Aaron McCollough’s fourth book, No Grave Can Hold My Body Down, is the most ambitious project we’ve seen released by the young author. In this book-length series, each section is titled after the songs on John Fahey’s album America—in fact, if you’ve followed McCollough’s work in recent years you would have seen some of these pieces, or versions of, published in journals as “selections from John Fahey’s America.” The book’s title recalls Johnny Cash, which along with Fahey and mentions of “Little Sadie,” “Tom Dooley,” Charley Patton, and the blues, places this collection squarely in conversation with the American songwriting tradition.
Many of the things that were at stake for these early songwriters are also at stake for McCollough, and what he presents is sort of an “end-of-the-world blues.” Further, he reaches deep into American spiritual tradition, and he finds something unsettling about where the promise of the “city on the hill” has found itself today, where the promise of redemption conflicts with environmental catastrophe, where the ground we are to lie down in is poisoned by our own hand, but where, still, our own salvation is inextricably tied up with that of the nation. In “Jesus Is a Dying Bedmaker,” McCollough writes:
I am blue lord with pallor blue today
waiting for the countenance up or down
and the tuning of strings how can I pray
with these fingers or anything of mine
sick with seeing right through to the return
to my america in which I am
my nation’s pale blue shadow turning in
the sheets the fire in my shoulder the yard
the giant yard of the nation body
prison way of being in creation
american prison of the soul, lord,
I love or not, how do I love from here
The struggle contains both highs and lows, as McCollough explains: “It is the special circumstance of abundance / and abjection that makes for the blues.” And like the many blues singers who have come before him, McCollough actively takes part in the act of hailing pleasure while hailing pain, as he puts it. The questions that arise throughout the collection arise through belief, through the promises that have been made. In the long poem “America,” physically divided in half by a tower of hash marks, the speaker states: “believe // yourself enough to doubt yourself.” In “Mark 1:15,” the speaker claims: “I cannot believe in damnation / only salvation from trouble in mind.” And this series, along with the many songs referenced throughout it, seems to be the work of troubled minds, bewildered and in search of peace.
No Grave Can Hold My Body Down is a wide-ranging and challenging collection that contains both lyric and prose passages. And though at its center appears to be a struggle for spiritual salvation, the struggle is for something much greater than the individual. Occasionally the series turns back on and contradicts itself, but in that way it echoes its subject. As Whitman wrote that he contains multitudes, so too do each of us, and so too does whatever it is that calls itself “America.”