Perhaps the New York school of poetry (think O'Hara, Ashbery and Koch) was onto something, with its conversational style infused with irreverence and gossip. Kristofer Collins might agree: His latest work, the chapbook-y, 30-plus pages of Pennsylvania Welcomes You (Coleridge Street Books), relies on an optimistic tone from a less-than-confessional speaker.
Collins, once editor of The New Yinzer, now owner of Desolation Row Records and Low Ghost Press, has published several books in the past decade. This latest is a Valentine to the city, but don't expect smiley-cookie odes or blue-collar elegies. Pennsylvania Welcomes You feels more like an outsider's embrace of a region too often more concerned with what it isn't than with what it is — a place where people have artistic and personal room to grow, cultivate relationships and drink beer.
There are few heavy themes dealt with here, in poems celebrating quotidian joys. Collins spells this out in "12 E. Read St.," saying, "Your note said, ‘Don't be late and bring some beer. Dinner is / Assured!" and standing there in the hallway's damp light / I did feel assured — by the delicious curves of your southpaw / Script, the coming chill of another shaggy season ..." His speaker's enthusiasm for life's simple pleasures bursts off the page as "a rage of living," reminding a reader to seize small moments easily overlooked in a digital age that often forgets the personal touch.
Poems with titles like "The Prayer of St. Pierre's Ravine," "The Whiskey Rebellion" and "W. Eugene Smith" invoke aspects of local history, while the writer handles them in impressionistic and unexpected ways. The iconic Bloomfield Bridge Tavern gets this treatment in "BBT," with Collins' imagery going a bit surreal: "Out here is the bridge & little / Houses beneath it. A ball field gone barren from lack of play / Do you believe any of it? If I tell you it's all gone, everything / Beyond the door destroyed forever, then it is. And when we walk / Outside all of what you see is just your brain filling in the blanks ..."
Such uneven imagery tends to leave a reader rootless rather than grounded, relying more on the speaker's commentary than straightforward description. But while Collins' playfulness with images can detract from his subject matter, it adds a life-affirming voice to a region that thoughtfully inspires a range of welcome artistic perspectives.