No Grave Can Hold My Body Down
The spectrum of American folk culture, “this stuff colloquial with tongues in dust / by stuff of high prophecy,” informs this book. McCollough offsets elevated language with manic and unheard prayers, folksongs that answer the mandates of the Bible, and a travelogue that speaks in Medieval lyrics. As McCollough leads us across “a land in love with want,” imagined thresholds become concrete landscapes, the things that bind us are cast aside, and we are encouraged to mourn the remains of the world as we exhume our buried wanderlust.
Threshold: The True Vine
To what place? Is that my breath on the glass?
In the light of day, the birds in the street, the air. The birds on the branches.
Is it flies?
Is it a burning service station? A spot of color on the night?
After a storm, it’s all littered with branches. We gather them for kindling.
After the winter, every color of tulip, encaustic by the roadside.
The father. The husband.
The son. The true vine.
But the American parable is not quite like this.
We are the people,
those people shuffling across the lawn.
Copyright © 2011 by Aaron McCollough.
“Folk and blues quotations, appalled quips, environmental protest, charismatic Christian vision, and ecstatic litany mingle in this often exciting if somewhat disorganized book-length sequence from McCullough (Little Ease). Each of McCollough's sections takes its title from a track on the avant-folk guitarist John Fahey's 1971 album America, and the eclectic, almost omnivorous feel of McCollough's language recalls Fahey too: 'all we want and don't want of us/ is in the singing,' one page says. Other pages, however, want much more: an end to polluting with hydrocarbon dyes, for example ('harmful if swallowed/ flammable/ folderol/ thiazole'), and a 21st-century replacement for the afterlife: 'what gospel blues meaning good news gone bad/ without the benefit of fantasies/ of heaven.' Haunted lists ('a cage of carbon/ a cage of saxophones/ a cage of tagged fish') introduce quotes from Thoreau and others, in pages whose Southern accents belie their ambition to address the whole U.S. Though the quick cuts of verse lines keep the music going, some of McCollough's best moments occur in prose: 'Because doing something is always a resurrection, things tend to be done poorly. Driving a car feels like driving a person who is driving a car.' McCollough seeks a grassroots update to the late-modernist projects of Olson and Pound. Some readers may feel that McCollough repeats himself, or that his vaunting fragments do not hold together—but some readers feel the same way about the nation.” —Publishers Weekly
“Aaron McCollough’s fourth book, No Grave Can Hold My Body Down, is the most ambitious project we’ve seen released by the young author. In this book-length series, each section is titled after the songs on John Fahey’s album America—in fact, if you’ve followed McCollough’s work in recent years you would have seen some of these pieces, or versions of, published in journals as ‘selections from John Fahey’s America.’ The book’s title recalls Johnny Cash, which along with Fahey and mentions of “Little Sadie,” “Tom Dooley,” Charley Patton, and the blues, places this collection squarely in conversation with the American songwriting tradition. Many of the things that were at stake for these early songwriters are also at stake for McCollough, and what he presents is sort of an ‘end-of-the-world blues.’ Further, he reaches deep into American spiritual tradition, and he finds something unsettling about where the promise of the ‘city on the hill’ has found itself today, where the promise of redemption conflicts with environmental catastrophe, where the ground we are to lie down in is poisoned by our own hand, but where, still, our own salvation is inextricably tied up with that of the nation.” —Reviewed by Gina Myers in NewPages Book Review.
I was raised in Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee by two very careful, hardworking, and generous people. Both of my parents held many different jobs. They taught me to try my best and to try not to give people the finger. I tried my best and tried not to give people the finger through elementary school and high school (the Baylor School for Boys, which midway through dropped the “for Boys”). There, I was memorably punished for giving people the finger. I also tried my best and tried not to give people the finger through college, at the University of the South (“Sewanee”). Continued trying to do my best and to not give people the finger at North Carolina State University (MA, English, 1999), the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (MFA, Poetry, 2001), and the University of Michigan (PhD, English, 2007). Today, I am the Librarian for English Literature and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan Library.
I live in Ann Arbor with my wife Suzanne Chapman, whom I met at a house party on the Fourth of July, 1996. I was born on April 15, which is usually Tax Day.
I imagine my poetry to be part of an Anglo-American poetic stream that stretches from Tyndale and Cranmer, alongside noteworthy scenery including Herbert, Milton, Bunyan, Blake, Keats, Bradstreet, Whitman, Dickinson, Ol’ Ez, Oppen, Zuk, Olson, Creeley, Spicer, Blaser, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer, and Donald Revell.
My musical tastes have always tended to the popular, and in the case of this most recent book, I have been paying a great deal of attention to the popular American traditions of gospel, blues, and folk, also to the American musical avant-garde tradition best exemplified by Charles Ives and John Cage. All of this, for me, comes to a caloric focus in the work of John Fahey.
A few things:
In a famous letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville praises his addressee thus: “He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie.”
In the introduction to Writing Through, Jerome Rothenberg says, “I have had a need (I emphasize: a need) to translate and, by translating, to connect with the work and thought of other poets—a matter of singular importance to me in what I have long taken to be my ‘project’ and the central activity of my life as a poet … Accordingly, my work has involved not only translation but the use of techniques such as collage and appropriation as ways of opening our individual or personal poetry to the presence of other voices and other visions besides our own. I came to think of all of that—appropriation, collage, translation—in ideological terms. Long before our time, Whitman in Leaves of Grass set the task very plainly:
Through me many long dumb voices…”
I’m not a translator in any traditional sense, and I say No! in something less emphatic than thunder (but also in something that may be more continuous than thunder). In short, No Grave Can Hold My Body Down is a book meant to work in the mode Rothenberg describes: as translation (of musical tradition into poetic tradition, for one thing, but also of past into present) by appropriation and collage. Withal, this set of procedures is undertaken in ideological terms.
I have tried to open out in this book, which has included raising the dead in many ways, to address the violence and madness I find abhorrent but also, paradoxically constitutive in much that I value and depend on in American culture and life.
Looking back at the end of the American century (and even its footnote in the last decade), it is easy to be cynical. In fact, it’s terrifically difficult not to be. But a new American vision—a negative vision of the Melvillian stamp—will require more. No Grave Can Hold My Body Down is the beginning of such a vision. In it virtue and sin interpenetrate one another continually, much as dissent and commodity do in American capitalism and/or as liberty, deregulation, charity and hate do in American Liberalism. Resurrection is an American reality, but how will America-the-constantly-converted find salvation?