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A body washes up on an unnamed beach in the Pacific Northwest. So begins Elizabeth Colen’s first book of poetry, Money for Sunsets, a book bearing striking similarity to the shores that it describes. Combing through these pages, the reader will come across some of the expected and some surprises; some treasures and some debris, but overall, enough intriguing finds to make the search worthwhile.
Fragmentation drives Colen’s content; you’ll find little narrative or pure lyric on these pages. What guides these poems is the juxtaposition of small, striking details that build this sand-and-grit-filled world—the white supremacist distance runner in a bullet-riddled urban badland, the “slow blue snow” of eye shadow, the “amber silos of pills.” Colen’s world is twilight, dingy rooms and uneasy sex, cigarette butts on the side of the road. It’s a tough existence, but one she inhabits unabashedly in her writing.
The most successful of her poems place the shards of description onto a concrete action or person, and let them run together. In the title poem, for instance, the narrator and her friend climb a pier “the more rickety to highlight the end of all,” amid thoughts of “wild dogs and truculent boys.” The mystery here and in the first few poems of the collection represent Colen at her finest—the poet who lays out her small collection on the sand and lets the reader puzzle over it with her, before walking away. These, happily, outnumber the more abstract poems that sometimes fight too hard for revelation.
Unlike many contemporary poets, Colen writes exclusively in the prose poem form—an ambitious and somewhat risky move, given the lingering preference for traditional line and stanza. Though these poems occasionally hold multiple “stanzas” breaking over a page, most only fill the space of a single prose paragraph. Despite the lack of traditional lineation inherent to the form, Colen deftly manipulates syntax and sound to create the effect of a lyric line within the longer, unformed prose. “Take,” for instance, crescendos from, “Shot. Sit. Before her,” into “Sweet, slow sound, her jaw rounding out the silence,” into “Do not speak into the quiet, do not speak into her wintery mouth, those lips ice poles to stick a tongue to, frozen, schoolyard charms and incompletes.”
The prose poem, in turn, serves her content: the form allows for coalescing debris of image and memory to be pieced together into a natural-feeling whole. True, the form can, at times, feel relentless, leaving the reader wishing for the textual variation found in a book of lyric poems—and yet, it’s difficult to imagine another way to say what is said in these works.
Money for Sunsets wraps a bit too neatly to satisfy the reader completely—the closing poem, “Apostemic,” offers such insistent truths as “I am going to keep on believing in the devil, until the earth is proven otherwise uninhabitable,” and “The great unimaginable caverns below us are really doorways into our souls.” Warnings, as the title suggests, but already spoken by the poems. Likewise, a few poems prior, “Somewhere We Start” urges, “Start from the start, make it clean. Make it right. Make it real.” These read as too much of a summation of all the remnants that came before, the pieces of a life and place that hold more value to a reader when at least some of the mystery remains.
More fitting, perhaps, would be an end parallel to that of the title poem—“You said, ’I’d like to thank the academy,’ and jumped into the waves”—an end that brings the collection back to its vast, tumultuous source.
MONEY FOR SUNSETS
By Elizabeth J. Colen
Steel Toe Books
Paperback, $12, 72pp