You push vacuum facing inventory


Twist of Address, Spencer Selby (80pp, £8.95/$15, Shearsman)
Notebook of Signs
, M. T. C. Cronin (112pp, £8.95/$15, Shearsman)


There's 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 'Pastoral':
   
     You survey plot against tree that branches toward early fortification

     You push vacuum facing inventory

     Appeal advocate for aggressive behaviour

     Yield in braille because unique

     Changing 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':

     It is raining!
     The 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 second:


     A 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
     with the following headline: “Local Youth Dies in
     Freak Accident.” The lead paragraph says the victim
     is the young brother of a prominent politician who
     has been running a tough race for reelection. The rest
     is unreadable, but there is a related story of human
     interest. When informed of his brother's death, the
     politician hastily called a news conference. He explained
     that on his way to an important meeting he received a
     mysterious parcel wrapped in newsprint. Fearing for his
     life, the politician had his chauffeur throw the parcel into
     a cornfield. Then they drove home and received news
     of the brother's death. Neither was ever the same after
     being told that the boy was hit on the head by a box of
     manuscripts authored by a man who retired from public
     life because 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.

     After rain talk
     the street is dry

     In the act you smile
     as obvious as dominance
     crushing backbone
     tracing jawline vertigo

     So help me dear
     I don't know why

     (the view is rough
     on standards lost
     to mass appeal)

     I thought I did but
     power failed and
     specialists left town
     with nothing special

This opening is playful in its language, emotionally engaging and intelligent. You can't ask for much more.  


Cronin, 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:

     The strength of tomorrow
     is in this eel
     which has never been ill
     in its life...

     ... There are two ways to go
     and so the eel says
     Let's go.
     There are no secrets
     between the two ways.    

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':

     Sleep faster.
     Leave your memory in the war.
     Love completely and perfectly...

     ...Excise doubt from fiction...

     ...Remember 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':

     My trough.
     You run.

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.

     The words that tear out your tongue.
     The burdens of your eyes.
     The heart fists.
     How tired thinking about black roses...

     ...What runs through all tricks.
     What doesn't listen to the teacher in the self.
     Birth of each wish.
     Walking upside down.
     Arms full and overflowing.
     No-one has written this.
     What can never know satisfaction.
     Just wanting.
     Maybe to march across the sky
         ['The Ridiculous 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
     sieving gold in its womb.
     From the egg, imagine, our teeth!

         © Nathan Thompson 2007