Book Review: autopsy


Donte Collins

Review by Leila Green

Release Date: July 18th, 2017

A potent debut poetry collection from the 2016 winner of The Academy of American Poets's "Most Promising Young Poet Award" that excavates the many facets of grief, longing, and belonging.

Leila Green

Leila Green

"there are many ways to pull a weed

but only one will keep the garden

clean come the end of summer"

— "The Orphan Performs an Autopsy on the Garden"

Towards the end of Donte Collins’s debut poetry collection, autopsy, he offers a keen explanation for his approach to the project: "i mourn in metaphor." This mode of mourning anchors this powerful collection, which was written after the death of Collins’s mother. Beyond mourning, autopsy explores the very act of grief; depicting it as an undertaking of strenuous, body-breaking labor. Collins manages to spin this horrid labor into splendid metaphor, imagining and reimagining the grieving process in striking, totally inventive lines. For Collins, grief is “a paper cut at every bend in your body.” Grief is a separate, insidious entity; a thing that “shaves each bone down to a shriveled white flag.”

Collins’s picture of grief courageously includes the shame often left out of eulogies. He writes of forgiveness, (which is "a fertile thing—is what makes tomorrow grow") and interrogates absence in a candid, unflinching way. In “Five Stages of Grief,” he wonders what it means to confront tainted longing: “come back. even if it means your hug is a hand around my throat / even if your kiss is delivered with a fist." Collins’s version of an autopsy is honest; it reconciles the angelic, acceptable renderings of the dead with the sometimes harsh, yet honest memories we can’t seem to shake. This poem, in particular, invites a uniquely nuanced understanding of loss, resentment, and, ultimately, forgiveness.

Aside from astonishing meditations on death, family bonds, adoption, and whiteness, Collins, a 21-year-old queer black man, offers these gems:

     "they'll build the closet for you

     & spend the rest of their lives begging you to come out"


     “to be queer & black is to walk out of the closet

     into a casket.”

These lines, in particular share the similar, biting poignancy found in the work of Danez Smith and L. Lamar Wilson.

Standouts in this collection include the self-assured “New Country (after Safia Elhillo),” the wistful and stylistically epic “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Thirteen (after Patricia Smith),” the surprisingly haunting “Don’t Tell Your Uber Driver You’re Going to an Orgy,” and the goosebump-inducing “What the Dead Know By Heart,” the masterpiece that won Collins the Academy of American Poets’s “Most Promising Young Poet Award” in 2016.

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