Monday, December 10, 2012

Lorna Crozier's Small Mechanics

I’ve already provided a year-end review paragraph-bite on the poetry of Lorna Crozier, as well as an anecdote on squishing a mammoth moth that touched down on a poem of hers I was reading in Everything Arrives at the Light. So why one more review visit? Because after finishing her latest book, 2011’s Small Mechanics, I turned to the online feedback, and other than Shane Neilson’s spot-on take on the matter, voices were unanimous in their praise. With over 95% of poets, this doesn’t matter since time renders the passing enthusiasms of the heavily-weighted “yes!” camp to an eventual “maybe”, then “meh”, and finally “who?”. The problem here, however, stems from Crozier’s position in the poetry community. In her post as writing instructor at the University of Victoria,  dispensations in that capacity winning her the 2004 Distinguished Professors Award, not to mention her numerous other tributes, prizes, honorary doctorates in unrelated fields, benefit readings, and receiving-end flapdoodle panegyrics, her stature as poet and -- most important to my point – shaper of poets, is unimpeachable. It shouldn’t be. The flaws which accumulate in almost every one of her poems in any of her sixteen books are not subtle, even though disagreements always end up in that futile but partially understandable “matters of taste” concession. Many people enjoy her poetry, too, so it’s not just a case of students keeping their heads down and handing in party-line papers. But when a poet who has grave problems in fundamental areas of composition – including, but not limited to, image, metaphor, tone, rhythm, diction, organic control, voice and vision –  also teaches the young and naive who, to their defense, note the prefatory distinctions of that teacher, the situation is far worse than a once-lauded poet slowly fading into obscurity. Those students, and their students, form much of the reinforced connective edifice that dominates the landscape for another few generations, like mutant, identical Wal-Mart stores in different cities continually squeezing out the hope-against-hope Mom-and-Pop outlets where gems occasionally reside, untouched before the foreclosures or buy-outs.


Crozier’s first poem in the collection starts out with a grammatical error. “Not a living soul about,/except for me and the magpie.” This is, of course, mixing the singular and plural constructs. The enjambment between lines 6 and 7 contradicts the effect she’s trying to reach: “on his tongue before it slides/down his throat.” If she had wanted to emphasize the pause after “taste”, a more believable and sensuous quick-time imagining, a much more effective break would have occurred as, “taste it on his tongue/before it slides down his throat.” Next up: “He’s the bird Noah didn’t send out,/afraid he’d carry the ark’s complaints to heaven.” Why would the magpie feel so compelled? If a magpie refused to mourn Christ at His crucifixion, I’m not sure what motivation it would have to fly to heaven with its complaints. Besides, after refusing entrance into the ark, I’m sure it was more than happy sitting on the roof while the other obedient animals were stuffed into an unbearably stifling indoor situation, not to mention the other birds which obviously suffered even greater problems. Then we come to, “Tonight he scallops from the copse of willows/to the power pole”. The choice of “scallops” makes no sense in this context. Of the five verb variations of the word, none have to do with moving, flying, flitting (etc.) from one place to another. Two lines later: “the bird part of my brain lit up”. Unintentional humour in an otherwise disastrous poem, I admit, offers a little entertainment value, but I don’t think it strengthens the overall impression. The pronoun in “He flips his tail”, a few lines later, confuses the preceding subjects (she means the magpie, not the coyote), as well as making a gender assumption. Next, Crozier describes the magpie’s song: “bringing up the oboes/then the high notes of the flutes.” Has Crozier attended to the timbre and pitch of the oboe? I haven’t yet heard the bird who could mimic the scary low registers of that instrument. Then, after a fanciful interlude which hides its inflated nature anecdote behind a parable, the poem concludes with, “mouthfuls of silence that, if not for coyotes,/the magpie would hear.” Now, this is puzzling. Who is the magpie here? Remember, Crozier inserted herself into the poem’s first sentence. It’s “me and the magpie”. Is the coyote a deflected stand-in for the poet? If so, does that make the coyote-poet the successful protector of the victims of thieves and others who would “pluck/the breath from my body”? The entire conceit seems rather overblown. If one is superstitious (though the Chinese regard the magpie as a “bird of joy”), there’s plenty of advice on how to eliminate the curse of seeing the lone bird by chance. I’m fond of the “Hello, Mr. Magpie, where is your wife?” option, but then, I’m just considering an entertaining game of armchair prophecy, not making a case as a Messiah for poetic expression.


This is a real head-scratcher. The wild grasses are silent, and “the meadow is more beautiful//for all it keeps inside.” But there is no inside and outside with nature. The poet receiving “syllables of seeds” when communing with the “beautiful” has nothing to do with nature’s withholding. It’s not pathetic fallacy at its worst, fortunately, but it’s something almost equally insidious: the poet who, once interpreting nature’s silent bounty, is elevated by an indiscriminate belief that any and all words that record reverent outdoorsy vagaries are due their proper awe. There are a million and one nature poems by awful poets, whether published in respectable journals or gathering dust on shelves. Let’s assess the poems as poems, not as automatic spiritual triumphs because of subject matter alone.


Shane Neilson has already unearthed the creepy meaning here for those unaware of  Crozier’s position as creative writing instructor. It must warm the hearts of those students to find themselves being referred to as infants. It just brings out the dark side of matronly oversight. And of course, some parents don’t allow their offspring to grow up, but if those diaper-swaddled cuties ever do, look out.


The comma isn’t a typo. This is a particularly clumsy way of laying out the title-as-first-line poem. “[E]very time we speak,/our words are mist, are rain”. Then, three lines of nature inflation later, “[s]ometimes//our words are snow.” Again, we have a simple parallel error. The first “every” is then incorrect. But Crozier likes to get carried away, and then forgets to pull home the kite after her reappraisal of the wind. Cliches and dull descriptions take over: “the sting of winter”, “everything inside us/freezes shut”. The poem ends as so many bad poems do, in a hopeless grab at spiritual profundity: “our mouths odd//with cold and urgently dry/from the effort of making/no sad sound.”


“[W]ind grieving/in the poplar trees.” Whoops. There’s our Ruskin bustin’. Despite that, the conceit here – a history of a transplanted heart – is handled with sympathy and, at times, vivid transposition. “Often//it skips a beat – grouse explode from ditches.” And later: “Some nights it is a sail billowing/with blood, a raw fist punching.” I especially like the appropriate “b” alliteration.


Here’s the first stanza:

“They don’t show up that often
and when they do, it’s possible
to ignore them like all the other things
that go on while you sleep.”

This is a sleepwalking poet, dictating her nocturnal urges. It’s lifeless even if you were to eliminate the line breaks and read it as prose. Later on, we’re treated to “misforgotten”. Is this like one of the current euphemism-lies, “misspoke”? But at least there’s a connection in logic to the latter verbal indiscretion. How can one forget incorrectly? Or does Crozier mean it’s a mistake to forget? But to forget something isn’t an act of will. That’s why criminals on the stand often fall back on the lie, when Perry Mason grills them on their whereabouts the night of Oct 7th, between 8:00 p.m. and 8:17 p.m.: “I don’t recall”. “In snow’s unmothering abundance” begins the final stanza. The emotions are evoked consistently well after the first stanza, but the main problem with the poem is its layered abstraction. With such an emotional subject, a symbolic nature-ordering works much more effectively when there’s a corresponding vividness involving the reality of that loss. Crozier could be talking about someone specific, but she’s talking about Loss, with the capital L, philosophically. It mutes any dramatic effect and emotional scarring the poem might have otherwise achieved.


“It’s taken the rising sun two hours/to find these hills. It will take less time/tomorrow. Few things you’re sure of,/this is one”. Thousands of years ago, the scientifically unsophisticated lived in terror of sundown. They didn’t know if the sun would rise again the next day. We can smile now, but it’s a good reminder that playing the spiritual victim over another two reduced minutes of sunlight in early December doesn’t get a reasonable person’s sympathies involved for our common latitudinal fate. And when the theme is empty, it’s hard to avoid the follow-up misplaced importance. Thus: “What is winter in you begins/to shift, begins to feel like a hunger.” Instead of describing an actual person, not one of anyone undergoing the same seasonal shifts, Crozier goes, once again, for the lazy abstraction. The second-person murkiness is just a platform for her to wax profound on banal and often-visited tropes. And it’s not like the language resuscitates a dying theme. “The bird lands anyway, the black nibs of its feet/scratching commas on your palm”. But, aha! Now the reader understands it’s not about sharing a common lugubrious moment with everyone else north of the 49th. It’s about the poor poet who, much like winter’s onset, undergoes fallow periods in her career trajectory, where the words will not break through the earth, or whatever trampled-to-death metaphor another would select. The linguistic “commas”, here, is a common sight in the book, and, indeed, among many other contemporary poets. This is no better than the postmodern obsession with talking directly about poetic process in poems. The concern is narcissistic, and the effect is one of indifference, even cold disdain among those who have no idea of, or no concern for, the struggling creative fortunes of poets condemned to a life of being dragged here and there by a capricious muse. This kind of selfishness and self-importance has no equal in other non-word art forms. And why “commas”? Shouldn’t it be scraping erasures? Too bad it’s just an imaginative foray. Such a bird I could really sympathize with.


“Did you know an ant has four/olfactory organs on its antennae;/the female mouse, a clitoris?” So begins the revelation. Why stop there? According to that great source of animal wisdom, wikipedia, “the spotted hyena, which has a particularly well-developed clitoris, urinates, mates and gives birth via the organ.” I mean, if the object is to produce shock, or at least surprise, in the reader, why pull up short on first base? But of course, this is Crozier, and we’re not dealing with facts for the sake of learning in scattered accumulation. Soon comes the real poem, for which the opener was just a table-setting excuse: “Did you know that grass has legs and feet?/That’s why it’s never still/but runs on the spot like a child in an old gymnasium.” Facts are cute, then, but mere triflings when compared with the imaginative profundities that arrive with the spin-off. If anyone can make sense of that gym simile, they’re cleverer than I.


“Lichen” is one more entry (we’re only at poem #9) in the poem-and-poet-as undiscovered-brilliance catalogue. “Something that comes close to holy:/you must fall on your knees/to see it clearly.” This is didactic mysticism at its worst. Listen up, unholy students. And listen reverently. This poem is more than worthy, sings Crozier. The next stanza has some nifty music – “tactile photo of the crab nebula/blazed into mineral” – which transitions immediately into, “like the bright side of a shadow/burned into a Hiroshima wall.” Uh oh.


The moon is given its due as another personified benefactor that has turned its back on ungrateful humans. (We’re not sure why, since there’s no backstory or complementary contrast.) When D. H. Lawrence wrote on the same conceit, he didn’t have a silent, withholding moon as mirror for the “no one, no one, no one will fall/in love” of Crozier’s bathetic ending. He placed a god where the moon lamented, and had him speak. The first-person contrast was dramatic and damning, there was a personality at work, not the Crozier-as-moon sadness which, self-important as always, can’t help anyone with its unheeded wisdom. Here’s Lawrence/Quetzalcoatl: “Get rid of their heaviness,/Their lumpishness,/Or I’ll smother them all./I’ll shake the earth, and swallow them up, with their cities./I’ll send fire and ashes upon them.”. A few lines later: “For the sun and the moon are alive, and watching with gleaming eyes./And the earth is alive, and ready to shake off his fleas. And the stars are ready with stones to throw in the faces of men.” The poem extends to further elements, with further dire consequences. The striking thing to note is the contrast in mood. It’s Old Testament vs New Testament. But whereas a good case can be made for the New Testament in that old argument over which reaction (or initial action) is best in an ungrateful world, in Crozier’s New Testament creation, indifference or a weird passive-aggressive withdrawal replaces compassion. Lawrence’s poem is studded with his usual flaws – repetition ad nauseum, didacticism – but it’s an honest poem, and gives contours and boldness in the face of actual vices which engender that opposition.


And it’s here, patient reader, that I stop, (thanks to the last poem’s title’s cue). I don’t have the time (though I have the inclination) to go through the next 71 poems in like fashion. Many of my arguments would become variations on a redundancy, anyway, since Crozier, as evidenced by comparisons with her previous books, brings similar thematic material, with similar attendant problems, to the table. I sincerely hope that my words have enraged one or more Crozier poetry lovers to respond with their own review(s), because the pathetic attempts at investigation I’ve stumbled across haven’t amounted to more than non sequiturs and mood agreement. One good poem, several others with promising scenarios or realized lines, and one excellent line (from the titular poem) – “The shadow in the empty barn has blood in it” – doesn’t add up to a successful book, but, you know, it’s impossible to subvert a rushing, rising waterline. This is just one sandbag. And I know there’re a few others out there. Nature, malevolent or benign, triumphs in the end. Here’s hoping for an abatement during the current hurricane era.

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