Mass of the Forgotten by JAMES TOLAN
Autumn House Press, 2013
In writing a review of a collection of poetry, I’m frequently tempted to look for a single sentence judgment; a summative statement that encapsulates the “essence” of the collection. What is it (as we’re so endlessly taught in literature courses) that the author’s trying to say? 

It’s difficult to avoid this tendency, especially in the presence of a collection as arresting and intriguing as Mass of the Forgotten. Tolan’s new collection is a powerful rumination on the lurking darkness of family trauma and the persistence of memory. Yet Tolan’s work goes beyond any such characterization. Much as I might try to pin a phrase to the sentiment of this collection, Tolan’s subjects are so diverse, his voice so distinct, any such attempts fall flat. 

However, in writing this review, I realized that it’s not so much what Tolan’s trying to say as the questions he’s trying to ask that are worth considering. Though Tolan’s subjects vary from experiences with substance abuse to first loves to history, the work is united by an impulse toward discovery of the self through memory. At the heart of the collection is the desire to understand and come to terms with the self by meditating on the events and moments that swim just beneath the surface. This impulse is best articulated in the poem, “The Wrong Ones”:

       There are those who make us sad,
       maybe not at first; maybe at first

       we love them and have been waiting
       to love them all our lives, but maybe

       they’re really only second chances
       to love those we had neglected

       to love before--our mothers
       and lovers, fathers and strangers

Like much of Tolan’s work, this poem presents itself as embarking upon a somewhat superficial investigation about the nature of human relationships. However, embedded between the enjambed lines and internal verse structure is a more fundamental story. The subject’s indecision is betrayed line by line, “maybe not at first; maybe at first,” “love them all our lives, but maybe,” “our mothers/ and lovers, fathers and strangers”. What at first appears so certain is, when broken down, startlingly fragile. Memory is our primary method for understanding ourselves; yet when placed under the microscope, memory proves shockingly inadequate for the kind of holistic judgments for which it is put to use. Tolan’s project is similar to Wordsworth’s: to use memory as a means by which to continuously uncover and understand the self. Yet for Tolan, the product is often striking for the ways in which it falls short--or the ways we have tricked ourselves with memory’s palliative disguise. This effect is similarly produced in “Downstream,” a poem that confronts (and doesn’t confront) the obvious (and somehow easily repressed problem) of alcohol abuse:

       My uncle Tommy used to drink 
       a lot, and I loved him for it.
       He’d bring me gifts I didn’t know I wanted--

Told almost from a child’s perspective, “Downstream” prevails upon us to consider the secrets that are most guarded perhaps because they are the most obvious. In the mind of the speaker, the effects of alcohol are positive. Alcohol brings his uncle alive, helps him become an interactive subject:

       He’d teach me, but only when he was drinking,
       how quickly an earthworm could reproduce
       by slicing one we’d freshly dug in two…

       Otherwise, he’d spend hours in his room,
       alone with sober memories
       of a broken marriage and child long years gone

Tolan’s work suggests that the problem of substance abuse is just that--it is “the problem” that other people have. Strangers unknown to us suffer from such an affliction. The ones we love are different. They are not “them.” They are “us”:

       Fifteen years since his liver finally called it quits,
       I look at a photo the size of a business card:
       silly felt had drooping over his eyes,

       he rows downstream, bare-chested and smiling,
       toward no place in particular. I sit across from him
       now, in no particular hurry to arrive.

In Tolan’s work, one has the lingering sense that the speaker is a Huck Finn-like character: floating lazily down the river in no particular hurry to arrive, and all the while pursued by greater forces. Tolan’s work, its calm exterior notwithstanding, is, like the reader, desperate to achieve some kind of revelation--even if that desperation is masked by false memory and prevarication. The darkest poem in the collection, “The Purple Crayon,” tells the story of false memory intruding on actual events. The poem begins with a retelling of the time the speaker helped his intoxicated uncle home from the bar and eventually got him into rehab. Midway, the poem takes a turn: “...a lie I’ve been telling for almost twenty years./ My mother was driving. It was one of the few times she wouldn’t go get him by herself...I’m thirty-two/ and still want to be the hero, want to be the one reaching into the retch, the one making the necessary gesture.” It is the boy, not the man; the father, not the uncle; the mother, not the self--the poem reveals itself to be a lie, one that is constantly remade in the act of its telling. It is the subject who displaces himself within his own mind to refigure himself as the hero that is perhaps the best (and worst) kept secret of all; a story told over and over again as if to cement its place as the most fragile piece of the human edifice. 

The reader leaves Tolan’s collection with an almost guilty sense of awareness. As in all poetry, we feel as if we have been shown a window into the life of another person. Yet as in all great poetry, we recognize that our discomfort is aroused not by our voyeur’s gaze through the window, but by our own reflection in the glass. Tolan’s plunge into the mysteries of memory shows us how we comprehend our own fractured lives: with varying measures acceptance and denial, appreciation and resentment, understanding and confusion. 

MICHAEL RAVENSCROFT is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. 
The Adirondack Review