BEAUTIFUL, UNFINISHED: PARABLE/SONG/CANTO/POEM by M.T.C. Cronin
It is possible that each critic, over time, comes to identify a number of poets or writers whose general laudation—the mellow radiance of expanding peer esteem—remains to him or her rather mysterious. This would be, perhaps, Cole Swensen for Simon Dedeo, or post-Gunslinger Ed Dorn for Ron Silliman. These poets—or in the case of Dorn, a specific period within a given poet’s aesthetic evolution—can represent for the critic cases of profound cultural disconnect. They are like the points in a glittering receptive network where one critic’s wires have, at a crucial juncture, been cut. Beyond this point of “no transmission”, we can imagine the critic standing—with opaque eyes fixed on poems so highly praised by one’s contemporaries—with a look of smiling perplexity or irritated bewilderment.
This is of course, within poetics, the humanist or liberal-democratic moment par excellence: it is the instant you realize, not only that others do not agree with you, but that you are entirely incapable of even beginning to understand their disagreement. M.T.C. Cronin is, for me, just such a poet. Her work is sometimes strong; but for me it is also, and much too often, wildly uneven. This collection—entitled beautiful, unfinished—was Cronin’s ninth book of poems, and upon its release in 2003 met with general critical approbation, coupled with a number of eloquent panegyrics. Peter Porter, for instance, writing in Melbourne’s The Age, remarked:
“I can stick to straightforward words of praise, such as brilliance of technical address and originality of utterance, when describing her verse.”
I remember reading this appreciation at the time, and was not surprised to see its recurrence on the book’s back cover. I feel less trepidation, then, in writing a generally negative review of Cronin’s work, given the fact that others appreciate her poems so integrally. Though this may seem hypocritical, I simply want to imply that it is important to note that it is very possible, in the criticisms I will here attempt to outline, that I have simply missed a 1 or a 0 in the fibred interactions of the informational system which is contemporary Australian poetics. Luckily, however, this is the flipside of the dreaded humanist paradigm: the reader may judge for herself . . .
I will begin with the good. The first sequence in the book, “Parable On the Erotic Struggle with True Muteness (How We Speak)” contains 77 solid, short poems, admirable for their tense torque, their contained energies, their play with ambiguous registers, parsings and forms of address:
Why can we not find out
more than television?
like two identical buildings
we cannot feel god
Cannot feel the pitch-black pain
of the joined
There is something of a Noelle Kocot to such lines: to these visionary Lettres d’un voyant mixed with the ephemera of urban and domestic ennui. As the title of the poem itself indicates, then, this is all overtly—and perhaps overly—earnest stuff; but, in this sequence, such inquiring solemnity functions rather interestingly. It is perhaps a result of the fact that Cronin’s play on a prophetic, ecstatic tonality, is here reigned in by the formal and imagistic compression of these tightly strung stanze. That initial statement on the epistemological limitations of TV, for instance, agilely, if only barely, avoids the status of observational common-place, via the hand-break torque instigated in that well-placed line-break. In this way, “out/ more” kicks the line into a state of semantic resonance it perhaps did not, in itself, contain.
But even from the very beginning of “Parable On the Erotic Struggle with True Muteness”, we begin to glimpse some of the less positive aspects of Cronin’s poetic, which I would like now to put into question. To take another poem from the series:
My daughter was five years old
before I told her
not to look at the sun
This astounds me
Does she believe
she can only grow old
on the day she was born
This is as good an example as any, for it is here that Cronin’s earnestness starts to sound rather more proselytizing, normative, almost pedagogical. The faux-mystical tournures of these pieces have, for me, something irritating about them, at once in their intentional as their contentional impulses. It is rather like listening to someone who, though they may very well be a prophet, adopts the tone of a prophet in order to convince others of their own prophetic capacities.
This is also, for me, the type of poetic ambiguity which William Empson rightly rejected from his pantheon of seven avatars. Of course, it is not primarily important whether or not poetry “signifies”—whether it has a direct semantic thrust, a denotational over a connotational imperative—but perhaps it is important if poetry pretends to signify: that is, if it presents its data in the form of sagacious tidbits, which in the end turn out to be rather specious. If it dresses itself up, then, in the clothes of ecstatic profundity, it perhaps needs to assume the full gamut of readerly assumptions that go along with this (fundamentally synthetic) pose.
It is not unsurprising then—given this semi-instructional tone—that Cronin regularly quotes the likes of Wallace Stevens and Pablo Neruda. The ideational vein of ecstatic wisdom seems to be the effect she is gunning for here. The problem though is not that these shoes—those of the Whitmanian parabolic teacher of the reader (and equal, of course!)—are too big for Cronin to fill, but that these shoes are, today, almost completely rotten through. Their laces have fallen out. Their leather has been walked away. Let’s see how Cronin, however, assumes the ideational scepter, and to what effect :
I have grown my wisdom
on summer days
and watered it with both rain
and melting snow
I have helped it
and sat with it
still upon a tired step
I have tasted [. . .]
Etcetera . . . I will quote more soon, but suffice to say, it turns out there are a lot of things one can do with one’s wisdom. On a more simple level: “my wisdom”? This particular “poet-as-cultural-seer”, this transcendental Avatar, might have passed Dijon mustard in the beard of Victor Hugo: but those were different times, and the mec was, frankly, the most famous megalomaniac in France. Moreover, the entirely untextured distiches plod bravely on here through their slough of rhythmic despond, tirelessly erecting their muddy metaphorical contraptions. “I have helped it/ up ladders”? Is this the “originality of utterance” Peter Porter is talking about in his blurb? I have “sat with it/ still upon a tired step”? The personification of “wisdom”, in contemporary poetics, must either be seen as complete Blakean parody, or as something so charged with negative cliché as to be rendered ineffective. In any case, this critic stands beyond the receptive void, mouthing unhappily: Non intellego.
There is a narrative thrust, however, to this poem, and we soon learn that the speaker’s initial “wisdom” is, unsurprisingly, advanced only to lead to its eventual rejection. We expected nothing less . . . For, of course, the truly wise poet must be even more “wise” to realize that his or her initial “wisdom” was not wisdom, but ignorance, which would lead to later wisdom in the realization that prior “wisdom” was, in fact, ignorance:
I was shocked but don’t know why
I should have been
when I looked in a mirror
and I let my wisdom die
with the relaxing cells
that slow upon my body
and quickly fall aside
I use it to discard myself well
in the world
and when the world
is not mine
I will have no need
of the glorious shelter it will erect
“Contraposition” makes up part of a section of the book entitled “Seven Mysterious Songs”. I’m not sure where the mystery of them lies: they seem to me rather clear instances of contemporary moralism veiled in a linear narrative device. Genette, in brief, would be bored. Poet feels wise. Poet realizes poet is not wise. Poet realizes subsequent ignorance is in fact different type of wisdom. Blake did it better.
But for these criticisms to have value, we must take account of the fact that Cronin gives a very specific framing for her writing in this work: it is not to have the status of other poems, she suggests, but rather the status of the “parable”. As she says at the very start of the book:
There is not one thing I will say
outside of parable
Does the status of the parable excuse some, even all, of the elements I’m outlining? The pedagogical tonalities? The predictable narrative progressions? I personally do not think so. Why? Not only because this type of tonality is also present in Cronin’s other, less “parabolic”, work—which I do generally like a lot more—but also because the poems of this collection do not, for me, resemble anything truly parabolic. For, as the adjectival form of the word suggests, the parable incarnates a dynamic curve, an arc which does not progress linearly from one affirmation to an evident next, but rather, as in the circular paradoxes of Epimenides or Zeno, is valuable less for what it says, than for its oblique ways of saying.
Whether, then, one likes Stevens or not—I personally really have to be in the mood—at least his best work attains these contorted parabolic heights. But to try another Cronin extract, this time from a piece adopting rather the mode of the “song” than the “parable”, entitled “Canto of an Ant”:
did you know that there is an ant
that follows all the people
it is called the following ant
this ant knows that sand
is not less time than time
that water is not less time
that wood is poor flesh
and that the moon
needs more air to be full—
Often, in Cronin, I have the impression that materiam superabat opus (the workmanship’s better than the subject). But not here. The lines are flat and untextured. As for the content: “This ant knows that sand/ is not less time than time”. I must honestly say that I am not interested in what the ant knows, and that these pedestrian verses would have to hold some truly interesting contential impulse to justify their extreme prosodic monotonies.
But let’s do them their justice, and try to get at them in more detail. Sand and time, as poles of this metaphorical hinge, are perhaps linked by the notion of the hourglass. But beyond this . . . What becomes evident here is that we are not, as readers, supposed to ask such questions. We are expected rather to take the status of the text as astute fable, read it, and move on.
More than anything else, then, this all seems to me like a type of ineffective tonal posturing. So much for the status of the contemporary poetic parable . . . Then there is the material here which—I do not know how else to put it—simply makes me cringe. From “Canto of Faces”:
There is no need to explain
Life is about its preciousness
I cannot really contend with these moments. Honestly, I just wish that, in the midst of the treacle of this 100-Cars-Oprah-Special, Alice Notley would stride in to discourse eloquently about art, politics and fucking . . . “Life is about its preciousness”? I cannot see how this is not rather gratuitous: the sort of rhetorically vacant phrasing we’ve come to expect more from our contemporary politicians. “Life is about its preciousness” is, in this way, almost akin to “Democracy is about its freedom”. It’s the type of axiom that almost entirely empties out each of its semantemes, until the complex word “life” —cf. Louis Zukofsky—comes to resemble nothing so much as a pink Tiffany ring.
To close such examples, I will take a poem from later in the book, entitled “all babies are buddhas”:
all babies are buddhas
we tend to grow out of our knowledge,
rather than into it.
and then remember one day,
it was truth we wanted,
for no good reason.
This is indisputably Hallmark territory. It has babies. Smiling babies. It has a cute message. It has a feel-good ending. Exeunt.
I have, perhaps mean-spiritedly, mentioned the word “moralism” when speaking of Cronin’s work. The poem-as-lesson is a rather disturbing sub-genre, and though Cronin plays with it in more interesting ways than the oppressive, disguised didacticism of a Ted Kooser or Galway Kinnel, it seems to remain there, in Cronin, beneath the surface, a Victorian vision of poetry as principled soothsayer:
It is important
not to be obsessed
The destination of your voice
should be what you can move
How not to covet even
what makes your vision clear
Please, poet, don’t tell me what to do . . . And if the “you” is in fact—in a gesture invented by Apollinaire—used to refer to the poet herself, this demarcation perhaps needs be rendered clearer. As who erected the rhapsode to such a normalizing apogee? In what city?
Specifically, also: “how not to covet”. The word-choice is revealing. But striving after explicitly biblical effects is notoriously precarious. Paul Claudel, Fanny Howe and Henri Meschonnic do it, and scintillatingly, but they do not throw out the odd Hebraic verb: it is at the base and foundation of every aspect of their poetics.
In closing, I wanted to remark that I do know I sound exceptionally harsh in this review. I hope readers, and Cronin herself, will not feel that I am being entirely unfair. Though I was born in Australia, I’ve been absent nearly six years, and perhaps I am disconnected with particular veins of contemporary Australian poetics. This is, I sincerely assure you, entirely possible.
Forgive me, then, M.T.C. Cronin, Peter Porter, Barry Hill. My incomprehension is perhaps entirely my fault. But, in any case, it is there, and it seems fruitless to deny it. The critic waits to be set straight.
Only, please: not with parables.
Nicholas Manning teaches comparative poetics at the University of Strasbourg, where he is currently completing his PhD. His first full collection, entitled *Novaless*, will be released in August 2008 from Otoliths. A chapbook of new poems is also forthcoming from Ypolita Press. Editor of The Continental Review, his poetry and criticism may be found in such places as Jacket, Verse, Fascicle, The Argotist, Free Verse, among others. He maintains the weblog The Newer Metaphysicals.