books
February 20, 2009

 

Colosseum
by Katie Ford
Graywolf Press

Review by Jason Ericson

As a poet displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Katie Ford speaks in her new book Colosseum with the fragmentary and stunned voice of a survivor. This is the poetry of shock. The verse is quiet and measured, lean and spare, honest and affected. Even moments of relative calm are marked by trauma; in “Cemetery,” for example, Ford writes “When you touched me, / I felt nothing. The day so beautiful / it struck me across the face.”

The poems of this collection share a unifying theme: the breathless pace and scope of natural disaster, and the long, complex and ultimately imperfect recovery ever after.

Ford’s voice is compassionate, even likable, but also detached, trailed by loss and grief. Her storytelling is prone to sudden, dark twists:

He takes photographs for our black folios,
thin India paper separating one from another.
There is no scientific evidence of consciousness
lasting outside the body. I think when I die
it will be completely.

These reminders of mortality are everywhere, filling the book like high water. The world Ford describes feels dirty, inhospitable and sick, as in “The Singing”:

I wanted to see others alive
and count myself among them.

But they sang as I boiled parasites
from the bath. They sang
as I lowered into their water.

In “Colosseum,” she mourns the 400-minute-long life of a mayfly, and in “Rose” she sees death waiting inside all living things: “now I build a miniature menagerie / to study creatures under the enormous / pressure of all that’s dead in them.”

The recollection and repetition of key events submerges us in Ford’s fixations. Put simply, Ford dwells on things, as someone who has seen something too big to get her mind around is wont to do. These reverberations boom loudest in her titling: the book, the last of the book’s three sections, and a poem within that section all share the title “Colosseum”; another poem is titled “Coliseum Theater.” Likewise, three poems share the title “Earth”; another is called “Earth, This Firelit Lantern.”

These reiterations replay the day the rug was pulled out, as Ford attempts to process tragedy and reorder her thoughts. In “The Vessel Bends The Water” (one of Colosseum’s three “vessel” titles) she writes, “The body begs for a system that will not break— / even to fold the warm clothes, wanting / the edges to do as they are meant to do— / this is why I touched him.”

In a world where the sky can break open and steal a whole city full of homes and lives, comfort proves elusive. In Colosseum, Ford assays relationships once thought unshakable, including those with spouse, nature, and afterlife. Her verse seeks solid earth—or at least dry ground.


              
              
                 

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