The Law of Poetry by MTC Cronin was launched by Peter Boyle at the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills on 22 March 2015.
I am very honoured to be able to say a few words at the launch of Margie Cronin’s new book The Law of Poetry – a book that has been so many years in the making, a compendium of complex, provocative, thoughtful, beautiful poems. I’m not going to say a lot about the book itself. Everyone who reads these poems will have their own responses, find their own favourites. What I thought I would do is say some words about Margie’s poetry in general and then briefly comment on and then read three poems that particularly struck me while reading The Law of Poetry over the last few days. With so many books behind her, and with a collection as diverse and numerous as this, it seems right to step back a moment and think of Margie’s overall achievement.
This very brief reflection on Margie Cronin’s poetry I’ve titled “Nine propositions about the poetry of MTC Cronin”. It could also be called “Nine provocations”. They could all be heard as answers to the question “Who is MTC Cronin as a poet?” I’ll number the answers one to nine.
- a poet who agrees with Rumi that one should sing without caring what others think or whether others hear, sing strictly to please oneself. Someone who sings without caring about others’ standards but (and this is the truly rare part) who in fact actually can sing.
- a poet who thinks in poetry: for whom poetry is a medium of thought.
- a poet who takes big risks emotionally, who isn’t afraid to use old words or new words, soppy words or abstract words as the need arises.
- a poet who wants to unsettle, who doesn’t give the reader what they want.
- a poet who is continuously inventing herself so that it’s not about repeating a given content or a replaying a mannerism of style. Margie is a poet who creates new poems in new ways – not someone (I’m thinking of, say, late John Ashbery after “Houseboat Days”) who invents a machine that for ten, twenty years produces the same kind of poem year after year. Maybe the machine was a very interesting machine at first, but – when you do that – after a while the sense of what’s lacking just grows.
- a poet who often uses constraints, rules of operation, games to generate vast sequences of poems – <More or Less Than> 1-100, Shearsman Books, UK, 2004 is an example – but who is never merely a player of games
- someone whose poetry claims a place alongside a wide spectrum of international poets drawn from a great variety of places and times – whose poetry is entirely her own but in dialogue with an ever expanding range of thinking poets.
- a poet writing in English who stands outside the two dominant modes of contemporary English-language poetry: namely, the poem of autobiographic or communal identity: poems that do – sometimes poorly, sometimes brilliantly – what a short story or biography might do but in verse form – Heaney, Walcott or for the most part Philip Levine would be examples. Nothing at all wrong with this kind of poem, but it is not the only kind; and secondly there is the avant-guard abstractionist poem, so terrified of cliché or sentimentality, so intent on an illusive “newness”, that it sticks to the safety of minimal content and near-zero emotion. Margie Cronin in common with several other Australian poets: Philip Hammial and Michael Farrell, for example: doesn’t fit into either of these camps. Instead her poetry has its own take on what a poem might be.
- an immensely prolific poet who across her extensive output sticks with something. What is it she sticks with? To me it feels like the same kind of thing that Rilke or Celan, Michaux or Marosa di Giorgio stick with: a vocation to seek that point where intellect and emotion are one, where one confronts individually, with terrifying honesty, the silence of all that is beyond oneself, one’s own nothingness, and jokingly, seriously, fluently, brokenly, clumsily, as best one can, day after day, keeps returning to that space.
I would now like to read three poems that exemplify some of these qualities: poems that think, that challenge, that say to the reader: whatever you think you know you can go deeper because life goes deeper.
First, a poem that exemplifies the sheer beauty that’s often present in Cronin’s poetry but, typically also, you don’t just end with beauty – instead there’s a twist in the end, not delivering anything as crude as what I would call a message, but rather a provocation to thought:
The Laws by Which the Irises Rise
for Maria Buranda
These are those which open the fan of light.
The laws which teach the darlings to recognise themselves.
They say the city was never there.
They tell the star how far to move
…..to keep in line with the earth’s wobble.
Laws with an axis, they mess hair
…..and fossick in the title for a gnat.
In the aged north they listen with their tips
…..for the finale of the air.
In the new south they neigh like a tiny horse
…..in the vocal chords of a baby.
They are the same piece of music for aeons.
Such tiny noises and lighter notes.
With a smell like a ladder receiving the sky
…..they steal all the forest’s breath.
They are the laws which measure the rain’s pulse
…..and release the sun from its burning virgin prison.
They force the sun’s fingers through months
…..and spill the moon from its cocoon onto the lakes.
These laws force the little mauves
…..into the one-dimensional world of the story.
Whereas the iris has no idea, really, how to recount its life.
Cronin’s poems often take as their starting point her own family life, her own husband and children, everyday reality, but they are never narrative or autobiographic in their main thrust. There is no piling on of detail (the tin shed, the cows, the trees, how many, what kinds, ditto for clouds, the baseball glove above the kitchen sink, the stitch over the right thumb, how many stitches, thrown last with whom, when, where) that drives me mad with much North American poetry. This is not poetry as memory-pill or auctioneer’s catalogue. Something to me far more interesting, mysterious, multi-dimensional, goes on. The poem opens out, then opens out again.
The Law Surrounding Fruit From Three Year Old Trees
for Richard and Moya Mohan & the orchard to be
Even without money
we shall buy the children cherries.
They will keep the seeds in their mouths
while they sleep
and every morning we will wake them
after death has taken another day
from their list.
After waking they will follow us
down to the trees
where the man says he is the owner
of the fruit.
How can you own fruit?
They call and he calls back.
He is in love with the rough squat trees
and at night dreams of a marketplace
of grace where the fruit
are more inviting than any church.
There’s no god in that apple
he says and passes it into another hand
and the crowds turn away
Why do they need flesh that is godless?
Why does he let them take
the fruit of his labour without pay?
When the sun is up
he knows he steals the fruit
from the ground while
behind the hill a bell is ringing.
There has been a wedding.
The children have dipped
their fingers in the earth’s blood.
Maybe he kills the dream.
For the trees
For what they promised him while he slept.
This last poem I’ll read is about childhood perhaps, in a way, though equally about adults as well. I love the way it keeps twisting, never content to just rest at an easy level. It belongs to a very different tradition than the storytelling tradition of poetry – but equally it’s not the poem of a lyric moment or a readily identifiable message aimed at the reader. It sticks with the mysteries of life and leaves things open. Typically of Margie’s poetry, for all its beauty, it disturbs and sinks its barbs into us.
‘The Little Law
……….That Conrols A Sponge’
After Fabio Morabito
Of all hands, only the hand of a child
has absolutely no fear of the sponge.
How to deduce this? Well, the sponge
is about the art of deduction and will
reduce whatever its hearts swallow
whereas a child, small, intent, caring
yet without concerns has no fear at all
of reduction and what it is related to.
Children, with their numerous arms
and exploding mouths, unaccountable
silences and magical abilities with facts
are masters in the arts of the sponge.
They know that the moment exists as
time does not and hold onto whatever
they can in it. Already moving, always
changing yet in their own eyes staying
the same, they take more and more
while convincing inside the disguise
of need that they will do a better job
of almost anything that is asked them
if only their light and spacious thoughts
are constantly filled wtih enthusiasm.
A child is well aware that the little law
which controls the sponge is derived
from derivation. A little person, still
close to the source, needs no memory,
no canvas, no story or surface to put
this in or on. Children, like all sponges,
simply follow, simply take and break
everything down, growing heavier
and lighter and heavy again having
regard always to what is given and to
what from them is wrung. If left they
will soak, accumulate things at randon,
and in each and every end they must
grow dirtier and decay from a surfeit
of ‘to do’ and ‘done’ and ‘do again’. So
much taken inside is eventually more
than any cosmos can accommodate –
pathways close down and soft edges
crumble onto the floor of what will be
forgotten and therefore may as well be
Heaven. To the memory this is known
as nostalgia, how the adult remembers
childhood. To the sponge it is the point
of giving in for there’s only so much
that can be held and only so much also
which can be let go. A sponge becomes
useless as a sponge and a child useless
as a child. That’s why we get new ones.
– Peter Boyle
Peter Boyle is a Sydney-based poet and translator of Spanish and French poetry. He has published six collections of poetry, most recently Towns in the Great Desert (2013) with Puncher and Wattmann. Among other awards, he received the Queensland Premier’s Prize for poetry in 2010 for his book Apocrypha and in 2013 was awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for Literary Translation. His translations from Spanish, Anima by José Kozer and The Trees: selected poems by Eugenio Montejo, were published in the UK.
The Law of Poetry is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/the-law-of-poetry