Reviewed by Keith Kopka
Kate Colby's The Arrangements is a collection that announces its intent from its title. Colby's poems explore the idea of control around the constructions of identity, love, and desire, as well as the ways in which one attempts to organize these often-unwieldy forces through connections to more tangible landscapes, the body, or even language.
The idea of control begins on a formal level in Colby's writing. Almost the entirety of The Arrangements is composed in couplets, a construction which, when repeated across so many poems, slows the reader's intake to the point where one is lulled into an almost meditative state. This choice in pacing allows Colby to create tension by introducing theoretical and philosophical arguments against the deft musicality of her line. For example, in the poem, "The One," she writes:
There is no such thing
as an imaginary circle.
Even weather is spherical.
We are vacuum-packed
in atmospheres, sensory
and insensible making eyes
for how I want you, this
dark room, bright screen—
In these lines, one can clearly see how Colby is able to balance the aforementioned philosophical argumentation (in this case the idea of desire) with musicality to create linear, as well as subjective, tension. Colby's placement of the initial rhyme between "circle" and "spherical" in back to back couplets before interrupting the rhyme with a series of hard "a" sounds in the words "are," "vacuum-packed" and "atmospheres" is indicative of linear choices made across the collection. In this particular example, the initial rhyme is eventually resolved in the word "insensible." However, this resolution is short-lived. The tension immediately returns in the hard "a" sound of "making," which serves as a sonically unsettling linchpin that allows the poem to introduce a new image set while also moving the argument of the poem forward.
In their best moments, the poems in this collection use the tension created by Colby's formal choices to bring a welcome originality to the "well-wrought urn" of poetic self-interrogation. It is in these taut, introspective flashes that the images and voice in these poems feel as though they have more in common with Issa or Basho than with more contemporary poetry. However, there are also moments where the voice feels as though it slips away from refreshing introspection into the less satisfying territory of abstraction, colloquialism, and armchair philosophy. Still, these weaker moments are few and far between, and when they do happen, Colby still manages to make interesting arguments through the virtue of her meticulous craft.
Thematically, The Arrangements is less concerned with narrative conclusions than it is with the expression of existential anxieties. This lyrical approach invites the exploration of contradictions through image, which is effectively unsettling for the reader. One of the recurring anxieties explored in these poems is the idea of longing as a conduit for the nature of being. Again and again, the reader encounters speakers who are controlled by their desires, but the exploration of this longing through the lyric image almost always reveals that the material world is unable to satiate, leading only to a deeper awareness of what is lacking. For example, in the opening poem, "Inside Job," the speaker addresses the contradiction in the consciousness of being and the experience of wanting:
I've inspired some
love songs, but never
a history text, please
write me back, I'm
See, the thing is
shadows can't be black
when they're made of light.
This dialogue between the physical world and the speaker's desire allows Colby to articulate phenomenological arguments through the dissonance of her images, and, as a reader, one cannot help but be unsettled by the continued presentation of what is both at once familiar and unknown. This poetic reimagining of the "unheimlich" is one of the most challenging aspects of these poems. However, if the reader faces the challenges that Colby presents, the confrontation of the unknown becomes one of the most rewarding elements of the collection.
As a whole, The Arrangements traffics in contradictions. Through short, often sparsely lineated poems, Colby is able to explore much larger arguments concerning the nature of desire and the human condition. If read quickly or independently of one another, one could mistake many of the poems in this collection for simple or playful lyric meditations, but Colby's impeccable craft, as well as the pacing of the collection as a whole, allows these poems to build a world that asks readers to push themselves beyond the familiar ways of organizing their existence toward more uncomfortable and intangible interrogations of self.
Colby not only presents readers with the physical world through image, but she also revels in undermining the security of the "signified," often within a few lines. In the book's penultimate poem, "To Be Continued," Colby opens by presenting a familiar winter landscape, complete with "Shrill light from snow." But the safety of this familiar trope dissolves when it is compared to a dead child. Again, the reader's sense of the familiar is alienated, and one is asked to indulge in philosophical exploration of self until the sense of division crescendos in the poems closing couplet:
I can't exist
The backslash dividing the meaning in a single word becoming the tangible representation of the division between self and meaning that permeates this beautiful and challenging collection.