Often in poetry we find authors trying to connect larger existential and philosophical themes with nature and concrete, tactile imagery—that melding of abstraction and the physical. Few poets, however, get at that fused space with the essence of the human condition, moving beyond beauty into the sublime to find that extra dimension or flavor like literary umami. Troy Jollimore is one of these poets.
I was first introduced to Jollimore’s work with his book, At Lake Scugog. I perused the “Table of Contents” to find titles such as “The Solipsist” and “Imperceptibility.” These titles and my vague understanding of Troy’s profession as Professor of Philosophy made my insides lurch and groan. Another poet waxing philosophical, or rather a philosopher waxing poetic . . . great. But my initial hesitation was put at ease after reading that aforementioned poem, “The Solipsist.”
Jollimore expertly starts the poem with a simple image, a person holding a seashell to their ear, trying to hear the ocean’s “sea-song.” He then moves inside the person’s head to relate how we can only ever know the self, that reality is only ever a reflection of the self just like the shell reverberating sounds from inside the ear. Each poem after the next asked me to consider what it meant to be human through the confluence of image, sound, and a healthy dose of humor. (“Advisory” is downright darkly hysterical in its treatment of warning labels.)
Syllabus of Errors continues the philosophical and material trends found in Jollimore’s previous collections, but ties the poems together through the use of birds and birdsong—the birds flit from poem to poem as if they were moving among neighboring trees. Whether the subject of a poem or an object of attention within the world of the poem, birds appear all over this book. They ground the reader in the corporeal, and Jollimore’s specific focus on birdsong suggests the essence of life, truth, and art can be understood through music and flight. Sounds abound throughout the collection—true rhyme, near-rhyme, slant-rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance among others are all accounted for. These devices (and poems) evoke a playful spirit that, along with humor, is more than welcome in any poetic existential examination or analysis.
Troy Jollimore received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Princeton University in 1999. After leaving Princeton he taught at Georgetown University and UC, Davis. Since 2001 he has taught at California State University, Chico, and was selected as CSU Chico’s Outstanding Professor for the academic year 2009–2010. Jollimore’s first collection of poetry, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award. At Lake Scugog, his second collection of poetry, was published in 2011, and his latest collection, Syllabus of Errors, was just released in April through Princeton University Press to stunning reviews. His poems have appeared in such publications as Poetry, McSweeney’s, The Believer, and the New Yorker. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2013 and was awarded the Theodore Roethke Prize by Northwest Poetry in 2014.
Troy Jollimore will be reading selections from Syllabus of Errors at the first Writer’s Voice reading of the semester. Please join us for a rousing evening with him, Thursday, October 1st, at 7:30 pm in Ayres 120. Thanks go out to the contributions made by the Department of English and the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. Writer’s Voice readings are free and open to the public.
By Nicholas Monroe