The World Last Night
by MTC Cronin
University of Queensland Press
Published October, 2012
MTC Cronin is a restless poet. Since her debut collection Zoetrope: We see us moving (1995) was published as part of Five Islands’s now defunct ‘New Poets’ series, she has released another seventeen books, including her latest offering The World Last Night. While this collection – at 200 pages a huge offering, even from a poet known to be prolific – includes a small number of poems published in her first two books, now out of print, as well as the later book The Ridiculous Shape of Longing: New & Selected Poems (2005), it is not another New and Selected, but largely a volume of new work. The book bears the subtitle [metaphors for death] and, indeed, it is preoccupied with death and its bedfellow, eternity.
The descriptor ‘prolific’ is sometimes a source of embarrassment. The poster-girl for prolific writers is Joyce Carol Oates, who has published over sixty books – including not just the novels she is best known for, but also stories and poetry – and has resorted at times to using a pseudonym so she doesn’t have to explain that she has come out with yet another book. In the case of poetry, we seem to be even more suspicious of quantity: we assume a prolific poet cannot have spent the time to allow each poem to be smoothed into the perfect wave-tossed jewel of amber before washing up on the shore. The work is often labelled repetitive or uneven. Nonetheless, it is true to say that in some cases more really is more.
Cronin is a case in point. She has produced a large body of work, variable in quality, but nonetheless distinct. Some of her previous books have been driven by a particular idea, the kind of project designed to generate new work. The book-length formal challenge of the palindromic <More or Less Than> 1-100 (2004), in which segments increased one line at a time up to 100 and then diminished back to a single line, resulted in one of her strongest collections. Elsewhere, The Flower, The Thing (2006) – her previous collection with UQP – took this serial approach to the extreme, offering a vast bouquet of flowers, each bearing a dedication to a friend or public figure. Picking up the collection and reading one or two poems, they seemed fresh, so to speak, as daisies; reading at length, the conceit wore thin. But even in her more uneven collections Cronin is always recognisable: there is the slight surrealism, her sense of the lyric form, her startlingly direct language, her skill in creating aphorisms (e.g. ‘in what folds / is what unfolds’) and her continued conversation with other poets. In The World Last Night, Cronin’s verse feels comfortably worn in: she tosses up odd images (such as the ‘New Experts’ who ‘build up in our bodies / like little aluminium dinghies / that float through our bloodstream’) and small fantasias, such as the animation of ‘The Two Deserted Ladders’ (‘one says to the other “We are footless and handless”’), some of which work and others do not. Her decision to re-publish poems from earlier collections in a volume approaching 200 pages in length is curious. However, regardless of the relative success of each poem, Cronin displays an attractively light touch throughout.
It is not surprising that a book that concerns itself with death should so frequently take on a melancholy mood. The World Last Night is haunted by named and unnamed absences. Among these absences are the writers with whom her verse is in conversation. Notably, she writes poems on the deaths of the Romanian Paul Celan and the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, both dead well before Cronin began to publish her work, both bearing the sensibility of those who have endured the extremities of human cruelty. To these influences may be added a plethora of twentieth-century non-Anglophone poets including Rilke, Machado, Neruda, Pessoa, Milosz, Ponge, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Popa and Ungaretti. Cronin notes that ‘Anything at all / has the ability to haunt’ and proceeds to guide the reader through such hauntings. The prologue poem ‘Afterwards’ initiates the reader into this procession with its first lines – ‘The stone opens / and you enter’ – which evoke the opening of Christ’s tomb. The relationship between life and death is constantly on the poet’s mind. In ‘Making Use of the Dead’, she tells us that ‘Death is the ride of the living!’, while in the lyric lamentation of ‘And So Blood’ she writes:
The morning is ruined
The morning is ruined
The dead stay through the dream’s end.
Life and dream often bleed into each other and Cronin’s poetry calls up that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep. In ‘15 Minutes of Dying’, she adopts a matter-of-fact tone to spell out what is both self-evident and striking: ‘that is how long it takes / the last 15 minutes of dying / takes 15 minutes’. In ‘The Veil’, she nods towards the statistic that we are at our most vulnerable in the early hours: ‘Between 3 and 4 a.m. / even singularly we wage war / and die from its effects.’ And in ‘More Skulls Needed’, death’s insatiability is made cruelly apparent: ‘More skulls are needed for the skull pile. / The skull pile is not high enough or wide enough.’ Again, the straight talking voice contributes to a growing sense of discomfort that is vital to the collection. If death is an inescapable fact that we must confront head-on, it is nonetheless an event that haunts us.
While death is persistently present, the volume is also full of God, of angels; additionally Cronin invokes the human and animal soul regularly. The titles of many poems make this presence known: there is ‘God So Far’, ‘The God of Absence and Aftermath’, ‘God is the Shadow the Universe Casts’, ‘God’s Silence’, ‘The Museum of God’, ‘God Pieces’ and ‘God is Weird’, as well as ‘The Angels’ and ‘A Line of Souls’. At times, these pieces veer into pure abstractions, leaving the reader a little untethered, as in ‘The God of Absence and Aftermaths’ in which Cronin writes:
Absence is here.
Here is absence.
of the void.
In its aftermath
faith and pain
have been reborn.
Finally as things
we can understand.
Such attempts at a purer abstraction feel undercooked, even as I appreciate the poet’s willingness to write directly of the cosmic. The God of Cronin’s poems is non-denominational, and often it is her deadpan voice that leads to the most evocative lines. In ‘The Museum of God’, she poses the question ‘Did you see / the ambiguity exhibition?’ Slightly off-kilter, the question expands: our whole world might be that ‘ambiguity exhibition’. In ‘God Pieces’, she ends with the lines:
Now. A piece of god.
Now. A piece of god.
Now. A piece of god.
All those god pieces add up.
Pogo sticks and bones.
That hotchpotch of pogo sticks and bones and jellyfish is an apt example of Cronin’s sometimes mishmashed universe: as she constructs God, she empties her grab-bag into her poems. In ‘Regretfully Inclined to Think’, she writes: ‘God is the debris / of my thoughts.’ That thought-debris adds up to a rich vision of the universe.
Just as her thought-debris pieces together the puzzle of God, so do the stories Cronin tells in her poems. The poet displaces people and things from their ordinary surroundings. Animating a simple object in ‘Moving the Furniture’, she narrates: ‘Till dawn the lamp reads the book / of the anaesthetized horse.’ Elsewhere we see the pope, perhaps the ultimate figure of pomp and ceremony, dropped into a dreamscape that seems to feed on itself:
The pope has removed his green bicycling shoes
and mows the lawns of his dreams.
Not even one million blades of grass
can bear the strain of his attention.
While Cronin’s catalogues and meditations can lack momentum, the sheer oddness of these narratives whisk the reader along with them. The vision of the pope living a suburban life, mowing the lawn, sucking on olives or sitting on a bus, turns out to be just as strange as the idea that pogo sticks are a component of God.
The poet’s sense of vocation infuses many of these poems: Cronin frequently draws attention to the poem itself, and to the poet’s hunger for new material. In ‘World-Over’, Cronin writes of leaves that they ‘scramble in and out of 1000 poems / without glorifying a single tree,’ while the ‘Poets / get down on their souls to pray / to the last bit of God in the multiverse.’ In ‘Speaking of Night’, she explores ‘the opposite of poetry’. In ‘News Comes’, addressed to the Finnish poet Eeva-Liisa Manner, she writes:
I will read this poem
when you are no longer here.
I shall read this poem
as I write it on an impossible star.
She asks of her interlocutor: ‘Will you read my poem / when I am here no longer?’ The poet’s concern regarding the life of the poem, and her anxiety over life and death, hint at the ambition that drives her large output. ‘En Route’, dedicated to the twentieth-century Romanian poet Paul Celan, ends with the assertion that ‘Nobody, as yet, has written a poem’, while ‘The World’s Carrion’ suggests that the nature of the poet’s vocation is ‘Intermittently opening the coffin / then bearing the world’s carrion aloft.’ There is no question of Cronin’s hunger to open the coffin and write a poem.
Further, Cronin inspects the material of language itself: from the minute figure of the comma (Inside the comma, / the pause goes on…’) to the inherently changeable figure of the metaphor. In ‘A Trick is a Trick’, she writes:
There are metaphors for metaphors.
Like a bolt of lightning a bolt of lightning
A trick is a trick.
The seed of a seed.
The poet picks up this thread again over a hundred pages later in ‘Metaphor Come in Here, Irisish’ when she writes: ‘I should have made clearer my sentences on metaphor.’ This revisiting, while also drawing attention back to the material of poetry, helps give shape to the book, not because of its self-awareness, but because Cronin desires to build upon her subjects. The plenitude of her work threatens to overwhelm the reader, especially when the progress from page to page fails to gain momentum; when carefully sequenced, however, the poems reward the reader proceeding through the volume with a growing sense of interconnectedness.
Just as Cronin examines parts of language, she also revisits and revitalises familiar phrases. In ‘My Boots or Losing Meaning’, in answer to her opening question – ‘How big am I?’ – Cronin reveals that ‘it dawned I was too big / for my boots!’ Here the familiar phrase appears to be the occasion of the poem, and in picking up this idiom, she writes that ‘The boots did their best / and I’ve gigantically pulled up / my socks’, making another familiar turn of phrase suddenly weird. Poet, boots and socks all grow larger and larger, taking on cosmic significance. In the poem ‘Life-Box’, she takes that peculiar childhood toy and tells us ‘It’s not jack in the box / It’s God’. Shifting the words ever so slightly, she follows this with the less audacious ‘It’s not junk in the box / It’s good’. Here the movement away from the familiar falls flat, as it fails to deliver the zing of the poem’s opening, though she returns to another of over-used phrase when she writes ‘Out of the box / Is longing.’
Cronin delights in twinning the mundane – whether its the ‘junk’ of our world or linguistic constructions now almost empty of meaning – with abstraction: God, death, longing and time all rise in these poems again and again. In ‘Regretfully Inclined to Think’, she acknowledges her anxieties when she writes:
I am regretfully inclined to think
in pure terror.
That ‘pure terror’ drives the poet and her poetry, at times infusing her verse with duende.
In her restlessness, Cronin is constantly alert to the poetic possibilities of the world around her. She offers what could qualify as her ars poetica in ‘What Else Can You Do?’ when she writes:
Ungrasp the meaning.
Reverse the riddle.
Bend a moment until it resembles something that lasts.
At her best, Cronin distils moments into haunting poems that make the familiar strange again. Though The World Last Night might have been a slimmer volume, it is full of riches, a substantial work that stands alongside the poet’s finest.