Poem/Stories: Allison Titus’s Sum of Every Lost Ship

by Ruth Joynton

SumTwo things interested me about Allison Titus.

The title of her book, Sum of Every Lost Ship, drew my attention first. Since diving in Lake Huron last summer with its remarkable collection of shipwrecks, anything to do with the sunken objects of this world fascinates me. Any mention of water will at least make me pause and look back. There’s a woman on the white cover, dressed in what seems to be Nineteenth Century fashion, and she’s speaking. But the speech balloon to the right of her body doesn’t contain words, rather whales, whale bones, and above the water, a vessel. Which makes sense once you read the poems in Sum of Every Lost Ship. Someone is speaking in the work, or—more accurately—someones. In this debut collection, Titus gathers a congregation.

Titus is one of the voices present—but which? Which poems are written from her own experiences, and when is someone else’s story being told? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, and maybe that’s the point.

Often the speakers do not tell their story as a series of events, but as a collection of image fragments, like the woman on the cover: an event sewn, not told straight out. From “The Lost Diary of Anna Anderson” we get: “….Door opens door/ closes. White coats stammer the threshold./ They draw the sheets again and again/ I give them nothing. My mouth/ is a splinter not telling./ They ask if I fell from the bridge/ or did I jump.”

The palpable eeriness of these poem/stories, written from wards and motels and in ice storms, what is told first and next or not told at all—white space between the words of many lines—is a thread that ties the work together. It’s not surprising then to learn that the author, along with earning her M.F.A. in Poetry from Vermont, holds one in Fiction from Virginia Commonwealth. Not surprising, but is the other thing that interested me about Titus.

Most writers agree that there’s something to be gained by studying other genres, but generally keep it to that: the studying, rather than the doing. By “doing” I mean strong pursuit: reading and writing extensively beyond one’s own genre. Titus joins a more uncommon than common crowd of writers by creating with an eye for both fiction and poetry, for more than one genre. But she’s in good company: I think now of Nick Flynn (who writes both poetry and nonfiction), Benjamin Percy (fiction, nonfiction) and Bich Minh Nguyen (fiction, nonfiction, poetry).

When once asked why Nguyen earned her M.F.A. in Poetry only to go on and publish a nonfiction book and now a novel, she replied, “Because I wanted to learn how the line worked.” She did, and based on the success of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot a writer can learn by working in another genre. Not just “something”.

Likewise, it is the blending of poem and story that makes Titus’s first collection, Sum of Every Lost Ship, so strong.

I’ll keep watch for her fiction in the future, with the hope that it reads like a good poem.