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Library of Small Catastrophes

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“Rollins' debut is a book of dissonance, with race and women’s bodies proving two unyielding concerns throughout this four-part work. In poem after poem, Rollins demonstrates that she is finding her own way, shining a light, making darkness apparent.” ―Publishers Weekly

“The range of Rollins’ poetic skill is remarkable. The result is a collection of poetry which is magnificently crafted, readable, and crucially important.” ―New York Journal of Books

Library of Small Catastrophes, Alison Rollins’ ambitious debut collection, interrogates the body and nation as storehouses of countless tragedies. Drawing from Jorge Luis Borges’ fascination with the library, Rollins uses the concept of the archive to offer a lyric history of the ways in which we process loss. “Memory is about the future, not the past,” she writes, and rather than shying away from the anger, anxiety, and mourning of her narrators, Rollins’ poetry seeks to challenge the status quo, engaging in a diverse, boundary-defying dialogue with an ever-present reminder of the ways race, sexuality, spirituality, violence, and American culture collide.

ISBN-13: 9781556595394

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Copper Canyon Press

Publication Date: 04-23-2019

Pages: 96

Product Dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.40(d)

Alison C. Rollins, a Cave Canem fellow, is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation.

Read an Excerpt

The Librarian She reads the Atlas of World Languages in Danger of Disappearing while on lunch break. With turkey sandwich in hand she types a note in her phone: Experts expect 90% of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages will become extinct in the next 100 years. She thinks linguists build houses they can’t afford to finish. She thinks in theory, we will make it out alive, the monsters under her bed are outdated, they speak pidgin and bleed alphabet soup. She garbles words so the monsters don’t get her, can’t locate the whereabouts of her body in the dark. On her nightstand rests: A Street in Bronzeville. She plays word search puzzles in neighborhoods of vocabulary before the night swallows her whole. The librarian is not the Spanish princess in Pan’s Labyrinth. She is Topsy from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She spect she grow’d. She don’t think nobody ever made her. Autopsy comes from the Greek autopsia meaning: a seeing for oneself. In her bed, when she makes love she dissects the sounds, peels each syllable note by note, deconstructs the prosody nail head by nail head, until the clippings litter the omniscient floor—already a wasteland, all the floorboards pages of poetry in blank verse. On Sundays sitting in coffee shops she wonders if a computer can write a poem, if a machine has a conscious. She finds the mouths of men stag(nant) sees them as horned beasts in their verbalizing. Don’t just talk about it, be about it, she contends. She is from the show-me-state and people from Missouri like to compromise. They bring slaves in wicker baskets to picnics. The accompanying slices of watermelon only serve to suggest sincerity. Today the librarian learned that only humans can pick up on sarcasm instinctively, that AI has yet to grasp these finer nuances. The librarian lives in the grey, she never mistakes what it looks like for what it is. The Turing Test serves as her bible. She has better things to do than watch the eyes of people move who don’t love her. To love is to fear by choice and fear is a particular religion. Keep your day job, the professor had told her. You could never make a living as a poet. But this is good work, she thought placing the black spines back in order, cupping mouths of things that need to be shelved. She believes every throat is a call number. She puts each one back where it belongs: 808.02 C449T:E, 810.98 M882P, 814.54 L867S Her mother taught her, you should never look a gift horse in the mouth so instead she feels inside their covers. She was named without her consent. Pandora means: the girl with all the gifts. Skinning Ghosts Alive In the beginning, there is no yes. The amniotic sac a dust jacket for the book of trauma. One plus one makes one. There is a nomenclature to this math, a method to the madness of creation. There is no he. There is no she. There’s just a girl expelling Y from her loose jowl maw. The residue of jargon staining her lips boy red. We are never our own. This is why we are so lonely. Why lightheaded stars nestle their knives in the sky’s black chest. Why we eat men like air. Celestial bulb expelled like hangnail curved as comma. Straight as the line reading you your missing period and the knowing that this statement cannot be allowed to continue. This belly not permitted to raise a question. Even lightening shakes the earth by its arms. Who am I to object? Point fingers at the order. // I was born bad. A train of yeses parading round my hip’s border. A trail of forget-me-nots sprouting from my Father’s chin. This tongue needs shepherding, as do the bones. I clench and carry the pain of my Mother in my teeth, at the root a canal of fear. The space between each molar the size of the closet door my grandmother’s mother locked her in as she cried no promising that she would be good. So naturally my mouth’s second nature is naughty. This is how you end up leading the shell of a man to your bed. How you crack your peanut colored self until the sidewalk of your cheeks are caked with salt in April. Your lover’s eyelids half-lit houses with terror veining their way down the stairs. It is cold in this thing we call a body. Who will tend to the fire with so few hands to go around? // Even snakes lose themselves in their skin. Their life’s throat peeled back in molting song. A second me lies somewhere on the ground. Hollowed as the cicada shells I collected in the woods as a child. Knowing even then that the anatomy of loss was worth picking, even if only to acknowledge that something has shed and not died, something brown as me has left its skeleton behind, more perfectly intact than broken, as if to say we are living and dying just the same. This is why we are so homesick, why we hull ourselves in shadows. Self-Portrait of Librarian with T.S. Eliot’s Papers In the year 2020, T.S. Eliot’s papers will be unsealed. Let us go then, you and I. Let us take the dust in our claws, lap the hundreds of letters spilling secrets into the waste land of our irreverent mouths. Have we no couth? Have we not been trained to know good things come to those who wait? Each year we gather ‘round the cave. We don our Sun- day best, come to see what young muse has risen from the dead. Tomorrow brings the past wrapped in plastic eggs, the seal of history broken in present tense. Storage units preserve our culture’s haunted houses. The canon is merely a ghost story. Write a poem after me before I’m gone, and please do not include rest in peace, only those that are forgotten go undisturbed, only things kept in the dark know the true weight of light.

Table of Contents


A Woman of Means 5

Skinning Ghosts Alive 7

Original [sin] 9

Mis-ery 12

The Fultz Quadruplets 13

Child Witness 15

Lost Causes 17

On All Fours 18

Water No Get Enemy 19

The Path of Totality 21

Self-Portrait of Librarian with T.S. Eliot's Papers 22

To Whoever Is Reading Me 23

All the World Began with a Yes 24


The Library of Babel 29

Free Radical 30

The Librarian 32

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis 34

The Code Talkers 35

Report from inside a White Whale 38

Elephants Born without Tusks 39

Portrait of a Pack Horse Librarian 41

Fiery Young Colored Girl 42

A Valid Archive 43

Public Domain 44

Library of Small Catastrophes 46

And Then There Were None 50

Oral Fixation 51

Five and a Possible 54

How Not to Remember 56


Born [again] 59

Mer-cy 60

Cento for Not Quite Love 61

Viva Voce 65

For You 66

The Beastangel 68

A Rock Trying to Stand 70

Why Is We Americans 73

Manifesto, or Ars Poetica #3 75

Word of Month 76

Overkill 79

What Is Tragedy? 81

Object Permanence 82

Notes 86

Acknowledgments 89

Many Thanks… 91

About the Author 93