Honest Work: Poetry, Day Jobs, and Alison C. Rollins’s LIBRARY OF SMALL CATASTROPHES

 by Eric Morris-Pusey

A simple, albeit unwelcome, truth: poetry alone doesn’t pay the bills. While some poets have the training and good luck to land day jobs teaching writing classes or heading up literary journals, most of us (at least for a time) find ourselves doing work that’s at best poetry-adjacent—adjuncting as a literature instructor or stocking shelves in a hip local bookstore—or entirely unrelated: making spreadsheets for a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a massive textbook retailer.

The struggle between wanting to be an artist and needing to make rent can exhaust the energy and inspiration we need for poetry, preventing us from doing our best work or from writing at all. In a 1994 interview, Philip Levine said of his time working in auto factories and other jobs in Detroit, “I felt myself wearing down. I wasn’t going to have the strength or will to keep writing.”

But that labor, though it drained Levine, became the foundation of his poetic work. T. S. Eliot famously wrote much of The Waste Land while employed by a bank. And Alison C. Rollins’s debut poetry collection, Library of Small Catastrophes, would doubtlessly be a different book if its author were not a librarian.

Rollins’s work as a librarian informs and transforms her work as a poet, enriching the striking imagery, intimate personal narrative, and cutting social commentary that already make her poetry vital.

The collection reflects its title and its author’s occupation in both form and content. Poems incorporate call numbers into their text and use forms inspired by definitions and library machine-readable catalog entries. There are well-researched allusions and references to the history, philosophy, art, and religion of not only our country but all the traditions that went into making it, from the lives and writing of the “founding fathers” to the cultures those founders attempted to destroy through slavery and genocide.

One of the collection’s longest poems, “Cento for Not-Quite Love,” uses the cento form to merge the librarian’s science of the archival and curatorial with the art of poetry, employing lines that not only form something new but feature snapshots of style and subject from throughout the history of American poetry. Rollins continues to research, refer to, and repurpose others’ language—from the original, racist title of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics—throughout the collection.

In “Self-Portrait of Librarian with T. S. Eliot’s Papers” Rollins’s speaker imagines the forthcoming release of said papers in 2020, making the archive a representation of history’s beauty and terror: we may “come to see what young muse has risen / from the dead,” but also that “storage units preserve our culture’s haunted houses. / The canon is merely a ghost story.”

The collection’s eponymous poem, about midway through the manuscript, is rich with both the language of the library and its physical sense of place. The third of its four sections discusses the speaker’s MLIS degree, and throughout the poem Rollins grapples directly with systems of classification like those used in libraries and their influences on the ways in which we perceive and treat race and gender:

Dear Dewey Decimal System,
How will I organize all the bodies?

The professor said that in judging
women’s bodies by their covers

we have a system of returning
things back to where they belong.

In the fourth, final section of the poem, Rollins breaks from the sweeping vision and more scientific or historical language of what has come before to recount the story of a woman arrested outside the Andrew Carnegie Library for attempting to steal books, showing what the previously outlined systems of classification and power look like in real lives, how they inflict violence upon real minds and bodies. The poet’s intimate understanding of the library—of what makes it possible and what defines its physical space, what it contains that is beautiful and what it contains that is terrible—makes both the wider history and the specific episode that ends the poem even more deeply affecting.

Working as a librarian may be more meaningful and fulfilling work than many find themselves doing, and its closeness to books and history certainly lends itself to poetry. But it’s the pain and complication of the library and all it represents that make Library of Small Catastrophes so powerful. Rollins may love her day job more than Levine loved his, but both find in their work examples of and analogues for human lives and the larger power structures that shape them.

Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri ReviewDriftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.

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