical observations, or so we think, until she saves her most emotionally potent line for last:

I was so ugly, I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to drive.

Two clear, straightforward statements that are combined to horrifying effect. Given that a state of feeling ugly has nothing to do with an ability to drive, we are compelled to feel a strange, uneasy empathy for the speaker, so troubled by something that it permeates her whole being in this world.


Less than 100 words about Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 55 post in this blog.

Chris Robley is a poet and songwriter living in Portland, Maine after a decade in Portland, Oregon. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers, and was the recipient of the Maine Literary Award for "short works poetry" in 2014. Robley's music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.”