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Elizabeth Colen’s ambitious Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies (Jaded Ibis Press) offers a cohesion of themes: cataclysm, catastrophe, and possibly worse, and the legal definition of conspiracy, a decision by two or more people to commit a crime.
The collection is a countdown of four sections (and an interlude) that imagines the phenomenon of recent conspiracies. Colen also provides a handy two-page list of the conspiracies she covers in the order of their appearance in the text. The description of each is theatrical, accurate, and deceptively tongue-in-cheek, given the soberness of the poems. The conspiracies include, among others, a London tube bombing, black helicopters, and fluoridated water.
With an elliptical approach, insofar as she is not offering narration or specific description, Colen often addresses, or creates, the sense of fear that accompanies an attack or supposed conspiracy. In the first section of the poem “Genesis,” ostensibly “about” allegations that officials in the United States government knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance, Colen works with suspense, if not terror, and reflects on memory (collective or individual) or lack thereof. The trick is, she does so without reference to the attack itself, but instead by using an event that occurred during the speaker’s childhood.
My brother once stapled a girl’s arm to her sleeve.
Remembered for holding his breath,
once breath stopped, the memory was gone.
In the quarry pit he sank into a hole.
The bleeding was simple.
The minutes ticked and we were with him.
Red on roses, blue barrette in her hair.
There are no screams under water.
There is nothing to hold onto that looks like us.
There is only what’s left in your lungs.
Lines such as that ominous, “There is only what’s left in your lungs” along with “The bleeding was simple,” and other similar poetic statements are declarative echoes of the human condition. They are frequent in these poems, and signal a decided viewpoint that supports the collection’s glum feel. There is no Pearl Harbor or bombs in this poem, a fact that may lead the reader to believe Colen’s effectiveness as a poet is not so much the description of the conspiracy itself as it is how her imaginative persona perceives it.
In “Motor of the World,” which addresses the alleged conspiracy that “someone” would create a North American Union (similar to the European Union), Colen suggests the upside of conspiracies—they can offer solutions. They fix fear.
Tell me you’re in trouble, I’ll find a machine that fits that.
Like a watch tick, like the memory of,
like the storm, worm or substance.
Like the grease you fielded me in.
Fold me over your fold.
Lift me over your year.
I’ll be the next.
Tell me in text, dear. Tell me you’re—
Tell me your sign, then.
Tell me you’re fine, I mean mine,
I drew so many new words.
I didn’t have time for a line.
Waiting Up for the End of the World is sold in two editions: one black and white, one full color. The latter shows off the book’s accompanying artwork by Guy Benjamin Brookshire. Including illustrations (also in the black-and-white version in black-and-white) is a nice touch on the part of Jaded Ibis Press to expand the collection’s effect.
What I want from poetry and what I admire, are sometimes two different things. I want a purchase on something greater than myself, maybe a heaven (loosely defined, mind you—could be the star the philosopher Spinzoa suggested, in a letter, we’d be part of in death); godhead, a little bit, a lot, a promise of, a hint. Even dire poems such as Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets,” revelatory of great depression, offer that. Colen’s poems do not always do that for me. I admire cohesion, however, of theme, and this collection’s coherence. She writes clean clear poetry that embraces and addresses more than the theme of conspiracy. Colen takes on the challenge of many targets, with hits and misses.
However, returning to one of the nation’s double whammy of conspiracy and national tragedy, Colen captures both shock and poignancy in her poem “November 22.”
In the hospital where they brought him,
the governor, his wife, both wives, the pristine bullet, g-men:
on a floor wedded with wails of new lungs:
one baby was born too soon or too late.
Something was dead.
Someone said Jackie walked past her room,
but it wasn’t true. Just something
to take her mind off it.
Someone said she was lucky to be alive,
but no one knew who they meant,
the one with the failed womb, dead son,
or the one riding next to a bullet,
blood on her dress and pink in her hair.
That is the immortal Jackie: tragic (blood) and well-dressed (that pink outfit). The affection and poignancy of “November 22” show that despite the ubiquity of JFK assassination conspiracy theories, the poet can make fresh the tragedy of loss.
Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies
By Elizabeth J. Colen
Jaded Ibis Press
Paperback, 9781937543143, 134 pp.