Alison Rollins’s debut collection (Copper Canyon Press) sparkles with a compassionate intelligence that relentlessly catalogs suffering in the hopes that enumeration might somehow assuage or make meaning of it, or at least serve as a mode of connection. This cataloguing impulse is most clearly articulated by the librarian who appears throughout the collection. There’s a relentless hope to this speaker’s industriousness, since, “She’s learned a girl is / carved from the words she does not know” (“Portrait of a Pack Horse Librarian”). However, her drive toward order is continually thwarted by societal systems of power and oppression, which are as inherently nonsensical as they are omnipresent. As she asks in the title poem, “Dear Dewey Decimal System, / How will I organize all the bodies?” Although, of course, she knows that, “we have a system for returning / things back to where they belong.”
Rollins’s other persona work is more self-contained, but has similar aims—to reach toward the other with a recognition of shared suffering. Rollins acknowledges that “forgetting makes the / present tense possible” (“Word of Mouth”). Still, Rollins uses personae to open a dialogue with the past, whether it’s the indigenous child reflecting that “There is no happiness here, amongst / men that can weave lies out of light” in “Child Witness,” or the sexually assaulted girl in “Lost Causes,” of whom Rollins asks, “How do hips learn to sound out a child?” Rollins’s work of empathy extends even to the natural world, as in “Elephants Born Without Tusks,” where Rollins notes, that “Birds unable to see dark moths on soot-colored trees. / The number of blacks always rising with industry.”
Rollins’s empathic gaze, honed in personae, becomes particularly resonant when turned toward the family and the self. As she says in “What Is Tragedy?”: “Inside everything I have ever written / there is a girl—strange and alive.” This speaker looks to family to contextualize and articulate her individual suffering, since, “The amniotic sac is a dust jacket / for the book of trauma” (“Skinning Ghosts Alive”). From the matrilineal line, she receives both identity—“My face has my / mother’s abacus features” (“Word of Mouth”)—and inherited suffering—“I clench and carry the pain of my mother / in my teeth, at the root a canal of fear” (“Skinning Ghosts Alive”); and she receives a sense of disconnection from a father who “lost / his wedding band in the drain of a / hotel sink” (“Oral Fixation”). These poems are adept at illustrating how the child is a mysterious vessel, taking the world in and then changing in unexpected, surprising ways—“A second me lies somewhere on the ground. / Hollowed as the cicada shells I collected in the woods” (“Skinning Ghosts Alive”).
A final through-line is Rollins’s existential dialogue with the forces of time, asking in “To Whoever Is Reading Me,” “Why do you dread being forgotten? / Know that in some sense / you are already dead.” Rollins reflects on the absurdity of human ego—noting that “Caesar wrote books by / the light of books burning” (“Overkill”)—and questions the art-making impulse, wrestling with its futility, while at the same time, relishing its audacity, asking, “how dare the two of us make art when / god has ordered us to drown” (“Report from Inside a White Whale”). Ultimately, Rollins connects art-making to the same shared history of suffering that undergirds all her deeply empathetic work in this collection, asserting in “The Path of Totality,” “Art is pain suffered and outlived.”