Our Lady of the Fence Post by J. H. Crone (UWA Publishing, 2016).
H. Crone’s Our Lady of the Fence Post, a book-length poetic dissertation of sorts, begins as an imaginative interleaving of two narratives: the effects on the seaside community of Sunshine Bay (a cipher for Coogee) of the Bali bombings and the sighting of a Marian apparition there. The community is particularised through “bystander” characters including, Mari, Maria de Jesus, Joe, and Mae who have their own stories and afford the work a vital personal dimension. The loci and vessels of connection are place, religion (Islam, Catholicism and, more distantly, Hinduism), and the secondary impacts that “great” events wreak on “collateral” and individual lives. Crone goes so far as to hint at causality, as well as connection, by having an expert suggest that the sightings are a manifestation of the spiritual unease the bombings and their antecedents have engendered.
The Balinese exemplify the “collateral”: affected by the terrorism of the bombers, the tourists, assertive of their right to behave as they wish, and then, the withdrawal of tourism.
The names of the women play on a sea/ mother/ “Mary” theme, as per a quotation from H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) cited by Crone. Mari owns a baker’s shop near the site of the apparitions, and is married to Joe, a man deeply affected by the bombings with a tendency towards violence. Mari is given the “briny taste of a fat lip” by Joe; Jesus/Maria is a sighter of Mary and mother to a son who died in the bombings; and Mae is a reporter with a religious upbringing.
The interleaving is illustrated stylistically in the poem, ‘How to Make Terrorists Pay’, where the lines alternate between the actions and reactions of schoolgirls and other protestors and those of Joe, as he attempts to navigate a way through them.
Crone widens her ambit as the verses progress to bring in Anzac Day, the Cronulla riots (relocated to Sunshine Bay), the war in Iraq, the rise in local influence of Islamic State, racism, and the demonisation of refugees. She also fashions a disquisition on the feminine and feminist in the poem, ‘The Inquisition’. It contextualises this concern by examining church historical views on the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, parallels in Greek mythology, and the conflict between a nun theologian and an exclusively male church hierarchy. A dying and unbelieving cancer patient observes, “The more the Virgin/ is elevated, the lower the status of women of ordinary birth.” I have italicised ‘virgin’ to highlight Crone’s analysis of the paradoxical refutation of female sexuality, yet glorification of motherhood as the defining female role inherent in the virgin icon.
The role of women is otherwise illustrated in the reflected musings and dialogues of Mari and Maria, their respective wife-husband and reimagined mother-son relationships and developments in their lives over the course of the work, and Mae’s Damascene evolution from reporter to disability worker. These three women eventually chart new lives for themselves since, for Crone, “resurrection” (used in the title of two poems) is personally determined─ Mae concludes:
The memory of Maria’s intense joy
in the midst of the sublime nonsense of the storm
has become a symbol in my mind
for the feeling
that I have finally become─
who I truly am.
While Crone risks diffuseness at times as she opens her gaze, the progression reads naturally enough and allows her to illustrate how a prisoner converts to Islam and radicalises as the book closes.
The work can clearly be read as modern allegorical. By way of illustration, the strongest impressions on my first reading were of the stories and overall tone. There is, however, resolute craft at work. Crone employs a range of poetic forms, from the conventional and even, exotic, such as the triolet and sestina, as well as, concrete-style forms, direct citations, prose poetry, dream sequences, faux riddles and reportage, social media formats, and elements of farce. The poem, ‘The Universal Bum Puppet Show’, presents a political comedy skit of obvious provenance at an A-lister party! Her mode of address also ranges from the direct to the speculative and her language from the prosaic to the more symbolic and imagistic. All this not only provides visual and textual variety but also reflects the multiple angles through which Crone transects her material.
Sympathy appears to be reserved for the Balinese and the female characters, and nuance largely for the later. While these are clear authorial choices, consistent with Crone’s foci, and understandable given poetry’s emphasis on economy, it does lend an air of the stereotype to the other characters, at times a little at odds with the otherwise, insightful and perceptive work. As always there is an exception to this, when Crone likens Joe’s heart to “a doe-eyed pygmy possum/ in a pool of snowmelt caused by the thrum/ of a new power plant”. As well, I found the incursion of Ginger Mick, coming unheralded and unrepeated, and a little jarring. The writing here is well-crafted, though, strongly echoic of C. J. Dennis’ diction, as best as I can recall, enhanced by incorporations from the original, and illustrates a continuity of attitude I assume Crone wants to convey, but is slighted somewhat by a similar unidimensionality.
Despite these quibbles, Our Lady of the Fence Post is adventurous, “spirited” (to quote Peter Minter from the title pages), challenging and thoughtful, and exhibits a conviction in the role of characterisation and an assured poetic versatility.
Paul Scully is a Sydney-based poet and author of two collections, An Existential Grammar by published by Walleah Press in 2014 and Suture Lines by Guillotine Press in 2016. His work has appeared in print and online journals in Australia and the USA. He is a current Board member of Australian Poetry and is a member of a poetry group at which J.H.Crone is a periodic attendee.
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