Night Unto Night by Martha Collins
Milkweed, 2018; 128 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
Night Unto Night, Martha Collins’ companion collection of poet to her 2014 book Day Unto Day, completes her enterprise of writing a poem for each day in a six month interval. These are not transcendent and eternal meditations, but meditations grounded in time, in a life and in its concerns. Each section is a tight 5-7 lines and these months range from March 2010 through November 2015, and the whole sequence is remarkably achieved.
The sequences mix the liturgical calendar (February’s Ash Wednesday with Lent through March and All Saints Day in November) with seasonal images. In the May sequence, “Broken Open,” the speaker angel-wrestles with the age-old dichotomy between body and soul, in this case one’s aging body and the elusive self-spirit. Using the Quaker figure of “That / of God in us,” Collins fuses the images, but she doesn’t stop there. She spins other metaphors for God, ones that are large enough to contain all that is: “That / Which made us, I-am- / that-I-am” so that the image is one of a “hollow inside which (I) // am missing, abyss” (32). This dual truth settles not theological dispute by honoring the mystery as it is lived.
What this selection also indicates is Collins’ characteristic word-play which creates a dense associative network of ideas and feelings in a small space. With these themes, these small poems feel like nodes of thought to consider, idea-beads to roll in the mind’s fingers. In the next section of “Broken Open,” she entertains similar considerations, now through natural images, through “petals that pinked the garden” (32). Now the “winged seeds / that greened the gray” are “all flesh” and shall “shineth as the day” (32).
One of the great rewards of Martha Collins’ work is her capacity to think-through-language, returning readers to own own phrasings more aware and lively to how words move and imply, shade and illuminate meanings. June’s meditation, “In Time,” comes to this directly:
Under the tangle of all
these startings stoppings long-
the minister said and it
or is it just
reaching toward least-ness
into not-ness or just in time?
I appreciate that unpunctuated list of verbals, nouns made of action—which are what utterances are—but also the double meaning of “just” as in “mere” but also as “appropriate” or even “righteous,” which in this Biblical exploration of the meaning of creation feels apt. The nature-threat that is human induced does confront the goodness of creation, leading us to question if we are leading the Garden into oblivion, into Collins’ taut invention, “not-ness.”
The compressed spiritual exercises of Night Unto Night take in the personal experience of aging, the closeness of death, both of a friend and of the speaker’s mother—her “mayfly life” and the speaker’s eight day vigil at the end. But the social realm is likewise included, as one would expect from Martha Collins, a poet of conscience and social examination. American concerns such as immigration, the rage of war, and the communist shadow cast by May Day leading to Memorial Day’s intoning of war dead—all these are part of the poet’s field of vision. In these overheated political times, it is not only refreshing but necessary to have a poet of this depth and subtlety in our midst.