Review of Floyd Collins

 What Harvest: Poems on the Siege & Battle of the Alamo by Floyd Collins (Somondoco Press, 2011)

 I have not thought much, if any, about the Alamo since elementary school.  If high school or college history books discussed it, those chapters were not assigned.  Before reading this fourth collection from Floyd Collins, any mention of the Alamo would have routed my memory to Davy Crockett and then, inevitably, to Fess Parker, who portrayed both Crockett and Daniel Boone on television in the mid-1950s and 60s.  So comfortably uninformed had I become about the Alamo story that I ran the risk of never considering the episode again or, worse, seeing it only through a veil of glorification and nostalgia.  I have Floyd Collins to thank for changing that.

Each reading of What Harvest engaged me, but that engagement was sometimes driven by the narrative force of Collins’s writing, sometimes by his pitch-perfect diction, and still at other times by the music of individual poems.  I was surprised at each reading that I had not been paying closer attention to the other elements.  Collins’s grasp of the history and myth of the Alamo is impressive, but he animates the narrative as much through making readers care about the characters as he does by providing details of the plot.  The first poem, “James Bowie: Bexar, 1836,” shows the last moments of one of the battle’s most famous warriors.  The succeeding two poems, however, tell pre-Alamo anecdotes that lend corporeality to the wispy figure that rises from the story of the siege and its conclusion.

  Readers will appreciate Collins’s painstaking research and his introduction of John McGregor, Gregorio Esparza, and William Barret Travis, lesser-known figures, in addition to his perspective-enhancing portrayals of legends such as Bowie and Crockett.  The most remarkable piece of narrative in the collection, however, is “Santa Anna’s Spurs,” at five pages the longest poem in the volume.  Collins traces the Mexican general’s spurs from a smith’s forge in Mexico City in 1834 to the Alamo, to Santa Anna’s surrender to General Winfield Scott in 1847, through a surprising exchange at Appomattox, and finally to Little Big Horn.  Even if What Harvest had nothing else to recommend it, this poem would justify the purchase.  Fortunately, that’s not the case.

Although I do not know what Collins has been up to during the eight years since the publication of Forecast, his most recent poetry volume before What Harvest, his impeccable employment of period diction suggests that he has devoted much of that interim to research.  The range of the poet’s vocabulary itself is a treat.  I have read few poems that could incorporate both “delectations” and “prestidigitator” (“The Natchez Sandbar Fight”) without leaving me feeling bullied.  Verbal dexterity aside, however, Collins’s use of 19th century diction enhances the imagery; it thrills and informs without distracting.  These are poems in which “forenoon,” “furlongs,” and “mephitic vapors” not only fit but seem essential.  Collins seems completely at ease in this world.  What Harvest is devoid of those sour notes struck when history is used as an ornament, or a bludgeon.  Here, when “Degüello” appears, as it does throughout the collection, I do not pass over it but revel in its connotations of both music and knife shaft.

The power and precision of Collins’s narrative would be sufficient to carry this volume, but the poems’ subtle, pervasive music makes them beautiful.  When I read “the hoofprints / Of my Appaloosa oozing shut behind me . . .” in “Bonham in Extremis,” I realized that Collins is not only a fine storyteller but a bard.  In What Harvest, Collins illustrates emphatically that narrative poetry is alive and well and that narrative poets do not have to sacrifice lyricism on story’s high altar.