Every Atom. Erin Coughlin Hollowell. Boreal Books. An Imprint of Red Hen Press. Pasadena, California. 2018.
There are few things harder than watching your parents fade away in front of your eyes. The loss of memory can narrow a parents universe to the point where you can no long provide comfort. Welcome to Erin Coughlin Hollowell's Every Atom.
This mother and daughter diorama is poignant, prescient and palliative. Parts of our lives, the end parts, are often lived out in slow operas of dissension. Those we love slowly ebbing to the side of the stage and then out of lights until we become them and then full curtain to black.
Every Atom narrates a horrific battle wrought tender, a one way abandonment, not deliberate, but terminal. Hollowell understands mortality but can't embrace it, can't fight it.
Who learns under it to
destroy the teacher
First they taught us how
to put on our white
gloves. How to scrub each
night to keep them clean.
Never mind that I
was six and that boys
just twelve years older
died every day in
the jungle. Totted
where they fell. We learned
to diaper babies,
to pin away from
the child's skin and
toward our own. How
to curtsy and sit,
ankles crossed, our hands
like sleeping birds in
our laps. Each dinner,
gunfire from helicopters.
Mother had me set
the dinner table.
I had been trained which
direction the knife
blade should face. I knew
how to use a shrimp
fork. I could iron
anything smooth. I
was a child, but I
knew that white gloves
and party manners were
best, because when I
was silent, clean, and
neat, my mother
would love me.
Or so I was taught.
Every Atom is lamentation and prayer, fear and the cost of freedom, Erin Coughlin Hollowell renders us hopelessly hopeful, dutifully doomed. There is no getting out alive. The lead in every single story will do this dance, one way or another. Hollowell's lamentations have character and beauty mixed in with the sadness.
Hope raises her innocent resilience higher with almost every turn of the page in spite of the obvious stations of impending doom waiting.
One of the hardest parts of living is continuing on when those we love most leave, perish, die. Perhaps even harder are those circumstances where a loved one leaves in stages. Cognitive skills and memory echo out hollow canyons where our love used to be. A loved voice recedes in fear from the very souls who love hardest and longest. Hollowell's sorrows are not unique, we all have them. That Hollowell makes these circumstances into art is the joy.
If they are not the riddle and the untying
of the riddle, they are nothing
We are built for breaking. We know this
and yet still more babies are born
with their soft skulls and hunger.
What word can stop a bullet? Walking
down the wrong street, a woman is in the sudden
embrace of a stranger drunk on luck's spittle.
All of us put our hope in time, as if simple
accretion will make our lives valuable.
For some people, it rains every damn day.
All of those names etched in stone, all
the different ways we shine ourselves
like tiny moons reflecting a broken code.
We scatter. The sea rises and gnaws away
at the territory we mapped so assuredly.
So many stories we thought we would
never forget. A lost saint for every family.
At night, I rest my lips against my lover's throat,
his pulse beneath carries me along in my little boat
of affection and need. Oh this wreckage life,
the breath of a hare dreaming in a hawk's shadow.
Our morning read spawned some invigorated conversation as Hollowell skirts and flirts with the big death thing. Every Atom drapes the notion of the big nap and the dance to get there with a cloud that will eventually embrace us all. She gets away with this grim reportage and prognostications by colouring her palette with compassion. Her poems are beautiful poems even when recording the brutal.
Today's book of poetry has been going through a period of transition, technical and otherwise. This will be the first blog/review done on our newish office equipment. When I say newish I mean that there have been previous owners, but it is all new to us. Beautiful and mysterious. Today's book of poetry is on a serious computer learning curve. Stick around though, we anticipate good things as a result.
Not asking the sky to come down
to my good will, scattering it freely forever
The crow's compass swings wildly.
See him tumble from the sky, a flung rag,
a scrap of darkness plummeting.
I want to own such reckless practice.
To find the taproot of doubt and dig it out,
be scraped clean on the sun-bleached soil.
Saint Crow, I am a shabby petitioner.
One of your feathers tucked behind my ear,
I am hungry for your spring song gospel.
Teach me how to scull through the day
with wings pinioned, lucky, afflicted,
ready to abandon this broken and whole.
When I woke this morning, night's trespass
still on the water but horizon igniting,
I pledged myself to your gape-mouthed ministry.
Hurl me beyond the wildfire of my mind
into air. Into that crystalline shatter
so I might, like too-bright light, scatter.
Today's book of poetry has some personal experience with the horrors of the last act but we've never managed to find Erin Coughlin Hollowell's grace or her emotional precision. Today's book of poetry is continuously surprised at how many ways there are to burn, but burn Hollowell does.
Hats off to Hollowell for showing us.
Erin Coughlin Hollowell
ABOUT THE POET
Erin Coughlin Hollowell is a poet and writer who lives at the end of the road in Alaska. Prior to landing in Alaska, she lived on both coasts, in big cities and small towns, pursuing many different professions from tapestry weaving to arts administration. In 2013, Boreal Books published her first collection Pause, Traveller. She has been awarded a Rasmuson Foundation Fellowship, a Connie Boochever Award, and an Alaska Literary Award. Her work has been most recently published in Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, Sugar House Review, and was a finalist for the 49th Parallel Contest for the Bellingham Review.
"With clarity and grace, Erin Coughlin Hollowell cleaves into the liminal spaces between living and merely existing, between the past and forgetting, between mother and daughter, and brings us these hard-won and resilient gifts from her journey. Every Atom is a book that you need to read, because in it are the poems that matter."--Kevin Goodan, author of Let the Voices
"Erin Hollowell has written a stunning and beautiful tribute to a mother as she slips away into loss of memory and belonging in a body and family. And yet the richness of relation here?wreckage and tenderness?is a balm for the losses we all know we will suffer on behalf of those who have given us our lives and for our very selves. 'Saint Crow,' she writes, for darkness is indeed an entrance into the holy in these wise and nourishing poems."
--Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of Stairway to Heaven
"There comes a moment in every Erin Coughlin Hollowell poem when the heart threatens to burst open and spill light."
--Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Hummingbird's Daughter
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