MTC Cronin, The Law of Poetry. Puncher and Wattmann, 2015. RRP $29.95, ISBN: 9781922186614
Sarah Holland-Batt, The Hazards, University of Queensland Press, 2015. RRP $24.95, ISBN: 9780702253591
I suppose it depends what you want from poetry. I want poems to grab me by the throat and take away my breath. Much of Sarah Holland-Batt’s debut, Aria, did that, as did MTC Cronin’s earlier collections. And so I opened Holland-Batt’s The Hazards and Cronin’s The Law of Poetry with considerable excitement.
The Hazards begins with ‘Medusa’, a poem to which I kept returning, puzzled, feeling the poem was just out of my grasp, until I reached the Notes where the Italian translation (jellyfish) is given. Opening poems set tone and act as frame, and I wonder if the note could have been offered alongside the poem. The first several poems, like many in the collection, are strongly evocative of place but I feel the poet at full stride when I reach ‘Galah’s Skull’ and I read:
I bend down. Zeroed out of its head
are two sockets, two airy planets
full of sun, and taking asylum in one
a millipede is coiled, a slick black hypnotist (16)
And then, soon after, ‘Muttonbird’ with:
like luck, luck, my heart
piano-wired and plucked
and in the fizz and thresh
of the shoaling sea, in my wild eye
there’s a prize for them with knives (40)
And, further on, in ‘Late Hammershoi’, where light is:
like a woman’s hair through the window, … wetting the mouths of wineglasses,
… slanting its long towers on the floor
like the travelling teeth of a comb.
Particles swimming there in light’s archery (46)
Then my breath is snatched by the poignant lyricism of a clutch of poems in the centre of the book—for example, ‘Poem for My Father at Sanssouci’; ‘The Quattrocento as a Waltz’; and the fabulous ‘Primavera: The Three Graces’, in which even in—indeed, because of—spring’s burgeoning we are brought closer to our mortality:
We know when the wind bends down
to tangle the raw silk and the oranges
thicken their perfume that our natures
are dark after all. No time for angels now.
It is spring. Death is in the trees, …
Our art is too long; the circle
will not break. Only the birds hurtling
like flung stones know the truth:
it is in the tiny fandango
of their pulse, in the leaves scratching
them through the air, in their descent
which is short and unspectacular
and spills out of them like wine.
Fear it: your lives are short too. (51)
As in the best of Aria, here Holland-Batt’s lines propel us, the language at turns clipped and fluid, the images evocative and startling. We roll on over the enjambments and then are brought to sudden stops. The poet excavates her topic thrillingly to reveal deeper truths. The Hazards unearths the dangers we live in and alongside, the dangers we court and hold close to ourselves. The best of it is truly wonderful.
Occasionally, books baffle, as did The Law of Poetry, initially seeming opaque and cerebral, and I could easily have put it aside. And this despite (or perhaps because of?) my excitement, and despite being able to see the new writing is intriguing. But poem after poem confuses, frustrates and demands more patience and commitment, without emotional and technical pay-off, for much longer than I’m usually prepared to give. And then.
There was no epiphany, so I can’t identify the precise moment (line or even poem) at which I began to see (or perhaps feel) the patterns of play and satire; the cool, askance gaze; the restrained disdain and incisive wit; the mourning without nostalgia; the laugh-out-loud audacity. It was a dawning, halfway through C. (The Law of Poetry is set out in alphabetical sections.) It was not long after I had finally complained out loud about Cronin’s frequent use of closed philosophical statements and rhetorical questions that seem to me irritatingly removed from the psychic and visceral experiences of living, which mark those of her poems that endure in me (the exquisite ‘The Confetti Stone’, for instance). The realization occurred, I guess, once I had persisted long enough, asked sufficient questions of the work to allow its weft and weave to come into view. Of course, once the pattern is seen it is impossible to unsee it and in these instances I, mostly, wonder how I could ever have been blind to it. Having struggled, however, in the early pages of this unusually substantial volume (over 200 pages of poetry), in this case I remember well.
There are different voices here—to be expected from a collection written over twenty years—and some are more successful than others, in my view. Poems strongly located in materiality and which, consequently, ground themselves in imagery, are the most memorable, enabling a deep commentary on the experience of living within the metaphoric structure of the Laws Cronin has created:
the broccoli is so green
that it leads me
to the end of analogy
where everything is sleepy and still
and quite unconvincing
(‘The Law of Broccoli’, 25)
…and she said, my belly.
And he said, could have been anyone.
Her eyes are like the man’s
her mother smiled at
before she was born.
… The fire in her eyes is like that
in the man’s who looked away
from her mother’s smile.
Daughter means derived
from another, could have been anyone.
(‘The Law of Evidence’, 59)
And then there are poems that surprise, leaping from the cool, controlled philosophical poetry around them, to startle; for example, the haunting ‘Jose Touches His Toes (or The Law Behind Bars)’. Or ‘The Law of Seeing’:
I have a little eye for everything
A black alabaster eye
A mud eye
A water eye
A whirlwind of eye
The visible come to me
Mushrooms from darkness
Appearing from disappearance
I close my eye on them
Breaking away from obstacles
Being not. (187)
What play! It is these breakouts, this not-just-acknowledgment of life’s chaos but its demonstration, its embrace, that thrill and convince. At once, I wish for more of these, the (apparent) abandonment of order, of tight restraint and cool judgment, yet know that it is, in part at least, the dedicated philosophical and cerebral intensity of surrounding poems that make these surprises so precious.
One of the pleasures of the form is its availability; most poetry collections can be dipped into, as if a well. We can be immersed in a poem quickly and utterly, and re-emerge rapidly, changed, renewed or shocked. On the level of the emotional/psychological, as well as in the technical imagination, much of Holland-Batt’s collection enables such an experience in this reader. Cronin’s, however, is not that kind of collection to me. It demands a different engagement: it is a house prepared for (the idea of) us. The house has several wings. The wings do not resemble one another. And the view from any room can be quite different to the view from another. It requires us to spend time in it, to come to understand its particular layout and architecture. It will reward this slow meditation.
Marcella Polain is an award-winning poet, writer of short fiction, and novelist. Her work has been published nationally and internationally. She is a Senior Lecturer in the Writing program at Edith Cowan University, Perth.