by Patrick Whitfill
by Michael Earl Craig
Wave Books, April 2014
104 pages / Buy from Wave Books or Amazon
Without relying on the word “reticence” to describe the work, I would have to say that the poems throughout the collection feel withdrawn, taciturn, almost. Lurking in each one, though, is a sense of something boiling, some untapped resource, and these poems, these are the spill-over that the speaker couldn’t keep from bubbling out, like pasta water before you put the wooden spoon on the pot to keep everything calm.
The poems have in them and around them the sense of a Williamsonian take on “no idea but in things,” but they sound and read like early Williams, not PattersonWilliams. The problem, if we can call this a problem, which I do not necessarily think it is, comes from how the music of the poems appear. Because the poet chooses to state the thing and not the idea, not the flourish or the afterthought, the thing itself yields only what it can yield:
It is always like this.
I wear a light brown suit.
When I come upon you I grope you
for what seems like ten minutes.
As you have noticed.
— from “Sleepwalking through the Mekong”
While sitting in the plane a man
struggling with his bags puts
his ass against my head for what
(corduroys) feels like a full
— from “What Will I Call This Poem”
Two things to note, here: first thing is that, because of his reliance on the pedestrian language, on the language of the thing and the action itself, it requires a certain precision, a boldness, even, to not inflate the action or the thing, but let the thing and the action remain what they are. This isn’t a poet hiding behind his pen. This is a poet incredibly stark and revealed to us, which allows the second realization to occur: He’s funny. That small twist of, “As you have noticed,” sounds remarkably like the joke in “This Is Just To Say,” that, yes, she probably noticed the ten minute night-groping session. Same goes for the parenthetical “(corduroys),” because it’s placed exactly where it should occur to make the joke work.
When you’re working with the onliness (to invent a word) of the thing and the action, it requires great skill to know how to place it where it should belong, to actually get more out of it than what it seems to present.
The strongest parts of the book come when the speaker doesn’t hold back too much and doesn’t reveal too much, either. In poems such as, “Wild for the Lord” and “Poem for Manda,” so much emphasis is put into the white space, into the silence, that the language seems nearly superfluous to the event. These are the words used, yes, but the feeling you need for the piece exists almost entirely within the title. Take the entirety of “Wild for the Lord”:
Someone is sitting on a tall stool before me.
I have just very carefully cut
my best friend’s wife’s bangs.
My watch feels like a small corpse on my wrist tonight.
It is a haunting poem, with the mystery of the guest, the setting, the motive behind what sounds like a charged confession of an intimate moment (given that alarming quality, that sultriness, by the build-up and distancing towards “bangs,” which serves as both the language for the hair and a colloquial, albeit immature, expression for an affair). The poem relies on the title so heavily, though, that, without it, or with a different title (to play: Let’s Ruin a Poem I Didn’t Write), it would leave the reader to assume that this is a sad man, and not much more.
And here lies the issue, if I can call it that, with the book: when the poems work, they disturb me on an emotional level, on a psychological level, and, more importantly, they disturb my sense and understanding of what a poem can do. Or should do. Take, for instance, the set-up and opening lines of “Tap Water”:
I live in an experimental town.
We have 17 cops and the only thing
any one of them can say, ever ,is
“That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
The poem continues to develop this surreal, experimental, almost Philip Dick-ianesque reality, where he is shushed each day by a librarian (her one job). But, it’s important to note that,
The librarian is a hot little number.
It is said she wears only tattoos beneath
her cardigan. To which Officer Chandler syas,
“That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
“Yeah,” says Officer Wainwright,
“that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
“Yeah,” says Phelps.
“Yeah, definitely,” says Hochwalt.
“Oh yes,” says Phelps, “that’s the way the—”
“Oh most definitely,” says Hochwalt.
The absurdity of the townspeople combined with the arguably boring title is what, when Craig does it well, he does better than anyone I’ve read. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, the way the speaker presents his “experimental” town, a town that it’s important to note he plays a role in, maybe even an integral role, seeing as how all roles feel scripted, jotted down on a napkin at a not-too-busy lunch table.
But he’s laughing at it, though the laugh is mirthless, uncomfortable enough that I feel the discomfort along with the absurdity, the almost boiling anger to yell at these people to shut the fuck up, please.
But that’s when it works.
The poems in the collection have either so much reticence in them, as if the speaker’s struggle to find any words, much less the exact words to convey the exact emotion, is so taxing that, at times, we—and by this I mean the speaker and the reader—have to settle for what we can get:
you fucking tea I shout
hurling the ceramic cup across the room.
— from “Tomatoes Disrespect Us”
someone’s crayons, dumped out on the table before me
most Danes cannot dance
a lewd moniker opens doors
this glove fits you like a smock, said the autodidact, lightly
tapping my hand with his cane
— from “Deep Purple Stamina”
But behind each of these poems, I hear what I would call a contemporary, American haiku, in that I hear the white space, the desire to say it with just the right amount of words at the right time. And, as with any haiku, the stronger ones truly capture the moment and transport it to the reader, making us want to repeat it over and over, feeling each syllable, knowing that these words in these lines were conferred over, were given the Yeatsian inner-argument touch to make them into poems.
Your nose on my face might open a door for me, a door I didn’t
want openend.Right now my nose feels fine, feels like it always has, but maybe
if compared to your nose, to how your nose would feel on my
face, mine would feel like it shomehow pulled on my face a bit.
Am I addressing your question here?
Now when I walk through the market looking for water chest-
nuts I feel something different.
— Now When I Walk through the Market
And while a handful of poems have a type of verbosity—most notably the revelry in “The More We Think about I”—it is when reticence meets talkativeness that Craig’s poetry takes on a wonderful dimension, deepening the work, so that the poem feels as if it occupies a space that goes beyond the limits of the page, the limits of the language, and the inevitable limit of any one speaker trying to discuss the whole:
When I come home from work it looks
as if a tortoise has trashed my apartment.
Everything has been knocked over just so.
I stand a lamp back up, pour myself a glass of wine,
and pretend to start going through the mail.
I hear what I swear sounds like a tortoise
bump the wall once in the coat closet.
It is a soft, muffled, knocking sound.
An almost polite sound. A single knock.
Like the humble knock a shoe or boot
might make on the side of a church pew.
— Glass of Wine
The humor of the situation, the way in which Craig allows the reader to follow along with the thinkingness of the speaker, the presentation of the situation without any attempt to inflate the significance, or suggest the potential of significance, all serve to mystify the simple event, to show how impossible having a reaction is. And while this is a slightly more “talky” version of a Craig poem, what I love about it is the discovery, and the process of discovery, delivered without any sense of false gravitas.
In the end, these are poems highly aware of poetic tradition, combined with a contemporary, 21st century, distinctly American tone. What we have is a speaker who knows how to sound, how to speak, depending on what needs to be said or left unsaid. That alone shows us the maturity of the writer, the ability to discern when silence matters more than plugging the discomfort with a wad of useless words and images.
Patrick Whitfill‘s poetry appears or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, Ninth Letter, Unsplendid, The Equalizer, Painted Bride Quarterly and other journals. He is the co-curator of the New Southern Voices Reading Series, and can be reached about future readings at firstname.lastname@example.org.