A book of poetry can take some growing into. Reading through, we might be unsure whether it is the book (like it or not) that is changing, or ourselves. Are the earlier verses that much different from those at the end -- or are we readers merely getting acclimated to the language, immersed in the poet's mindspace?
Local poet Kristofer Collins' new collection, King Everything (Six Gallery Press), made me feel that a little of each was happening. The book's last section is headed "Recent Poems"; but while I'm uncertain whether the book proceeds chronologically, I am sure that the second half of this 140-page volume is much stronger than the first.
Collins is a contributing editor at locally based online journal The New Yinzer. He'a also a Pittsburgh native, and King Everything is, ineluctably, a book about here circa now, or at least Collins' slice of it. While it's heavy on Oakland (Collins owns and operates Desolation Row CDs, on South Craig), a more generalized portrait emerges: a sad, dirty old town whose talented young people are lighting out for greener pastures.
If that's an old story, much of Collins' achievement lies in presenting other facets of the portrait, including the city's mysterious magnetic tug. "This town won't let me go," he writes in "The Poem About Oakland's Teeth." "It's got its arms around my waist / A terrible love."
Collins' signature style is short poems with stanzas of one to four short, unpunctuated lines each. The settings are urban, immediate -- introverted ruminations on shattered romance, suicide, brief joys, wasted youth, poetry itself. On the page, they look much like Ginsberg's early verse, and sound a bit like it, too.
The Beat influence booms: It's no coincidence the longest piece here is a sort of prayer to Kerouac titled "Blues for Jack." Also perhaps uncoincidentally, while the writing is characteristically passionate, too many poems early on find Collins wrestling cliché ("This city is haunted") and, often -- almost compulsively -- adopting the language of blues music, a technique which translates as affectation. In fact, many of the poems seem to aspire to be song lyrics, and might do better in that medium.
But the longer it goes on, the more authority King Everything asserts. One perfectly evocative little piece of wordplay is "Make-Out Party (Twenty-Two)":
Not a dunce
But the browsy beams
Of gray-tongued sun
A bang of ganglion
She sang me
On the frowsy tin town roofs
"The day is stunned / By your wasping wrist," he writes of a poet friend in another piece. In "Boston Harbor," Collins recalls a poison relationship: "Sliding swiftly we disease / Brown-brained & clanging." The spareness of his approach comes into focus, a warily romantic worldview; there even emerges a sense of humor lacking in the earlier pieces.
Collins is among 14 readers (including Jonathan Loucks, Claire Donato, Jonathan Moody, Scott Silsbe and Ed Steck) in The New Pittsburgh Poetry, a May 10 reading at ModernFormations gallery. Despite King Everything's flaws, I appreciated even the book's first half more on a second read, and Collins' learning curve seems steep. Even as his poems do more than promise, they also promise more.
The New Pittsburgh Poetry A reading presented by The New Yinzer and River Water 7:30 p.m. Thu., May 10. ModernFormations Gallery, 4919 Penn Ave., Garfield. $2. 412-362-0274 or www.newyinzer.com