A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Christopher P. Collins – husband, father, citizen, soldier, teacher, poet, Ph.D.

His home page is a black and white shot of Arlington National Cemetery. While the sky hovers at the edge of a storm, endless rows of headstones line up with military precision beneath clusters of leave-laden trees. There is some open space in the center, perhaps awaiting the arrival of other soldiers from different wars.

By contrast, the cover of Christopher P. Collins’ award-winning collection of poems, “My American Night,” features an existential landscape etched in ink onto flesh. A woman, her hair a-swirl, is the largest figure in the tattoo. A hand rests on the side of her face. Who is that? Are the long fingers caressing her or gently forcing her eye opened?

War planes fly overhead, leaving a litter of unidentifiable images. Some appear to be bombs, others have morphed into footprints.

The metaphor seems to fit Chris Collins well.  The Kentucky native and Kenton County resident is a former Captain and 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve. He completed three overseas combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. During one of his wartime stints, he was a student in Murray State University’s Low Residency MFA program, completing rigorous reading, writing, and research assignments as he fulfilled his military responsibilities. He was also married and a father, a mix of experiences and emotions that spawned his first chapbook of poems, “Gathering Leaves for War.”

His full-length collection, “My American Night,” is winner of the prestigious Georgia Poetry Prize. Added to that honor, Chris recently completed his Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. A series of essays that deal with work, family, faith, morality, and disability were the focus of his doctoral dissertation, entitled “Pocket Medal Elegy.”

“My American Night” takes readers on a journey that travels between the graves of dead soldiers, and the conflicting emotions of live soldiers who witness the human destruction of war and its effect on civilian populations, including children. The poem, “Some Days,” muses on the bayonet, an instrument that “can cut your throat,” on one day, while on another it might “cut/ a dandelion’s stem to place/ its yellow flower head/ into my daughter’s hair.”

“Some days I am for violence:/ Some days, for beauty,” it ends.

The different sections of the book are divided by black pages that give readers a pause between darkness and light. Section II opens to the poem “Milk,” which opens with an image of white bubbles

“from my daughter’s mouth,” and shifts into “the bloodied breaths” of a boy in Baghdad, killed by rounds from an M16A2.

The last part of the book is devoted to the title poem, which is segmented into eight pieces, all related in some way to men and boys and battle. Readers see a young Afghan boy and his father, waiting. The boy is the only child among men. In Western garb from the waist up, he could be the poet’s son, with the same dark hair and eyes, a dirty face.

Then we are plunged into battle. Words and phrases explode in short, declarative bursts that we recognize without understanding:

“SLEDGEHAMMER 3, STANDBY, S.A.L.U.T.E, BREAK.”

The aftermath is “Bodies upon gravel,” and the poem ends with the admission that, “The boy recurs nightly,” a bad dream.

“He is my American night,” Chris Collins says.

Just as the image of the boy haunts the poet, the image draws the reader back into the book to re-read sections, to try and make sense of what it means to go to war a husband, father, citizen, and teacher and return disarmed in ways that words cannot capture.

“My American Night” is available through Amazon and additional information about Christopher Collins is online at https://christopherphilipcollins.com/.

April is National Poetry Month, a good month to be reminded that history without poetry is just information. Another way to think of it is this quote from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment