HISTORY’S LEDGER: REVIEW BY Sarah Law
I’ve spent some time reading and dipping back into this resonant new collection by Philip Kolin, and I highly recommend you do the same: as a book of poetry, it’s a slim volume, but it has a depth and range of material that suggests a longer, fuller work. It also shows a poetic control and sense of phrase and form that makes each poem an impressive piece in its own right.
As the collection’s title suggests, Kolin’s overarching setting is the Mississippi Delta: the vast northwest region of the state of Mississippi, as well as the great Mississippi River itself. Rich in natural history; deeply scarred by the troubled and shameful past of racial and economic exploitation, the Delta provides a wealth of subjects, both geographical and historical. This collection gives ample and informed attention to each; it provides (this British reader with) an education that is not always comfortable to read. There are many human stories and poetic snapshots here, including those well-documented by history and those whose names and lives were brutally suppressed. This poetic witnessing is complemented by an imaginative engagement with the natural world in all its seasonal moods.
Helping the reader navigate this project’s wide reach, the collection is divided into coherent sections, each lucid and multifaceted in its own light. We begin with the history of the river itself, ‘That Old Mud River’ a vast, flowing entity depicted by Kolin in deft poetic strokes. The river’s ebb and flow, its (sometimes severe) floods, and its scars from human infringement are documented and juxtaposed. Serving as an archive of life and loss, the river ‘flows like a clothesline/ across a country of shadows/ where lovers hang dreams’ (‘The River’s Music’), it cries ‘muddy tears/ for these lost lands swallowed/ by erosion, blocked by leaves, destroyed/ by oil or gas pipes (‘The River Cries Muddy Tears’); ‘never random’, it is ‘history’s ledger’ (‘Elegy for the River’). To an extent this phrase also describes Delta Tears, the collection.
Kolin is a versatile poet, and the poems here range from the tightly structured to those appropriately loosened from formal moorings. While the majority are in couplets, tercets or quatrains, also notable is the prose poetry of ‘Flooding, 2017’ appropriately filling its page, as well as the slim fragments of ‘Bodies in Bondage’ that initiates the second section, ‘Centuries of Tears’. This hard poem ends with a slim reed of hope: ‘Song became the only salve for their tongues.’
Race and racism is unavoidable as a topic in this geographical location, so scarred by slavery, and the collection gives full due to the horrors of history. Poetry evokes through image and detail as much as through names and dates however, and poems such as ‘A Cotton Kiss’ do that powerfully:
It looked like a snake uncoiled from the overseer's hand and arm that bit slaves so hard, so often it left them speechless or brain dead
This section looks steadily and soberly at the ‘Delta dead from the Great Migration’ and the ‘soul-sucking bill collectors and company store men/ with sharp white teeth’ who destroyed black lives and individuality. The right to a name is withheld, as is the right even to breathe, a detail with all too raw immediacy in the disgrace of George Floyd’s death: ‘Only Let Us Breathe’ refers not only to Emmett Till and the Freedom Summer of 1964 but also how
Countless black faces since have tried to warn us about tortures in cottonmouth fields, river towns, and gut-splattered streets only to have hate seeking bullets shatter their voices. "I can't breathe", "I can't breathe," their last words.
This poem ends with a plea for legislative change ‘guaranteeing black men and women/ the right to breathe in America’. But the stark acknowledgement of racism’s visceral horrors and the need to acknowledge and make amends is clearly more universal still.
Section three, ‘Jukes and the Blues’ showcases the floating lines (still with their shadow and bite) of ‘Juke Houses’, and the sharp enjambment of ‘Hospices for the Blues’ where we find ‘pain so thick you could cut it with a buzz// saw’. Poetically, this is a fine section, pain-plied wordplay unfolding in edgy harmony, and homage paid to blues heroes and heroines in poems such as ‘Three Ladies Blues’:
It's Bessie's cry too, for all the big-souled women left by the roadside to bleed. The only black the Capt. likes to see is the asphalt under his Cadillac.
The Blues are succeeded by a fourth section, ‘Delta Dogs and other Critters’ a gathering of nature-based pieces which are by turns bracing and delightful. On the bracing side, here are some appropriately scraggy lines from ‘Maud’s Dogs’:
Their owners are the wind and dank shadows. They drink swamp water and eat field rats and stubble with cracked teeth, their scraggy ribs poking out like bent piano wires
Elsewhere, Delta minibeasts are presented, sometimes as menaces (‘Demon Mosquitos’), more often as charming (‘My Fair Ladybug’). In ‘Sheep, Caterpillars and Fish’ spring arrives to sow ‘color/ and fragrance/ everywhere,’ and we are graced with this lovely musical image:
Across the Delta the air provides a concert of warbling and chirping, an opera of wings.
After the human suffering of the Delta Blues, birdsong in particular offers us a slender cadence of hope: for those who keep the faith even in seasons of aridity, ‘the sparrow’s song/ is enough.’ (‘The Sparrow’s Song’)
‘Seasons’ are in fact the subject of the collection’s next section, with storms and weeds vying for Kolin’s poetic attention along with the more tranquil subjects of ponds and sunlight. Notably, we have the unpunctuated and freshly phrased ‘A Day in the Life of a Pond’ followed some poems later by ‘A Year in the Life of a Pond’, gorgeous in its four seasons of natural costume. As I write this review in April, I’ll quote a few lines from ‘The Blessings of Spring’, a poem that echoes the traditional poetic reverdie of new life and ‘re-greening’ as it celebrates:
In a bounty of green, trees rustle to touch each other as if limbs and leaves were searching for lost lovers.
Later we see mallards baptizing ‘ponds, creeks, rivers/ rippling with their blessings.’ This poem ends with a twist however, as so many of Kolin’s here do, with a reference to Eden and the ‘fall’ that comes after.
I find it subtly redemptive that blessings come into play by the end of this excursion into natural history. And it’s in the collection’s final section, ‘Places to Store Memories’ that the worldly and the heavenly, history and nature, even time and eternity seem to blend and shimmer together. Feminine references glimmer throughout; cultural figures recur and fade in poems such as ‘Moon Lake’. Further poetic moonlight leads us to ghostly churches (‘The Old Cotton Field Church’) and the Delta’s soul-rich memories of earth and sky (‘Soil’, ‘Voices in the Delta Never Die’, ‘Cloud Paintings’). The collection ends with ‘Mary, Mother of the Delta’: the Madonna placed within the Delta’s wild grace, where ‘roses lavish love on trellises// and a pond and fountain promise/ a new baptism of spirit and place.’ Memories are seen in the light of mercy, as the new perspective offers ‘a hospice of hope’.
‘Hospice’ here surely has its historical meaning of a place of healing and hospitality. Without minimising the injuries and traumas of Delta life, Kolin’s poetry shows us too that nature is not yet spent, and restorative wellsprings may flow even now. Such, indeed, is the essence of Delta Tears.