By John Colburn
(Coffee House Press)
Read John Colburn’s poetry and feel him lay bandages upon the earth. In his latest collection, released late last year, Colburn builds a kaleidoscopic palace for the reader to navigate: fractured, crystalline, and trembling with light. Known as an anarchist poet, he seems comfortable with the mind’s lawlessness, yet that moniker is reductive and belies Colburn’s precision with language—at once associative, elegant, and echoed by the book’s crisp type.
Still, wildness runs as current through Psychedelic Norway’s six sections, and at times this wildness is almost grimy. In the long poem sequence “preoccupation,” pigs exhibit shame and heads are determined by alcoholism and the speaker does not want “to act as mean as a human being.” Yet at other times Colburn’s wildness is synonymous with love—or at least delicate like clouds. In “prayer for dropouts,” the most relentlessly tender poem in the collection, the modal verb “may” introduces each stanza as a means of both benediction and entreaty: “may many versions of you carry your burden into many houses and may the burdens be released.” It’s the perfect grammar, allowing readers to exist simultaneously in the houses of love and longing—a separation Colburn eventually explodes, just as “grief-bearing flowers explode in their vases.”
Indeed, trying to gain a foothold in the crevasses of Colburn’s poetry is like trying to transcribe a jazz concert you heard at 2am. The point of this particular art is to receive its fullness, to feast at its rich table with your own hands, without a thought of knife and fork. There are so few spaces, literal or literary, in which we’re asked to abide with such corporeal uncertainty, the discomfort that arises in an opaque room. But Colburn invites you to sit down and remain in this shimmering territory, and in turn you’re rewarded with astonishing clarity and humor and, in the end, divinity. “This room is not the answer to the question, but the receptacle,” Colburn writes in the preface, a cycle of poems for Karel Husa’s string quartet. “The room holds the question, like the jar holds the water.” Psychedelic Norway holds countless questions and limitless magic. As Colburn would say: feel closely, and listen.