Sum of Every Lost Ship by Allison Titus
(Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010)
Although I read it in the late-July heat, Allison Titus’s full-length debut, Sum of Every Lost Ship, is a winter book. The poems made me long for winter, a season I mostly can’t wait for to be over, but that I appreciate for its endless pots of soup, hand-knit accessories, and excuses to get into bed early with some crime fiction. The poems didn’t compel me toward this cozy version of winter, though. They made me think that even the parts where I can’t feel my extremities and I’m stranded on a floe in the Gulf of Finland–old empty vodka bottles sticking this way and that out of the thick ice–could be tolerable, with the right company.
The Don DeLillo epigraph, “There is a motel in the heart of every man” (from Americana), conjures loneliness, scratchy (or worse) bed linens (“the floral bed of our discount suite”), anonymity, simultaneous lives in extremity, last ditch efforts, and–maybe a bit more positively–love affairs. There’s something of all of this in Sum of Every Lost Ship. The book is “a forest / of motels”; it attempts to cut through the solitude and quiet–with radio, with postcards and letters, with a fetching how-to manual written by a whale (the sequence “Instructions from the Narwhal”). Motel rooms are where people make “a confederacy of meanwhile, tender by tender.” Confederacy, yet I read contingency–the acknowledgement that union is transient, however sweet: “What we need // is a surefire way to strap the bed / onto the trembling boat.”
Titus’s settings are desolate–tourist-places after the tourist-season, as we learn in “Exiled”: “Kind sir, the tourists have left / the cabins. The keys all accounted for / and rubber banded.” It makes sense, then, that if someone is always leaving, or someone is always aware that “after our one good year” someone will be leaving, remnants are cherished throughout the book. The poems allude to shreds and scraps, to acts of reckoning. In “Modern Romance” “The parts // of me that are on fire can’t / put the parts of you that are on fire out.” Romance isn’t total, but for the time-being it’s enough, as in “Self-Portrait as the Train Passes”: “I gave you that sleep, a pale / asylum from the hours I did not love / you and did not say.”
The speakers in these poems look at the past, with its triumphs (“If at first inelegant, every refrain of touch built / a sturdy harbor”) and its failures (“the hours … cosseted and bundled … as poor mutts pulled limp / from the river”). Titus observes what’s left of one speaker after the “good year”: “ I am already / black strands of hair // on the flat white / pillow, // fingernail clippings in the sink.” Weary acknowledgement pervades, but this book is never resigned–it persists in cataloguing, in making funny math of its parts. Tender acts of keeping, even against the awareness that relationships end, are figured as “Shepherding”: “We bundle our secrets / in winter clothes, leave them, / these sad culprits, to the wardrobe, / let the moths scrap the silhouettes to shreds.” Similarly, in “Obsessive Compulsive,” shepherding materializes in an unexpected urge: “Because I am in love with you / I imagine your dying. / This is how I keep you safe.” The superstitious speaker confronts apprehension through this awareness that we may lose what we don’t acknowledge as fragile. The second poem titled “Motel” (the book has four) is a study in tenuousness:
Once I conjugated every animal to sorrow. Every sorrow into a small small factory, manufacturer of salt, camping gear, fur coats and poorly upholstered furniture. Even now it seems like every version of melancholy rescues a nocturne for the pallid sky. A type of permanent dusk. Fold down the bedsheet. The room has earned its sadness. Nondescript despite how we have rearranged ourselves inside it, undressing with cold hands. Us with our pilgrim hearts. Stationed fast to parentheses of sleep and winter.
Here, the catalogue is “a nocturne” for what has to be the sweetest description of hibernation I’ve ever read.
Weather figures largely in these attempts to capture the contingency of relationships, as all too soon, “In unremarkable minutes the world passes / to habit.” The poems’ weathers “heave & flatten”; they amplify mood as sky becomes “a consumptive arrangement of fevers.” But weather is more than mere backdrop—it is itself a barometer, an instrument for relating how exteriors reflect and augment interiors. The untitled preface poem implores, “Think of the nights that / have broken without a word, // have left a starless sky in your throat.” Weather provides both protection and oblivion, two sides of the same coin perhaps: “Fog sews the afternoon over / us sews us inside / the afternoon.” Without moves within.
“Inclement” describes one way in which the poems of Sum of Every Lost Ship work–that is, as various bracing epistles to the heart’s cold:
Snow and after, each bidding
and restlessness turns the goat’s heart
fallow: long hours of ice and bluster:
asymmetry of wind.
Say every goat has in its heart
a field, and each field, a goat:
the slumber of muscle and grass
is still a different elegy. Every
heart writes a different letter
of winter to its cold.
Icicles on sheet
metal, bucket frozen in the well.
Once there was no language
for the weather, just The sky is low and birdless;
or The sky is a box of wings.
Yet, Titus “stak[es] a claim on the weather” and demonstrates, that if we only know how to look at it, weather can be the most interesting thing to talk about.
Jessica Bozek is the author of The Bodyfeel Lexicon (Switchback Books) and several chapbooks, including Squint into the Sun (new from Dancing Girl Press). Recent poems appear in 751, Action, Yes, Artifice, Black Warrior Review, Guernica, horse less review, and Sixth Finch. Jessica teaches writing at Boston University and runs Small Animal Project (smallanimalproject.com), a reading series in Cambridge, MA.