Apr/May 2004 Book Reviews

Double Venus

Aaron McCollough
Salt Publishing (2004) 96 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

Technique: We have Whitman and William Carlos Williams through a prism of Charles Olsen and ee cummings, complete with half-parodic (?) Derrdian erasure and a little Pound. And yet we also have a Something Else.

It is in the Something Else that the locus of Double Venus is discovered. This should not come as a surprise.

Aaron McCullough, like his fellow Salt Publishing poet Catherine Daly (whose volume DaDaDa I reviewed and engaged in these pages last quarter), is part of the closest thing I've seen to a "school" (in the formerly neutral or positive sense, i.e. "New York School") of (American) poetry in the present generation, which as I've said elsewhere has been afflicted and crippled by the vapid and tiresome "MFA" (or, as I've called it) "still-life" poetry that have been the norm for well over twenty years now. I find this poetry more vital and meaningful, kinetic and thought-provoking—at first glance it uses old Symbolist and Surrealist tropes to generate meaning by "playing" with the language, and yet unlike the conversational, folksy neo-Frostian moves away from the "norm" one sees in a poet like, say, Billy Collins, it presents a direct and poignant challenge to the reader (and also the poet) in the emotive and spiritual realms as well. I find its locus in Christian mysticism. It is a negative theology of everyday living, polarized in speculative thought (Augustine, Meister Eckhart) and in emotive outcries asserting its own humanity (St. John of the Cross).


When I reviewed Catherine Daly's collection, I cavalierly and naively announced both in the review and in private that after it, I would cease reviewing poetry, publicly and in "print." Actually, while myself a published poet and a reader of poetry with an MFA in it (University of Florida, 1994), and while I've taught workshops and continue to teach surveys, both at the college level, I've published far more prose fiction and reviews on prose (both fiction and non, and the various in-betweens). I've published more music reviews than poetry reviews. But that's splitting hairs and skirting the issue.

Which was that, with the exception of volumes from more "conventional" contemporary poets I admire (Andrew Hudgins, et. al.) the contemporary poetry being written and published in English which seems important and vital to both myself and also many others I've discussed poetry with seems, for me, to require a much different kind of "review" than the kind of articles I've grown accustomed to writing, and which others still do of the same work, sometimes quite well: name the themes, quote some stanzas, make a critical judgment of some sort, call it a Wrap. But, again for me, this poetry which makes unique and perhaps unfamiliar demands on both reader and reviewer both necessitated and deserved in order to approach it on the adequacy of its intentions or "terms", some sort of... response, a kind of antiphon, if you will. Not an approximation, a parody, or a review in "verse," however, but something different. The Review as Response.

I used (however inadequately) this sort of approach in my treatment of DaDaDa and suddenly began to receive engaging correspondences from other poets, and indeed non-poets (for there are still non-poets who aren't necessarily "academics" who read this stuff, I've found) praising my approach, challenging it, and urging me to continue to further and refine it.

I don't necessarily forward or fax all such responses to my editors at Eclectica or old college friends—they don't have time. I confess I haven't responded to every letter, either—I confess I never do anyway! Like most people, sometimes I'm busier than others. [And all you writers out there whose work I've read and reviewed for free, the medal goes to your Best Friend in the Arts, Angela Rineck-McGowin, haha but seriously—those of you who read my stuff doubtless notice that my work in every form (just ask my students) is peppered with little nods of appreciation. Know Proverbs 31? I told Tia last night that I've only met two women in my life who merit those words: my late maternal grandmother and your mother.]

Well, okay! I'm enthused by the response to my writing, on any number of levels and in many ways, but I still may not "get" it, though I'm a Reader too, and any reading has its own validity. But my own poetry would probably be best approached the way Gilbert Purdy approaches poetry—and those are super reviews—though I wish Salt or Station Hill would put out my book, though I doubt they'd have me!

Double Venus is composed in four sections, using as its epigraph Augustine's famous "Verdict of Conscience": "You are doing to someone else what you would not like done to you." Apt: this is illustrated in the poems themselves through dissolutions of language, in the context of a volume that is thematically concerned with personal ethics as they interface with the public sphere, to oversimplify it. There is humor and irony in the meta-humor and devise, such as sound bytes and snippets of overhearing, and a Middle English voice a la Walter Hilton that provides oblique commentary on the action of the other poems from behind a Cloud of Unknowing. There are great & spine tingling closures of individual poems here.

With exceptions ("The Shipwreck of the Singular"), the volume's most riveting passages do not have conventional "titles" as such—though the one I've just named is one of my favorites—but rather sequences of bracketed numbers followed by phrases. This reinforces the continuum and continuity of the imagery and rushing verbiage with its focus on the verb itself, and palpably identifiable objects, persons, and events stand alone between the surround-sound of this teeming biological imperative, for in Double Venus this is exactly what language itself becomes. The poet muses on his other Muse, Suzanne, and I Corinthians 7 in section II, "Common Places," and what you read as cerebral becomes intensely erotic. The soul of the book is the Duality of One-ness, and beyond the third section, "Essays and Visions," the associations made in the volume's opening and deceptively conventional section, "Arguments and Spurious Links," actually demonstrate an acute awareness of purpose: no link in this book is spurious at all.

Aaron McCollough is about as well-read as you want, but significantly, your unfamiliarity with everything from Sir Richard Burton to Alchemy won't get in your way if you let the allusions take you where their sources are going anyway. Read that sentence again, and if you understand what I'm talking about, you'll apprehend just what a tremendous achievement Double Venus truly is. I can't do it justice with a quote, nor can I "respond" to it as I can to CaDaly. This is not to suggest that it is somehow hermeneutically sealed—far from it! Because it is not its being is its own reward, and that constitutes something of a triumph.

Really, if you read or write or care about poetry, you should get this book, and read it. It's a powerful achievement, and one that achieves a fuller resonance in this reader with each application. The only way you can truly respond to something on this magnitude is silent reflection or the direct action of responding to the poetry in kind. The only use of a "review" here is to tell you it's out there and yes, it's worth your time.

I appreciate the subtle nuances of Aaron McCollough's writing as well as the broad strokes. If you've come this far with me in this meditation, you know as well as I can tell you this volume is one you need to look into.


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