Book Review

Against a poetic landscape filled with ironic detachment, Aaron McCollough’s work is refreshingly earnest. No Grave Can Hold My Body Down, his third collection from Ahsahta Press, finds the poet unabashedly working through issues of faith and belief, framed within the context of the Christian tradition. The book centers on the question of how to reconcile one’s spiritual beliefs with the modern world—a question that permeates so deeply into the consciousness of the text that we even find it in the cover’s depiction of a baptism taking place in the shadow of a nuclear plant. But to pigeonhole the book as a religious work would be exceedingly reductive: while McCollough uses the Christian tradition as his starting point, his poems touch on questions of time, flesh, and mortality that are as pertinent to the nonbeliever as they are to the speaker himself. Moreover, while most poets working from such a tradition tend employ a structure of metaphors to obscure the theological impulse behind their poems, McCollough’s speaker presents his faith at face value, which makes his supplications, as well as his frustrations, feel more immediate. He writes in “Amazing Grace”:


All lovers lord are wretched look them up
they swim the fountain of gardens to touch
to grasp the fountains to kiss the white dusk
I am such a one was such a one am


Here, McCollough’s attention to sound, coupled with the earnestness of his speaker, gives the poem a mystic quality, as if the text itself is part of an ancient ritual. In fact, at times McCollough’s work seems reminiscent of John Taggart in its musical recycling of language, especially American religious language—elsewhere in “Amazing Grace,” he writes: “for what profits it / in this outfit to cast off the whole word / if profit is our motive who can stand / against us”—and the book’s organization into long poetic suites echoes Taggart’s structural aesthetics. Yet while Taggart’s focus was always grounded in the sonic landscape, McCollough is more concerned with a spiritual one: as the language circles itself, the text gives rise to the question of how our language shapes our beliefs.

This question becomes important as the book becomes increasingly indexed to the contemporary American landscape, as McCollough writes in “Mark 1:15” that “the American parable is not quite like this. // We are the people, // those people shuffling across the lawn.” It is the conflict between this sense of shuffling or complacency—“the special circumstance of abundance / and abjection that makes for the blues,” as he writes in “Special Rider Blues”—and a lurking sense of mortality that makes for McCollough’s best poems. The preoccupation with flesh becomes the barrier between that complacency and the spiritual realm that McCollough tries to subvert through language. In light of this, the poems can be seen as a sort of quest, as he attempts to discover “the art / of good dying,” as in “Song #3,” in which he later writes:

The neighbors loom on the lawn in their shirts. They are looking past me and the house to the stars as if the house and I were protecting the stars. I am in their way. My shirt is.

Given such breadth of substance, it would be easy to overlook McCollough’s formal experiments as merely ancillary to the content of the text, but their presence, as with any successful formal innovation, is central to the conception of the work. The book’s organization into long poetic episodes give rise to the meditative tone of the work, further enhanced by McCollough’s collage-style reappropriation of the language of spirituality. However, nowhere is the marriage of form and content as striking or as successful as in “America,” a poem laid out vertically (bottom-to-top) on the page and divided by a column of dashes, creating the illusion that the text is a highway organized around a median, which becomes a sort of void between the two lanes of text. The poem gives no indication as to how it wishes to be read—as individual lanes or as a continuum across the dividing line—and in one passage, the text can be read either as “laws to begin simply will / a study in scissors truss / life a dimension and cold” or as “a study in scissors truss / my blue faith is another’s alchemy // It always plays eat and sleeps.” What follows from this ambiguity is the sense that in the heart of text, and perhaps in America itself, there is a crucial element missing. Elsewhere, a similar sort of omission occurs, as in the end of “Dalhart, Texas 1967,” which features a set of instructions for reaching Jerusalem with the names of each proper landmark on the way elided from the text. In both cases, however, McCollough uses this omission to his advantage, crafting gorgeous, obsessive that circle around this nothingness that cannot be expressed.

Of course, it is by these rhetorical dimensions that McCollough establishes that we must judge the ways in which his work succeeds. While the book’s cyclical, inherited languages gives its best poems a haunting sense of ritual, it also makes its less successful moments feel that much more sedentary: McCollough takes great risks in using the already-tired language of religious supplication—sometimes to his great reward—but this also steals from his weaker poems a sense of urgency. Compounding this is the inherently abstract nature of McCollough’s subject matter, which can give rise to airy, untethered language that saps some of his power. As the book progresses, some of the poems give the reader the sense of having been here before.

However, when that power is on display, McCollough’s work is that of a fresh voice in contemporary poetry. Befitting the Christian tradition from which it draws, No Grave Can Hold My Body Down is not a perfect book. However, McCollough’s earnest engagement with the issues at hand combined with his formal innovation makes his collection an engaging and important read.

About the Reviewer

Michael Martin Shea is an MFA candidate at the University of Mississippi, where he is a John and Renée Grisham Fellow. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, The Journal, Meridian, Willow Springs, and elsewhere.