Thursday, October 20, 2005

more or less than

MTC Cronin
Shearsman Books
UK 2004

I have followed Margie Cronin’s career closely over the past decade or so. It was an interesting time, and I like to think that in our Newtown days we struck up a friendship, a fellowship, however tangential our lifestyles were.

Cronin has published nine collections in that time, a prodigious output by any standards, but through it all I believe I have witnessed a great poet constantly at war with her strengths and seduced by her weaknesses.

Perhaps this is a risk poets run more than most, I honestly don’t know. But because Cronin is so assured and so prodigious in her chosen craft, this ongoing tussle has become quite compelling for yours truly, almost an epic in itself. I wouldn’t even be prepared to call it a failing, because at times this abandonment of the poet’s trademark staccato for a rather more somnolent andante really pays dividends, as though she were being given singing lessons by the ghost of Ezra Pound

if it finds a hand, it says to behold is god
if a mouth, it says the word is god
if a foot, the way is god
this is how their shadow was thrown
both ways
and they found themselves pursued by memory
unnarating grief and hope
with death following, not waiting ahead

The above passage is lifted from midway through poem 29 of one of the most audacious poetry collections to have ever been published in this country. I will happily admit that slightly clunky “unnarrating” to further scrutiny, but I adamantly refuse to denote themes or the like, for to my mind Cronin’s poetry in general (and this collection most acutely) is all about nuances, the creeping shadows of these autumn days.

Cronin’s jauntiness is the product of a particular time and place (where X marks the spot, apparently), but like a great Pixies’ song, it alludes to ancient roots, something as old as beer and heartache.

I could easily damn this collection forever as a poetic representation of the linear view of time, where poem 1 is a deceptively (linear) allusion

not simply the stream but they who thought of following

One simple brushstroke of yearning and memory, at which point a lesser poet would have run with this ball until both she and the spectators were bored out of their minds. But Cronin lives too much inside her poems for that. By poem 5 she is already delving deep into the murky currents of our special autism

the tongue, the tongue, steps backwards into a web
respun daily by an appetite that thinks never of holiness
the tongue makes them miniature and blind
the tongue caresses and ruins their splendour
in its own land it speaks the language of stones

I think were Margie Cronin an artist she would work mainly in either oils or bric a brac, her great flourishes at first appearing a tad clumsy until the eye has had a chance to range over the whole (the mind, as always, slow to catch up like my dog barking at a skipping stone). As I say, this is a poet who lives very much inside her poems

this was their magnifying glass, and not just glass,
but the metaphors, what they see what they see through

Cronin, for all her flurry, is not a peripatetic thinker. Like Ariosto, skipping along in his deceptively plain pentameter, the religiously free-verse Cronin dances around a room crowded with ideas and startling imagery that can often seem wantonly disjointed, although on a second read you begin to enter into the mind of the poet. It is both exhilarating and exhausting, especially for those critics who have deemed this rather oblique and chancy calibration as the poet’s fatal flaw running through all her work. But to me their rather waspish tone suggests a sleeper awoken rudely in the night.

There is rarely a dominant narrative thread in Cronin’s poetry, although there is often the suggestion of one in the dominant tone, usually a vaguely confessional tone that quickly loses patience with itself and breaks out to lead us on a merry dance.

a way to lose myself away from death
a way to be dying so that I cannot feel the dying at all times
more, and not quite that,
a winter-asleep
a spring-wins
an ongoing not even ordinariness
but just what might be enough to keep the moment
cradled within its own worn hands
the breath clean in its perfect dress of flesh
more, more-or-lessness,
the whole of the body bathed in sun
or what might be like it
this is not cliché but simply simple
the moment is warm

(poems 82)

As the collection climbs jauntily towards its apex, the monumental poem 50, I realise what I am witnessing is not so much the poet grappling with her strengths, as the eternal child inside the mother grappling with the enduring miracle of life itself, the lottery of both our fortunes and misfortunes. A lesser poet would have reduced this to a series of snapshots, but in Cronin’s world there are no givens, which is why in her poetry each moment shines with such jaunty radiance

for example
they claimed to understand planets
how opals grow
when in fact what they knew
was the art of cutting and polishing
and the sorts of things that might happen
sand would forever elude them
and libraries become full
with the paper clot
of their denial

(poem 47)

I could live my life by the tenet of these last three lines (and maybe I have). Be that as it may, there are many in this country of infinite promise and incessant self-abnegation who deny Margie Cronin her due. They are legion but they are aging and their voice is croaky.
Were they to take the tapering structure of this collection to heart, they may very well stamp their feet and decry the incessant playfulness of a world that may in fact survive them.

- Justin Lowe

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