McCollough’s concerns with ethical living and the ethical treatment of others, especially strangers, permeate this third collection of his work. Named for a particularly restrictive prison cell, Little Ease takes the idea of imprisonment as something that can be elective, as marital fidelity, religious beliefs, and staying true to one’s ethical system generally are. “The voice speaking from these poems is always that of a prisoner,” McCollough says, “sometimes very happily so.”
from FROM THE RESTORATION: Penalty
Letter from Prison Pg. 94
us with no light
the dog edging its nose
out the window and snapping the air
for a beaconthe river turned over
the congregation stretched
Paul says I, therefore,
prisoner of the Lord
on interstates stay
sputtering little generator in the neighborhood
just work worthy
for emergency spillsin my unbelief
more frequent since
Copyright © 2006 by Aaron McCollough
“By the end of the book, McCollough has twisted the explorations of the poems in Little Ease to lay out his final, and most daunting, challenge to readers: an uncynical (and atypical) optimism. Pure un-ironic hope, in the face of a world where suffering is the norm rather than the exception. Hope does not come easily or conveniently in Little Ease (nothing in this book is convenient), but it does come, as the wandering path drawn by the poems leads not out of darkness and into light, but further into darkness until the traveler can somehow see past the dark, or through it. For McCollough, the isolation and loneliness alluded to by the title of the book are painful—and he painstakingly catalogues them—but they are, in the end, not all we have.
“A perfect example of this distressed optimism appears late in the book, in the stunning ‘Adam Names the Diseases.’ Here, the titular diseases which afflict humanity are all given human names:
from the mountains between jerusalem
I see them kreutsfeldt jakob lou gehrig
before [my] eyes sad noysom dark in which
the bandage “reeks” the landscape has no term*
“This connection, wherein the illness and afflicted are the same, blurs all borders, even the final ones between life and death / corporality and spirituality. As McCollough writes in the second stanza of the poem, ‘in living death in dying living lies.’
“Even at the very fringe of human experience, McCollough chooses to do more with his poetry than merely deconstruct. As elsewhere in this book, his catalogue of careful images and meticulous phrases draw a strange, palpable optimism out of what—in a less wise work—could be simplistically chaotic. Here, division and incompleteness allow for access across seemingly impassable barriers. The afflicted can become the healer, and sickness is the only certain access we have to a cure. Here, again, McCollough takes an impressive risk: to propose a duality where the two halves interpenetrate so completely that the system ultimately isn’t a duality at all, but an integrated whole.
“The implications of this hope (hard-won) and this duality (that really isn’t) could be headache-inducing, but McCollough avoids this problem by grounding the ideas in so many surprising little details that by the end of the book, these conclusions—as counterintuitive as they may appear—seem natural, even essential. In its original usage, Little Ease may have been a cruelly ironic name, but as the title for this collection it fits exactly. McCollough’s poetry does offer ease, even if it is an ease that can only be appreciated after all of the suffering that has come before, and clouded by the awareness that suffering may come again.” —from the review by Steven Byrd in Free Verse (read the entire review here).
“[P]oets who consider the written page their primary mode of transmission actually write ‘on the page’ and ‘for their reader’ and Aaron McCollough is engaged in a compelling exploration of just what that page makes possible—and without quoting Derrida (though it would only be fair—McCullough quotes Foucault, and many of his ideas about surveillance and confinement seem to come directly from Foucault), McCollough challenges that connection between written language and voice. For me, as a reader whose reading practice is intimately bound up in the connections of voice and print, reading McCollough is often a dazzling experience, ranging from the simple integration of new symbols (his frequent use of ‘@’ seems a pleasant analog to the frequent Pound & Creeley shorthand of ‘yr’) to the introduction of the unpronounceable ‘[::]’ (It’s not part of an analogy, so don’t try ‘as’). In some places it feels like a surrealist experiment, where my internal voice modulates itself without being able to explain why—and in other places it feels like a challenge. . . .
“The major achievement of the book seems to me its stunning pacing. The book is a study in density—it manages to move between incredibly concentrated prose poems and incredibly airy free verse, with its ‘sonnets manqués’ treading a kind of middle ground . . . . This volume is primarily playful, and refreshingly so.” —from the review by Jason Schneiderman in Coldfront.
“McCollough writes as a distant but psychologically aware and keenly watchful thinker. He renders a subtle moral angst with phenomenal control and depth of feeling, but, here, even feeling seems to be navigated by a removed intellect’s ‘cold humors’ as the breath roams, disconnected, ‘above the city’s face far from the body.’ I am not a reader easily sympathetic to such intellectualized remove, but I do find that if I invest myself and allow the poems their speculative voice, they unpack a startling sadness and awe: ‘Old wobbly world tearing down you make me hate me/ You fling light around your dark flung fill.’” —from the review by Andrea Baker in Galatea Resurrects 4 (read the entire review here).
“When McCollough is on, he’s on. The most successful poems here mix archaic language . . . with quotidiana that is both utterly banal and heartbreaking in its employ and implications. I have a feeling that this book is one I will return to for some time to come. It's just obtuse and ‘difficult’ enough to turn me off, but has sections of such stunning and compelling lyrical clarity and sound . . . that I can’t dismiss it, no matter how jealous I may be of the author. And, as usual, it’s a beautifully made book. Ahsahta keeps getting better and better.” —Anthony Robinson, in Rust Buckle Reviews.
“Aaron is high art in his self-contextualizing. Little Ease opens with a quote from Foucalt and a snippet from Richard Cranshaw. The sections have strange, allusive titles: ‘Prologues from the Reformations,’ ‘Superliminare’, ‘Hospitality.’ There are no explainatory notes to guide you into these things: they are just there, leaving you feeling either curious or rebuked depending on your relationship to high culture, continental thought and the American avant garde that has taken them up. . . . What is terrific about Aaron is that he gets all of this in a really kind of unsnobby way, which means that the first poem of Jan Vandermeer goes like this:
a florid sunsets [nice grammatical arabesque there, by the way] evening a drifting
eyes my michigan (camaro hood propped
up with a hockey stick) of netherlands
Ever since, let’s say, Pound, the idea of swirling together high and pop culture has been growing stale, but Aaron makes it new in a really subtle way. This is not flarf-fireworks, but something very measured. Under a poem with this kind of ponderous 16th century (or 1905) title comes this incredibly light jaunt. It’s really fantastic.
“I don’t want to do a reading of Aaron w/r/t my own surprise and excitement that he is dealing with high culture without being a snob. There’s so much going on in this poem and I think the best way to think of it is as a kind of string quartet of voices that both clash and build upon each other.” —Simon DeDeo in Rhubarb is Susan.
I was born in Columbus, Ohio, where my father taught Archeology and my mother taught English. We moved to Knoxville, Tennessee before I was 1. I think I was a very happy child until we moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee when I was 6. Maybe unhappiness visits naturally around that age. I was an average student until later high school, where I developed a love for poetry, especially Romanticism, Modernism, and the Beats, as well as a powerful obsession with William Faulkner. My parents tried to anticipate any and all plausible vocations by exposing me to everything—every way of being—they could imagine. That I became a poet was a shock, I think, but one they took with dignity.
I went to college at the University of the South (also called Sewanee). There I was a good student and a melancholic. I worked for a short time as a copy editor after college and then in a variety of positions, many of which included the sale of records. Before going to graduate school, I entered an editorial collaboration with a college friend on an oral/social history of a Gullah community on South Carolina’s Waccamaw Neck. I completed masters degrees at North Carolina State University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the University of Michigan. Currently, I am in the final stages of my dissertation at Michigan. My wife Suzanne Chapman is an archivist. She specializes in digital resource collections. Our cells are close enough that we can sing one another to sleep.
Aaron McCollough’s book Welkin was winner of the 2002 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, chosen by Brenda Hillman.
I like that the title Little Ease is hopelessly ambiguous, so I guess that is the place to start when describing the project. It’s the name of a prison that promises no comfort (there is “little ease” available here, etc.), but it sounds in contemporary English parlance like a pretty decent state of affairs (a “little ease” would be welcome in my hectic day, etc.). The book—all my work, I guess—is very much about volatile subjectivity. It’s not meant as a postmodern gesture, though, really. I’m imagining something more like a classical rending of self, a real power struggle between good and bad impulses and good impulses which are bad on top of bad impulses which are good. I have no gripe with postmodernist theories of the subject; I just don’t see them as “new” phenomena. Division of the subject strikes me as a fundamental feature of the creation of the subject, and many have been inclined to agree for centuries. With that in mind as a constant problem, my poems tend to be attempts at doing something in spite of or in collusion with the fractures and contrarieties that always seem to be threatening to reduce me to oblivion.
As Little Ease was coming together for me initially, I was thinking of it in terms of two semi-related thematic ideas. First of all, I was thinking about the way social convention (ethical living, in particular) is a form of elective bondage. Secondly, I was fretting a good bit about the ethics of hospitality. More specifically, I was perseverating about the premium put on hospitality in classical cultures. A few touchstones for this would be the Ovidian account of Baucis and Philemon, the story of the Levite and his concubine among the Benjaminites from the book of Judges, chapter 19, and Matthew 25: 35–46. All of these stories stress the crucial importance of treating others (and strangers, perhaps especially) with generosity. Historically, hospitality has been about much more than mere social nicety. It is based on the basic assumption that the human race cannot survive its own cruelties and those of its environment. Something has to give, and that something is the mixture of human paranoia and acquisitiveness lying behind the invention of the lock.
On a personal, local, national, and global scale, we seem to have worked ourselves so far away from the hospitality ethic that it is hard to even imagine it as a plausible social reality. In my mind the erosion of this ethic is pretty closely linked to the promotion of the idea of the individual. The only areas where I see any space left for true hospitality are in the relationship between a person and himself/herself, between two lovers, and between a person and god, and all of those relationships are also often like prisons. I was tending to think in the book that the world at large should be more like those prisons. I guess I was working out my sense that living is a prison but that politics tries to pretend otherwise. Politics tries to pretend that there are freedoms out there that aren’t actually there. When a person acts as if he is not living in a form of bondage, the consequences often seem minor. When nations act like such bonds need not be observed, obviously, horrible things happen. The book kind of dilates back and forth between my feelings of attraction and repulsion for bondage and my assignment of such feelings to personal and public habits of behavior and affect.
As always, I was thinking about the domicile, the soul, and love between domestic partners and their God. What if God comes knocking, as he does in the garish illustrations of Revelation 3:20: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”? Could you let God in that way any more than you could let in a stranger? I think it would be hard no matter how much you wanted to. A person who cannot open his own door lives in a cell. Thus, in Little Ease, the old metaphors of body/domicile and body/prison merged. The voice speaking from these poems is always that of a prisoner, sometimes very happily so.