A New American Field Guide & Song Book

By Ryan Collins


H_NGM_N Books
May 2015

Reviewed by Jay Besemer


There is a lot to unpack in A New American Field Guide and Song Book, Ryan Collins' solid debut poetry collection. From the title to the "liner notes" at the end, this book is stuffed with interrelated, nuanced poems, most of which are untitled, allowing them to be read either as standalone verse or as elements of a larger poem spilt into sections. This flexibility works well, as does Collins' graceful use of satirical humor throughout. Recurring motifs and references not only connect poems and sections in the text, but also situate this book squarely (if a bit ironically) within the context of traditional, canonical American poetry, particularly that of Whitman, Poe, and Frost.

Almost every poem in the Field Guide directly addresses (or creates through direct address) a subject-persona: the New American. Though inclusive of all readers by implication, there is ample room for questioning just who this New American is imagined to be. From various descriptive details, one might infer that the New American is a white, middle-class, normative male: "You call yourself a Cadillac man, / an oak man"; "We are late to be spared the sin of being fathers." If that's the case, it seems an intentionally-adopted subjectivity, not a universalizing erasure of difference. Is Collins using the more satirical elements of the New American persona to challenge received notions of masculinity? It's certainly possible.

The possibility of a masculine identity for the New American also connects to the feeling throughout the Field Guide of the inescapability of the stronghold of early U.S. history. The ghosts of the Founding Fathers and their ideologies seem to haunt these pages. Sometimes there is a sense that the New American fails to live up to their standards; this is complicated but not contradicted by an equal sense that the New American has been left to clean up the runaway meltdown begun in the thirteen colonies: 

We make nothing perfectly
Or permanent, even the ink on our foundational
Vellum, airtight & bulletproofed behind six-inch
Plexiglas. Why boil water when no amount of
Washing cleans the hands?

The "Old American" is also represented by figures like Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman. The presence of such fetishes of American literature and history vibrates through every page, again connecting past to present in an occasionally discomfiting counterpoint:

Sound pre-dating Plymouth our New
American ears can't register, frequencies lost to
Other music seeping thru floorboards w/ a tell-
Tale heart knocking away on the bedrock silence.

Two of the strongest recurring motifs are the song (or the act of singing) and the iconic, near-cliché paper crane—the "peace crane" so thoroughly appropriated from Japanese traditional paper-folding and made into so much summer-camp fodder. But here the crane symbol is complicated, made messy, and perhaps returned to some of its original might:

Paper cranes carry directions, your compass
Spinning. Refill your canteen for the climb,
Thorn by thorn, to the glassed heavens.

When accepted navigational aids fail, the paper crane is our only spiritual guide. It appears in various roles in this book, sometimes as actant, sometimes as action: "I refill paper cones: three fills per, repeat. / The last split, folded into a crane." But finally, Collins clarifies the bird's role, telling the New American reader:

You are only lost if you don't follow
The maps I sent, if you refuse to unfold
The crane's paper wings.

The maps in this field guide are cranes, secret messages disguised as something else. How appropriate for a New America whose ideologies, histories and practices fold in and over each other and themselves, creating a citizen/resident as reticulated as a crumpled receipt!

As a "field guide" and "song book," this book is meant to be at least partially instructive; after all, a songbook contains lyrics and musical scores for the use of anyone who wants to learn how to sing and play those songs. The songs here are both the poems themselves and the alternatives suggested in their lines, but there are other songs—background music?—ghosting around behind the scenes. We get a list of the creators of these songs in the Liner Notes, which makes our "song book" a meta-lyric experience, wherein we learn Collins' own songs as well as the songs of his influences—if "influence" is a strong enough word. One presence saturates this book, that of Walt Whitman, whose poetic "Songs" (of himself, of the Body Electric) are never far from a reader's mind. Collins engages Whitman's perhaps overbearing spirit through references to his works, but also through repeated urgings of his New American readers toward song. These exhortations shift in vehemence and in tone; on page 67 we're encouraged:

Sing true, New American.
Sing it like you mean it, like your life de-
Pends on it.

But apparently we're not doing it well enough, or often enough, to save our lives, because twelve pages later we're dead from either what we know, what we don't know, or both:

Your singing voice lost from lack of practice.
Your mouth opens & out comes dust.
You carry silver dollars to cover your eyes
Fixed in orbits, asphalt in your veins—
The boatman ferries you away from the work.

If satire helps A New American Field Guide and Song Book avoid the trap of didacticism, it is still a prescription for change, a curmudgeon's self-help volume. The confidence with which Collins writes in no way contradicts his discomfort with being a New American himself—as grumpy and befuddled as you or I, trying to navigate everyday life with imperfect, barely-legible maps, absently humming a tune half-remembered from childhood. Whistling in the dark.