push vacuum facing inventory
Spencer Selby (80pp, £8.95/$15, Shearsman)
Notebook of Signs, M. T. C. Cronin (112pp, £8.95/$15, Shearsman)
a fair amount of common ground covered here. Both poets habitually employ
disjunct language to convey a sense of the unfinished and linguistically
unrealisable but also signpost the points at which language, paradoxically,
is capable of creating an internal referentiality unrealisable in the real
world. Both seem concerned with the point at which 'reality' and the language
of description meet and part company. Language divorced from specific meaning
is, of course, nothing new. John Ashbery, for example, has been at this for
ages: nouns used for colour; fused parataxis to create 'places' where there
were previously just 'spaces' in the imagination, and by so doing suggesting,
albeit it with necessarily broad strokes, the geography of a new sort of
psychic landscape. In a sense then, what isn't said is as important as what
is. It's all about the gaps. This is a poetics of relativity in which the
journey from one idea to another cannot be clearly demarcated. The reader has
to get there for him or herself. Take these lines from Spenser Selby's
plot against tree that branches toward early fortification
vacuum facing inventory
advocate for aggressive behaviour
braille because unique
shape that is understood
That's one way of going about things. The poem reads as a series of pointers.
'Pointers to what?' you may well ask, and I confess that sometimes I do
too. I'm not saying at all that
poetry should have some kind of definite meaning or obvious reading, just
that the potential for a degree of sympathetic engagement, whether with
process or product, and whether that be intellectual, emotional or comedic,
is important to me. It may not be to you, but I may as well tell you where
I'm coming from here.
An analogy just struck me. It's probably rotten but I thought I'd share it
anyway. I referred earlier to ideas of language as divorced from meaning. But
doesn't Scrabble do that too, assigning new values to units of language
according to their usefulness in a different context? Hmmm. But, again, I
guess I'm in trouble if I start to expect poetry to do something,
right? Maybe. But when M. T. C. Cronin starts playing this sort of poetic
Mallet's Mallet I find I'm excited. Here's a bit of 'The Innumerable':
innumerable are coming.
Prince Who-Cares is coming.
The old man
is coming from his dank cave.
OK: there's a riff here to latch onto, but otherwise the ideas are just as
disparate. I think basically I like the idea of the Selby
poem, and what it's setting out to do, but don't really get that much from
the poem itself. I probably just need more hand-holding than some. But if
something is clever I want to know what the purpose of the cleverness is,
unless of course it's really entertaining, like Selby's series of 'Cycle Synopsis'
prose poems. To get the full effect I'll have to give you a whole one.
They're all witty, seriously playful, and utterly engaging. This is the
dark-skinned boy is lying motionless in a field. Next
to him is an
unopened package. There is no one else
in the field.
The package is wrapped in newsprint
following headline: “Local Youth Dies in
Accident.” The lead paragraph says the victim
is the young
brother of a prominent politician who
running a tough race for reelection. The rest
unreadable, but there is a related story of human
When informed of his brother's death, the
hastily called a news conference. He explained
that on his
way to an important meeting he received a
parcel wrapped in newsprint. Fearing for his
politician had his chauffeur throw the parcel into
Then they drove home and received news
brother's death. Neither was ever the same after
that the boy was hit on the head by a box of
authored by a man who retired from public
of a family tragedy.
As far as I'm concerned that's more like it. Maybe I'm wrong to want some
sort of 'content' I can engage with and should simply admire the undeniable
dexterity of Selby's more gap-toothed poems. And perhaps I'm old-fashioned
in, having enjoyed the menu, wanting something to chew. I'd say it's a matter
of personal taste but my trope is already stretched to breaking point.
That said, when Selby lets his hair down and gives you something to hang on
to emotionally as well as intellectually the effect can be magical, as in the
first poem in the book: 'After Rain Talk', which is tinged with a similar
sense of mis-and-understanding longing to that found in the work of poets
such as Lee Harwood and the late Paul Evans.
the street is
In the act
as obvious as
tracing jawline vertigo
So help me
I don't know
(the view is
I thought I
This opening is playful in its language, emotionally engaging and
intelligent. You can't ask for much more.
in spite of her title, seems less wary of coherence. Yes, there's the element
of 'notebook' but the poems often feel like they're circling some never-quite-defined
focal point. Each notebook is a notebook of 'something' be it 'shapes' or
'sand' or 'nerves' and the imagery she invokes within each of these term-tied
boundaries is reined in accordingly.
'Nice Eel' (great title) in the Notebook of Nerves is a case in point.
The metaphor of the eel for nerve fibres, with undertones of electricity, as
well as the possibility of two directions, ends, stretching out, and the
sinewy connections between people or things, is really nicely worked out:
is in this
never been ill
... There are
two ways to go
and so the
There are no
There's a sense of ease and flow in Cronin's poetry that I've admired since I
first read her. You feel she just naturally thinks in this way. Reading her
poetry is almost like tuning in to a foreign radio frequency by accident.
Depending on your mood, tiredness, state of intoxication etc. you can either
just sit back and let everything happen, enjoying the sound and slipperiness,
or listen more closely and tease out meanings and inferences from a language
really close to your own but which, in the final analysis, is always a little
too elliptical in its syntax and accent to pin down exactly. The images she
conjures and the connections she makes are tenuous, and often tremulous, but
always somehow believable. Here are some excerpts from her list poem
'Possible Cures for Beauty':
memory in the war.
completely and perfectly...
doubt from fiction...
that someone invented the violin.
Oh, and M.T.C. Cronin can be very funny too. This is the shortest poem in the
collection, 'What Makes Your Pig's Leg Bigger':
But overall Notebook of Signs is, as the title suggests, a series of
notes towards meanings, and the meanings to which the notes point are
necessarily always slightly out of focus: Language never quite manages to pin down anything other
than suggestions for more language, inhabiting and attempting to fill the
frustratingly infinite space between mind and thing, subject and object.
that tear out your tongue.
The burdens of your eyes.
thinking about black roses...
through all tricks.
listen to the teacher in the self.
Birth of each
Arms full and
never know satisfaction.
march across the sky
Shape of Longing']
It seems to me that this collection tilts good-humouredly at the Canute-like
attempts that language, as a form of collective consciousness, makes to fill
this void, whilst reminding us that there's a kind of poetry (and other
imaginative literature by extension) which, by offering signs rather than
attempting definitions, is capable of making language perform minor miracles
of connection and communication within the parameters of this abstract space.
I'll finish by quoting Cronin's 'The Egg' in full. I think it kind of makes
the point, and it's also weird and beautiful:
You know the
egg as well as I do.
I kiss you
and there is a cloud
in its womb.
From the egg,
imagine, our teeth!
© Nathan Thompson