Poet Michael Collier grew up in Arizona, but he hadn’t lived there for a while when he wrote “At the End of a Ninetieth Summer.” His father was celebrating his 90th birthday, but Collier couldn’t return to his home state to participate.
“I felt sort of disconsolate that I couldn’t be there for it and give him my love and wish him well. So I created a moment that I imagine must have happened knowing where the gathering was and who the people were.”
Collier writes poems about moments. During a conversation with Art Beat, Collier explained the importance of looking closely and “(describing) it as accurately as possible, because if you can do that, sometimes what happens is you kind of pass through the surface of the scene to get to something behind it.”
While the scene in “At the End of a Ninetieth Summer” is fictional, Collier still captures careful details. The “robot vacuum” for example is “coming out and spraying water and breaking the stillness of the moment. It doesn’t have a particular meaning, but it seemed to have a huge symbolic meaning.”
At the End of a Ninetieth Summer
They drink their cocktails in the calm manner
of their middle years, while the dim lights
around the swimming pool makes shadows
of that world they’ve almost fully entered.
Like Yeats’s wild swans their uneven number
suggests at least one of them is no longer mated.
Added up, their several ages are short of a millennium.
This means the melting ice cubes are silent music beneath
their slow talk, and slow talk is how gods murmur
when eternity comes to an end.
The way it feels for these friends who amaze themselves
with what they remember — no the small details —
but how long ago lives happened and how fast.
Occasionally, usually from the wives, there’s a mention
of the War, as if they’d endured before waiting like this,
except now there’s no uncertain homecoming,
no life to be beginning and nothing to complete
that doesn’t wear already the aura of completion.
Listen, they are laughing. One eases himself up
to refill his drink. His wife, in a wheelchair, wants one, too.
Another makes a joke about making it a double
and gets up to help. They are gone so long,
or not long enough, that someone asks,
“Where’s Bob and Jim?”
Now and then a tentacle of the robot vacuum
submerged in the pool breaches the surface,
squirts a welcome spray of water
then retracts where it continues its random sweeps,
until it breaks into the air again.
Bob and Jim are back, the drinks get passed,
even so Jim’s wife asks, “Where did you go?”
Instead of answering, he raises his glass.
Collier doesn’t always imagine scenes. Sometimes he describes moments from memory, as in “Grandmother with Mink Stole, Sky Harbor Airport, Phoenix Arizona, 1959,” a poem about his grandmother’s visits for the Easter holiday during his childhood. In that poem, Collier reminisces about the moment his grandmother walks off the plane with a mink around her neck, unprepared for the Arizona sun.
“If I’m writing a poem that begins with a particular experience that I’ve had, I feel more tightly connected to that experience and also I feel a responsible towards it. The trick with that kind of poem is to create a distance from the actual event so that you … can give space and room for the imagination to break out.”
In a poem where scenes need to be created, “the trick there is to create a kind of verisimilitude, to make it seem as if it’s not imagined but that it actually happened.”
Michael Collier was the Poet Laureate of Maryland from 2001-2004. He has published several collections of poetry, including “The Ledge,” which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the national Book Critics Circle Award. “An Individual History,” published July 2012, is his latest collection of poems. Collier is a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is the director of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference.