Nine Arches Press, 2010 £5.00
Reviewed by Charlotte Gann, Emma Lee and Rob A Mackenzie
I like the look and feel of this pamphlet—a lot. I want to open it, read it—and I want to like it. It all seems so simple. And yet . . .
Claire Crowther’s poems convey an individual, often painterly perspective with a sharp dark edge. She’s playful too, demonstrating confidence, as a writer, to take risks on the page. She creates her own language—and I especially enjoy ‘The Alices’, where she makes play of this alongside Lewis Carroll’s own use of ‘nonsense’ language.
But, in ‘Ash-heart’, where she writes, “I flush her with my language:// ‘Grass knits bodies, knits roots’, my only misgiving becomes palpable. At times, it feels almost like she’s wielding words to fend off something difficult. “There are two parallel texts”, she asserts on the facing page. “(There’s always an alternative.)”
Although her rhythms, and the rightness of each word, grow for me with every reading, I do also experience this strange sensation of someone dancing towards and then away from me, dangling possible meanings. Of doors opening—then, rather firmly, closing. Of little glimpses—a reflection in a window here, a mirror there. And right at the heart of all this sits that central pivotal image of the mollicle: small, vulnerable, unformed—who exactly?
At very least, this poetry suggests to me a profound ambivalence about clear (in favour of “Claire”, an alliteration she herself enjoys in ‘Self Portrait as Windscreen’) communication. And yet, in the end, it’s this ambivalence—when interpreted as vulnerability—I find to like in the poetry.
And like it I do. The centrefold, with its sideways poem straddling the spread, offers a mesmerising, rather Henry Jamesian fussing at light and shade which then gives way to an uncharacteristically clear view, of one
shopping, her with short red hair fluffed out, red mouth open, green shoes
slit in three places, him with spiked hair, both looking surprised and tired
as does their baby.
I love this snug dovetailing—perhaps the most comfortable moment (for me) in the whole pamphlet.
‘Birthday’ has also stayed, with its rush of wind blowing:
dead leaves butt-
ends the out-lived mess of ribbon
road gutter flew
into my hair brightly-coloured flies—
It gives a real sense of fragmentation, culminating in the strange scattering of “Best” and “Wishes”, not even the right greeting for this, a birthday.
The collection’s closing poem, ‘A Wanderer in End Erring Wood’, is as good as any to show how Crowther loves to play with language (“snappable saplings”); how she conjures surprising and often unsettling images (“older birches’ lower parts/ are stripped of frailty—look, they dance/ in dark clubs”); and how she packs strength into individual phrases (“raw birch heart”, “grave-red houses”). We are left with a parting shot of “a grown blood-filled woman” stumbling away through the wood, “ankling over/ stones.” I, for one, just might be willing to follow.
Claire Crowther uses words to build pictures—and not just in ‘Captured Women’, which allows women in paintings a voice, and in ‘Self-Portrait as a Windscreen’, which explores the public image and the private self. The poems do more than provide a snapshot or an image; they use it to ask questions. For example, in the title poem where, as in a fable, a god says he will take her firstborn away (the mollicle is the daughter) and the mother is a “skin of need” for whom “appeasement/ never ends”. The mother struggles: “Still, I kept my/ mollicle/ till she took/ herself away.”
Other women struggle too. In ‘Women in the Canon’, a woman walks past murals
of mythic action—what does it matter who
landed the boat or fought off the invaders?
Hold up your cabbage head uncooked, uneaten,
a simple candelabra to the canon.
This multi-storey atom of the arts
hosts men on every floor but, inbetween
and going down, I give off light.
Even the greats need the illumination of an audience and none of them would have achieved anything without a woman to birth them, However, it seems to me that ‘atom’ is misplaced here. A nucleus can hold many atoms but an atom is only an atom and not multi-layered or multi-storeyed.
Generally this collection hints at a wealth of knowledge in arts and literature that informs the work and doesn’t exclude the reader. Claire Crowther seeks to communicate, not show off learning. Each text illuminates and allows the reader to see what they choose to see.
However, I struggled to warm to these poems. Reading them was like watching a dance where the dancers execute each step accurately, in perfect time to the music and whilst watching, the performance seems faultless. Yet when you try to describe what you’ve seen, you can only say it was a waltz and can’t remember any details.
Rob A Mackenzie:
I enjoyed Claire Crowther’s two full collections from Shearsman Press and was similarly impressed by this pamphlet. She focuses not on bright surfaces but on the shadows they make, the landscapes on the margins of conventional eyeshot. It’s as if everything is filtered by a lens in a smoke-filled room; we are indeed “seeing through a glass darkly” (1st Corinthians 13:12), which St Paul identified as the natural human condition.
The first poem, ‘The Fête of Mystics’, can be read as a (unintentional) statement of poetic methodology. The opening words, “Stop digging”, suggest that a purely analytical approach will prove inadequate. Later, faces “blur like feathers/ spreading on black caps.” That blurring of boundaries is a feature of many of these poems, which nevertheless don’t confuse or contort but open up an unusual angle on the world and “shunt us/ out of this vegetation/ with their singular calls.”
‘Cartoon: Oldfashioned High Street’ begins with a blurring:
Manageress, roll up your shades, you on the inside
where sun flutters (never those precisely legged
shapes of shadow that stand as military to the body)
The poem is set in a wedding store and progressively builds a discomfiting scene. The window models resemble a young couple shopping, “crouched and militant”. The blinds suck up to open windows “as if fresh air is worth extinction.” The manageress will miss the “clock-like darkening calm” of shadows when the sun fills them. The shelves are “frosted”. They hold pearl “chokers”, tags “fictionalise extravagance”, and each bride “sets about the hedge of hangers, satin traps among the shrugs.” Every word is chosen with care to uncover what lies behind the shop’s veneer.
The poems are intriguing and require re-reading, as good poems always do. A few left me in the dark, but I never felt bored even by those. One of my favourites, ‘The Alices’, employs made-up words, which somehow feel absolutely correct. The sound and the context act like opaque mirrors to guide meaning. The Alices support men of business and action who are influential, snappy and self-obsessed. The tone is frantic, somewhat nonsensical and humorous, with a dark undercurrent exposing the treachery of language, the terrible gulf between what people say and what they really mean. An ‘Alice’ reflects:
But we’re mome. ‘To me
you could never be mome’ he said,
‘whatever you decide’ as he left.
‘Heritage’ juxtaposes the gulf between sacred and profane to great effect (‘My mother slapped/ her sandwich down on her missal’). It begins:
‘Get that Tiger isn’t a hymn,’ my mother
muttered under the muttering of the Mass.
It’s that muttering under the muttering, the layers hidden or lost beneath surface reality and language, that Claire Crowther singularly unmasks in this pamphlet.