Money for Sunsets by Elizabeth J. Colen
(Steel Toe Books, Bowling Green, KY, 2010)
Money for Sunsets, the debut poetry collection from Pacific Northwest writer Elizabeth J. Colen, exposes slant in the middle of slant’s heyday—when love becomes sin; money, speech; and things, people.
Inside her city, a fenceless border town set in a time of oil and empire, where “Here we are only bulwark and stockade, blockade and gunpowder” and “Here we take matters into our own hands,” dogs dig up bullets and bodies wash up on shores while some “we” “stray inside the sunset city, perilously close.”
The images foreshadow an end.
The poet waits for it as she watches her companion prepare by filling her pockets with rocks, herself thinking “less weight the way to go” and, in “Somewhere We Burn,” laying out her own game plan: “Think of every last disaster you were a part of. Start from the start, make it clean. Make it right. Make it real” (67).
That’s what Colen does here. Divided into “Your arsenal,” “silence,” and “refraction,” the poems in Money for Sunsets, like the title of Colen’s debut collection of prose poems, offer a concise and deviceless study in twists, especially the kind that have to do with desire—or bigger, choice.
Tracking the sun, getting lost in her lover’s hair, leaving bones at the beach, and witnessing “each subject shriek about his or her death murdered or not,” Colen knows “Somebody’s got to be left to burn.”
Making it clean is not that simple, though, for “Love is never clean like memory.”
In “Home Before it Divided,” Colen fleshes it out: “Before baby and after. Not baby. Before Daddy’s slap. The reddened years of my face. Before the adults and after children. Before seatbelts. And me in between.” Here, memory marks a series of events defined by change or trauma. Their definition suggests “clean” means divisible. If love is not clean like memory, is love indivisible? Is there an amoral character to love? Do we wrongly divide it?
In any case, it is unclean. In “Survival of the Species,” she says, “If I knew my mother would slap me for saying she married for money, I would have done it sooner. The red hand on my cheek speaks of love.” Six sentences later, Colen likes women “the way her mother likes men.” And suddenly, no love is clean: not a woman’s for a man, not a mother’s for her daughter or husband, not a woman’s or brother’s for a woman; not a girl’s for the red mark of mother love; and not God’s for her: “If my mother knew I liked women the way she likes men, she would have hung me. My brother likes women too. The Bible says he is O.K.”
A sister likes singing hymns, a mom likes “the men who come.” Somebody likes this thing or that thing and there is hell to pay for liking one thing over another and nothing at all to pay for liking the wrong thing. Wrong pairings, desire gone haywire, a whole world’s store of wants sprung mad like a cheap machine—these are the twists Colen exposes, like someone who, stuck in the uncoveted seat between Mom and Dad before and after baby, might grow up thinking chronologies don’t add up to answers, wondering why a slap can slice time so much more easily than affections.
Stuck between unloving lovers, you might grow up thinking about choice or lack of it: the choice to leave or not leave, for instance. Is this how Colen knows to read the face as a series of parts indicating whether one lives or leaves? In “Coasters,” for instance, “You’ve always had hubcap eyes. What I mean to say is you’re leaving now.”
Or in “If Not for the Boy,” where, “Upstairs, my mother has become an end table”:
Her eyes are. Her teeth are, though not smiling, are. Her hands and nails are. Her hips and lips. Her knuckles and nose are. Her face altogether is is is. And her legs are legs. At last they are nothing but legs” (?).
Moms vacate and chain-smoke, “pulling air from a Pall Mall.” Baby sisters seem to sink them like a stockpile of pocketed rocks; in a letter to her sister, the speaker recalls, “The rock was shiny and you.” Meanwhile, kids gnaw away at “callouses, yielding to yellow teeth, nails coming off in the water.” Yet, somehow, the poet learns well anyway because she is “never that stable, never that chair.”
Is it from watching her mother, who used to “bring men home” then “fuck and fall asleep on the couch,” dead to her son’s calls, that she knows in “Waiting for Winter,” “The sun fucks the blue bluer”? Is it from Dad she knows choice becomes doing; preference, action: in “Grand Canyon,” for instance, “I say wife and my father hears knife. I think it’s got something to do with religion. I’m not trying to do this to him”?
Stuck between unloving lovers, you might grow up thinking about the desire behind decision, about nominalization even—how some “love” becomes “preference,” reduced to “like” when others look on it, evacuating love and ushering in body parts instead.
You might think of that twist as a projection when you witness body parts wash up on shores and realize a host of unchecked desires do kill—not girl loving girl after all, despite what she might have learned—but the unnamed preferences, like the lust for things that never warrants its own special name.
When a war torn boy lies dead, “box of hair on a beach,” smelling “of candy and burn,” for instance, what he wore “could fit inside your palm or, if you like, could hang off the two fingers left of your right hand.” Colen doesn’t say who would like such a thing, but the sentence reconstructs a gestalt, a hole where the whole might be if we were honest: someone or something is responsible for the death of a boy—perhaps an enterprise mired in and somehow disguised by chronology and causation—but that story is absent, oceanic.
How does a poet speak of a force having excused itself in the wake of its own giant spill? Colen approaches the story sideways, alluding to evil without letting it act.
Beyond the sediment of cause and effect is something even more tangible than story: stripped bare, the entity that makes decontextualized bodies out of living people is a person with a preference.
It’s a matter of preference to say “inside your palm” or “off the two fingers” when a boy washes up on the shore. And someone must like it, she hints, the way someone striking a deal like “money for sunsets” must want what? To sink the sun? Sell it? Try to buy it? Parcel it out like so many derivatives? Who are these people? They’re not subjects here.
Here, evil is atmosphere—apparent as aftermath, felt as mood, absorbed by bystanders—the conditions of which Colen details in poetic straight talk, a course that never leads to the scene of a crime but to the place where criminality might be established.
You have to go to the ocean sometimes to see what will wash up. The ocean is honest, doesn’t hide what happened anywhere.
In “11 Bang-Bang,” a boy is scattered there; in “Slack Tide,” a body washes up; in “The Rules of Subduction,” “Find what could have been shell shards or the bones of human fingers—carpal, metacarpal, phalanges. Leave them at the water, untouched by the stick in your hand”; in “Money for Sunsets,” a girl gives in there; in “American Beach,” the poet once “lost everything there” where “hotels stand as monuments to what we haven’t yet destroyed.”
Money for Sunsets is peopled by the ones navigating aftermath, post-crime, where crime has yet to be established, which is why lovers move “perilously close” through a city with a lease on sunsets inhabitants can rent piecemeal for the price of a dinner out.
In the end, Colen promises one thing: “I am going to keep believing in the devil until the earth is proven otherwise uninhabitable”—because it’s the gestalt that needs vacating, the setting that’s corrupt.
Kathryn K. Stevenson earned her doctorate in English from the University of California, Riverside, where she teaches writing classes and obsesses about "adherence," or the bonds forged between peoples under duress--a theme that appears, magnified, in her fiction, non-fiction, and songs, which can be found at myspace.com/radiochord.