Library of Small CatastrophesPoetry
Reviewed By Jordan Osborne
- Copper Canyon Press (2019)
- 96 pages
I received this book as a gift. My MFA program advisor, Camille T. Dungy, left it in my campus mailbox one day with a note tucked behind the front cover (the note, by the way, is still there). To say that I loved it immediately upon reading it wouldn’t be an exaggeration, which is likely why writing this review—figuring out how to start it, what to say, what lines to pull from—has proven to be difficult. How to do justice to something you hold so dear? But part of adoration, especially when it comes to books of poetry, is sharing that gift (because getting to love something so intensely is a thing we are given). I can’t just love this book quietly; something about it demands that I put that love into the world.
In Library of Small Catastrophes, Rollins weaves together a wordscape of unbridled intersectionality. The speaker of these poems is all at once a librarian, a Black woman, and a woman who had an abortion in a society that very much doesn’t like when women have abortions. She is dynamic, fluid, vivid, and enthralling—one of the most charming speakers in any collection I’ve read (and I’ve read my fair share of poetry books). Knowledgeable and capable, Rollins often transfigures works and words from a predominantly white literary canon to suit her own needs: what she must express about her lived experience. For example, a line of Whitman is altered into a mourning keen for Berta Cárceres, a Honduran environmental activist and Indigenous leader who opposed the building of dams on the Gualcarque River, a sacred body of water to the Lenca people, to fuel mining campaigns:
A dam of rocks:
clattering at her feet, seashells
of bullets collected from her hair. I sing
the body hydroelectric, if you wan to
go wash, na water you go use, blue
and damned. . . .
Ode becomes elegy and the global history of colonialism, of driving Indigenous populations from their homes for the sake of governmental profit, is laid bare in our minds by the poem. It’s a history that affects Black and Indigenous populations alike, and so the mourning comes from a deep intergenerational, cross-cultural well of sorrow. Simultaneously the poem pays heed to the particulars of different situations, different inherited histories—to a woman who was murdered for her attempts to defend the place that she loved, her home. That Whitman, a writer well-known for his often-blind patriotism, is the one transfigured for this purpose makes it all the more powerful. How often do American interests painted in the colors of patriotism and freedom wipe out entire peoples, devastate entire landscapes for the sake of a few men’s wealth?
The body of the speaker in these poems is hydroelectric, a combination of human system and natural world. In “Public Domain,” Rollins writes, “There is life in the eyes // unspoken. Your very pulse a secret algorithm, a soft- / ware designed to track your browsing history.” Sight—looking, the physical function of the eyes—is put into context of electrical impulses, codes and data that produce a result. The eyes are what browse, the memory is what keeps track of that browsing’s past. In these terms, the body can be more easily understood, even at the risk of oversimplifying what being a body means. However, Rollins never oversimplifies the body, and this isn’t the only instance in which codes and impulses relating to it are called forth and examined. In an earlier poem, “Elephants Born without Tusks,” she writes, “Never let a chromosome speak for you, they will / only tell a myth—an ode to survival of the fittest.” The electrical code here, presented as DNA, is radically reimagined; though considered scientific fact, evolutionary theory is still just a theory, a story we tell ourselves—something true of both faith and science’s theories (which are all true until disproven, as a rule). And let’s not forget that the story of evolution was manipulated to make excuses for treating BIPOC communities throughout the world as unhuman, as unworthy of rights and regard. Social Darwinism was, and arguably still is, a categorical system that informed much of the world we live in today. If the chromosomes, the carriers of DNA, have also been a tool for creating organizational systems—which are themselves widely used as tools of oppression—can they be trusted? What does it mean when we let them, let this history, speak for us?
The speaker, however, doesn’t entirely shun organizing. As a librarian, she knows that systems of sorting can also be a useful tool for finding information that would otherwise be buried and lost. They can also help us make the messiness of personal and societal history easier to digest. In the title poem, she writes:
Repeat: I know you are but what am I.
Language in and of itself indoctrination.
Dear Dewey Decimal System,
How will I organize the bodies?
The professor said that in judging
women’s bodies by their covers
we have a system for returning
things to where they belong.
How to make sense of—how to categorize—the history of the body in our world, our society? How to trust organizational systems when they have played a role in cultural and bodily genocide? In “The Librarian,” Rollins writes, “She believes every throat is a call number. / She puts each one back where it belongs,” and the librarian in the poem knows that sometimes, in order to find a voice when it’s needed, you have to know where it is kept. Keeping can be a way to maintain something, preserve it, or a way to lock it out of sight and out of mind. The complexity of categorization is the same complexity inherent in any tool. A hammer can help you build a house or you could use it in acts of violence. A knife can be used to make a meal or as a murder weapon. The distinction comes in how we categorize—what we use our sorting tools for. The poems in this collection make this reality crystal clear.
The webbing between the personal body and colonial history is stretched throughout this collection, appearing sometimes quietly and often with a scream. Two poems, in particular, feel to have a strong connection, though many pages separate them and they share no similar names. “Ophiocordyceps unilateralis,” a prose poem named after a species of parasitic fungi that colonizes the mind and body of its host, examines the relationship between host and parasite when the host is reckoning with centuries of colonial history. The speaker says, “the classification of the terror determines whether looting or foraging has taken place: the meaning of ransacked vs. looked through: the home a hollow shell of surrender” and ends with the image of the fungus affixing the speaker to the wall of Plato’s cave. This unwilling adherence to a Western parable speaks clearly of colonization, and the cordyceps aren’t just parasitic fungi, but the ideology of the West rooting in the mind of colonized, disenfranchised, kidnapped, enslaved, and eradicated populations.
The sister poem to this, “Viva Voce,” is as different in tone, perhaps, as possible. Reading more like an absurd joke at first, it begins, “Benjamin Franklin taps his foot inside my mouth.” From here, the imagery of one of the United States’ founding fathers making a home inside a Black woman’s mouth is both silly and sinister. He and his friends fart and fan the fumes with almanacs while sitting on her molars. She speaks Franklin-isms in a way that enacts colonization—her mouth, now home to a white man, is no longer able to avoid using his words, and we are reminded of the cordyceps. It ends, “The body is a club of mutual / improvement, where I am ranked no higher than a fool.” We must ask ourselves: what is mutual in a society made by and for white men? What do the ideals of freedom that Franklin supposedly stood for mean to a nation built on the bones and blood of kidnapped and trafficked Black people?
These aren’t questions that can easily be answered, though they should not by any means be avoided or ignored, and Rollins makes no moves to provide any sense of resolution while still giving them space to make us (and by “us,” I mean white readers) feel uncomfortable with the history we know and often choose to ignore. And though the speaker’s body is subject to the whims of men like Franklin, whose bloody wants are disguised as “mutual improvement,” one of the early poems offers a striking moment of revelation:
Even a snake loses itself in its skin.
Its life’s throat peeled back in molting song.
A second me lies somewhere on the ground.
Hollowed as the cicada shells I collected in the woods
as a child. Knowing then that the anatomy of loss
was worth picking, if only to acknowledge that
something has shed and not died, something brown as me
has left its skeleton behind, more intact than broken,
as if to say we are living
and dying just the same.
This is why we are so homesick,
why we hull ourselves in shadows.
This moment of clarity—so beautifully written—speaks to the deep sorrow of being denied your own body, but the speaker, the librarian and the woman, does not allow this denial to stand. In “born [again],” after getting an abortion, the speaker—addressed here in third person—realizes that her choice is an act of reclaiming her body:
. . . This is what it
means to become: to do things you had never
imagined you would do, to be a furious flower—
murderous and innocent as water.
Murder and innocence exist in tandem. Joy and sorrow do too, and all are a part of the continual reality of becoming, which is to say, of living. Though the joys of these poems are often couched in terror, violence, and sadness, they are also there in the revolutionary moments of the speaker’s living: eating a turkey sandwich while reading about the world’s disappearing languages, or the memory of her mother putting clove oil on her gums when she was a teething infant. There is both love and hurt everywhere in memory, and Rollins refuses to shy away from either. What makes these poems so intensely moving, so worthy of an adoration to match, is the unflinching dedication to be complicated—to be whole and true in all ways, when it makes us satisfied and when it makes us hurt, often in the same breath.
This book of poems is a gift. Not just in a literal sense, for me, but in the way that it challenges us and invites us to be challenged. The last lines of the opening poem, “A Woman of Means,” read: “I give you permission to enter— / the opulence of this rabbit hole.” Here is, again, the voice of the white male literary canon being reshaped, transformed by the magic of Rollins’s clever writing as well as the celebration of that magic—it’s an opulent rabbit hole down which we’re invited to turn end-over-end. To say that Rollins’s writing is anything other than magic would be foolish—every line, even the tragic, violent, and painful, is bent towards the work of creating a better world for us all. Her collection is a call to living with complexity, turmoil, and change as closely knit in our hearts as tranquility; there’s no other way to remake the world we live in, the foundations of our society. To rework the words we have been given into what we need them to be is a large part of this. As the poem “Free Radical” puts it, “[L]et us go falling from the doubt, / secretly thrilled at the hems / and ever so eager to break.”
Jordan Osborne is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University, where she works as an associate editor with Colorado Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Canary and Rogue Agent.