Kevin McKelvey reviews Pause, Traveler, poems by Erin Coughlin Hollowell
Boreal Books | 2013 | ISBN: 978-1-59709-720-8 | 88 pages
In Erin Coughlin Hollowell’s debut collection, Pause, Traveler, she moves through environments both built and natural, beginning in the small wild oases of New York City, then returning to her childhood in rural upstate New York, then meandering westward toward Alaska, to find clarity in relationships and love and regret. Her journey outward is also a rich journey inward.
In the first section, she observes Manhattan as a place of wildness in the Chinatown markets, SoHo and Chelsea galleries, and streets and subways. She’s recording behaviors like an ethologist or ecologist, anthropomorphizing humans’ private and public behaviors. Ultimately, these are poems of the broken relationships that make up our lust- and regret-filled and mistake-riddled 20s. In “Chelsea,” the section’s closing poem, we see these ideas at work:
how was I to know
that he was really
the pin through another
butterfly spreading me
flat to capture
something I hadn’t
known was there
. . .
And now, when it’s taken a miracle
to pull that shaft back out,
leaving behind scraps of rust
that whisper liar liar liar,
how can I explain that there
is still something left behind
This poem leads into the second section, Family Portraits, which returns us to the poet’s childhood, often through the gaze of observing family photos. This more removed narration maneuvers us through kindergarten and life in rural upstate New York. These poems are more internal, more reflective, matching with the tone in the fourth section of the book. In the section’s title poem, family photos are at the heart, the flashes of memory they invoke:
In my chin she denies the world,
my unruly hair springs from his rage.
I lie at night in the bed of flames
looking life square in the face.
The poems in this section become a prism of regret and tension and love that resonates with the other sections.
The third section, Covering the Distance, marks migration across the U.S. from upstate New York, first via I-81 through Appalachia, then I-90 through the Wisconsin Dells and the Dakotas and beyond. These poems mark the narrator’s final leaving from upstate New York and Manhattan and her arrival at her new life. We have traveled these same interstates, left the same places for new places, seen the billboards for the same roadside attractions, and Hollowell uses these attractions as a backdrop for her exploration of love and regret. In “Circus World Museum,” she writes:
You want to find a wagon,
a golden Cinderella, a song
made by fury and glitter.
Traveling east, traveling west,
we come to the same waypoint.
These are poems of travel and displacement, but also of transcendence, of leaving a bad situation for a better one.
The fourth section lacks any exact location besides a vague representation of the temperate areas of the Pacific Northwest or Alaska, and shows a maturity and arrival in the narrator’s trajectory. These poems are more lyrical as well, as in “The Sounds of Things Falling Apart,” a sort of list poem that begins
Glass sounds like sky splitting.
Pinecone like bough shrug.
Angel, whiteness withering.
Penny like barefoot memory.
Night, bird wing.
This poem, and others in the section, work to balance the more narrative and placed-based aspects of the preceding sections, taking us farther into the emotional landscapes Hollowell is more directly exploring.
Pause, Traveler, the final section in the book, is firmly rooted in southern Alaska, the small towns like Homer and Cordova where Hollowell makes her new home and life. We see this in the namesake poem, “Pause, Traveler”:
Everything is cracked. Nothing is perfect.
Let it suffice that there is some green
gathered from the forest, some remembrance
we meant to live forever
in this long season of silence.
If we knew how the story ended,
how could we keep living it?
Here, then, we find a final joining of the interior and exterior, of observation and introspection, of lyric and narrative.
Early poems in Pause, Traveler are more strictly narrative but by the third section the landscapes are emotional, more surreal. The landscapes and outward experiences come to parallel the interiority of the emotions and relationships. As we progress through the book, the bigger, wilder places allow for a broader range of lyrical poems both observational and spiritual.
Pause, Traveler represents a sort of migration from upstate New York westward to her final arrival in Alaska, and we as readers witness a progression from fractious relationships to committed life. It is a journey from settled, civilized New York to the frontier of Alaska, from most urban to most remote. In those unpeopled places, Hollowell finds true clarity.
Header photo of birches courtesy Pixabay.