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a closed parenthesis, and what it opens in us


I’m in the Cincinnati, away from the SF bay area for a week, and I just learned about Colleen Lookingbill’s death from many friends’ emails, from Facebook posts, and from Kevin Killian’s deeply moving Harriet post. Kevin’s description of her generosity and valor is an open embrace of her life and work—an embrace that holds all of us, invites all of us in to share what remains so alive in her poetry and in the work she has done for poetry. It is devastating to think that we have lost her presence on the planet.

I didn’t know Colleen very well, very personally. I met her, thanks to Elizabeth Robinson, who has been so close to Colleen for so many years. After that initial meeting, I would talk to Colleen with much pleasure and playfulness whenever I saw her at readings and at gatherings. I’ve been delighted whenever I’ve had the chance to read her poems. And, with Gillian Hamel, OmniVerse’s Managing Editor, I participated in published some of her stunning visual poetry.

Even though Colleen and I weren’t intimate friends, I can’t help but want to use this Harriet post to honor her. Kevin has done the important work, but I realize I can add to that by sharing some thoughts about her most recent book.

Here (thanks to my dear friend Andrew Joron who typed this into an email and sent it to me after midnight so that I could have it for this) is the full text of the last poem in Colleen's book a forgetting of, published by Avery Burns's lyric& press in San Francisco, 2011.

come what may)

giving over my mode au naturel
pure or polluted as I await the unveiling
of night's recycled poem

which resembles our backstory
softly rendered contrary
for my part so as to make, to mourn
to point nude abidance toward freewheeling echo flux

that said, we recognize lucid continuum
innermost thoughts taming a restless amnesia

gushing hideaway springs up, happily repeated
our presence collects—always an entwinement voyage
another vulnerable commentary called sojourn
this faithful variation my refuge, my reserve

All of the titles of poems in this book are followed by a closed parenthesis, unmatched by an open parenthesis sign. The cadences of a closed parenthesis, at first glance, may seem to echo only a simple idea of ending. But the repetition of the mark, as one faces it, in title after title, asks a reader to consider its shape, which curves toward the emptiness it rests against, and then curves back to its beginning point. So much in Colleen’s poetry risks pressing right up against the ineffable, but deftly, fluidly, and with surprising grace. With her focus on this mark, I experience in its clarity of closure both pressure and poise. Yet it is the closure itself that forces us to consider what rests on the other side of its irrevocable border. I hear both energies—the irrevocable, and the awareness pressing against it—in her lines

to mourn
to point nude abidance toward freewheeling echo flux

Colleen’s subtly pervasive, penetrating use of the closed parenthesis is reminding me of one of Karl Kraus’s aphorisms: “The closer the look one takes at a word, the greater distance from which it looks back” (Pro Domo et Mundo, ch 7).

By using this mark without its partner (the open parenthesis), she requires that we see it alone in its expanding implications, and thus from an increasingly potent distance. I begin to sense it looking back at me—though it remains mute to my questioning both what presses against it from the side of language, and what meets that pressure on the side of emptiness.

that said, we recognize lucid continuum
innermost thoughts taming a restless amnesia

By facing that its “amnesia” will always be “restless,” the mind can make peace with it, “tam[e]” its sense of the forgotten, the unknowable, even as that mind must “recognize” that the “lucid” is only “continuum” and thus it cannot step outside that boundary. Of course, there is always more that we can’t know, can’t understand, can’t touch in that “restless[ness]”—a forgetfulness of memory, but more, of life’s intimate bordering of death. I remember, again, the closed parenthesis, how the curving line always comes back to its starting place. We live, as best as we can, in our unknowing. Yet Colleen offers “lucid” and generous reflection upon our situation.

There are, I know, many more ways to read the two couplets I’ve considered above, and so many more ways to open oneself to the impact of Colleen’s closed parenthesis, and so much more to be found in Colleen’s poems. I hope you will find your way to them. To offer a bit more, I want to share a quote from a wonderful review written by Joseph Noble in which he engages with so many more of the trajectories in Colleen’s work:

what we encounter as we make our way through A Forgetting Of is a world helping us remember what we encounter for the first time.

And, here (again thanks to Andrew’s email) is the full text of another poem in the last section of the book.

you think of me)

all in the body, inside my body

cured by falling snow
or by rain dropping through a door

friendly, like old world flamingoes
flowers in a primitive landscape

goodness is invisible
making use of fate to find your face

outstretched arms a steady lake
clear mind already unselfish

sufficiently cryptic
neutral eye of heaven

enable us both to see poise and energy

we are ourselves, our own virginity
sensuous, washable, a causal nexus

to love more this life
I think of you

Originally Published: April 7th, 2014

Poet, critic, and publisher Rusty Morrison was a teacher for 19 years before earning her MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California. Her first book, Whethering (2004), won the Colorado Prize for Poetry; her second, the true keeps calm biding its story (2008), won a Sawtooth Poetry Prize, a James...