Little Ease
Aaron McCollough
Ahsahta Press, 2006
Review by Jeremy Benson

Little Ease takes its name from the euphemistic descriptions of prison cells too small for a person to sit, stand, or lie down. The condemned were shoved into the tiny cubes, forced to crouch uncomfortably and think about what they had done. Arguably the most famous use of a "cell of little ease" is the cramped stay of the Catholic revolutionary with a penchant for gunpowder, Guy Fawkes, before his execution.

Indeed, Aaron McCollough borrows much of the language and symbolism for Little Ease from England’s post-Reformation fallout; from the rise of the Anglican church and the subsequent flip-flopping of the official religion (and government) of England, to the metaphysical teaching and poetry of the Anglican priest George Herbert.

The collection's religious context and penitent style, its organization and timing, implies a connection to the larger cyclical nature of religious progression. The final section, "Penalty," with its "Letters from Prison," superimposes the sentences of the collection's speaker with those of Martin Luther (and countless Protestants), Guy Fawkes and Gen. John Lambert, members of the ancient Christian movement (most of the New Testament letters, for instance, were written and sent from prisons), and perhaps unintentionally the letters from jail of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Each of these examples occurred at times of tumultuous changes at the cross-section of religious and political thought. In this light, the poems are not necessarily recantations or apologies, but rather encouragements to the Schism already in progress.

Yet it's not as simple as that. While the organization of the collection posits a flowing narrative, the poems themselves protest and split from "traditional" narrative style. They're not "experimental," nor nonlinear (at least most of them), but fragmented and dense, while maintaining an almost liturgical sense of formalism. The neo-formal "Prisoner’s Wreath" poems and "Sonnets Manqués" suggest that the "cell of little ease" is not a physical or spiritual restriction, but a creative one. It is a set of poems which, for better or worse, requires many keys, if not a certain mindset, to open.

(Perhaps the joke is on us: One image subconsciously pinned to "Little Ease" comes from the 1996 televised mini-series Gulliver's Travels, in which Gulliver (played by Ted Danson) obsessively scribbles his stories across the walls and floor of his asylum cell. The unintentional association turns McCollough into a satirist. A misread, probably, but interesting nonetheless.)

Once cracked, McCollough's verses reveal themselves as remarkable constructions of language, and as veiled discussions, cantations, of spiritual reformation, worth as many looks as it takes.

Aaron McCollough will be reading at Court Street Gallery's Last Friday event, this Friday, Feb. 26, with Tom Laverty and Hazel McClure. More information on McCollough can be found at