children fight over wildflowersUntil recently, it was thought that writing began in one place, Sumer with clay models and the economic imperative - what do you have? How many goats and sheaves of corn? Writing soon became a capable vehicle for both the law and poetry. The poem hopes for social solidarity but leaves us in a grim world of murder, judicial or otherwise, and two bodies:
swinging, turningCronin provokes a slippage of syntax and sometimes absence of punctuation that frustrates easy readings of some works but encourages a fluvial reading that works the reader back past print, past grammar to poetic possibilities, thanks to the fecundity of this poet's imagination.
She uses 'and', one of the small words George Oppen took so seriously. One of our low-key words that add particles of action, memory, scent and death to planetary systems and narratives of lives - she uses 'and' with enthusiasm maintaining the rhythm of an enthusiastic and exciting voice through the collection.
Connections form between a Zen master's death and a tiny red Sydney spider in "Be Spider":
perhapsIt seems to me to be a poetry fished out of the streaming presence of language, rather than building a house brick by brick, or a machine, bolt by bolt. I read aloud fast swallowing the images hook, line and stanza.
a small man with a mouthful of tonguesWords that obsessed Symbolists, such as 'dream' and 'moon', are central and recurring to a number of poems (sometimes in same poem as in "Not a Real Beard"). After a number of these, my personal baggage weighs on me. I enjoy poetry embedded in the world and just as I suspect the poetry of becoming ethereal and losing focus, another poem e.g. "Bouillabaisee" grounds me again, or "The One-Pointed Star":
the baby pulls off a fistful of catSuch a personal poem, without show or contortion, bounds with lunar gravity and ground haecceity in the body, eternity and the stars.
The poems are at their most compulsive when dystopias dance with utopias. Cronin brings both inclinations successfully together in one of the longest poems in the collection (4 pages). In "The Confetti Stone" (which won the Gwen Harwood Memorial Poetry Prize in Australia), a young woman frees herself from the memory of sexual abuse, a freedom won, perhaps in spite of, her forthcoming marriage:
Tonight she celebrates her own wedding: marriesHer transformation follows with pathos:
. . . they'll drive away from this place unseen by snakesThe enjambment powers an energetic momentum that her narrative supports (rather than the other way round). Again, the poet pushes off the well-made poem into a sea that takes it far and wide without any huffing or puffing. The currents and tides of the reader's own imagination carries the craft.
¶ the world beyond the fig
This collection starts with a dazzling psychological ethology.
In the poem "the world beyond the fig":
This woman who forcesThe poem "Surrealism and Damages" tells of the ubiquitous and clumsy sexual advances men are prone to make. This book is dedicated to the women she knows and, to my male sensibility, celebrates the presence of women most successfully.
In the poem she notes gender difference,
. . . in speech[I recently wrote that men use the word 'red', whereas, women tend to distinguish between vermilion and crimson, puce and blood. Celebrate difference and understand difference! Back to Sumer and the origins of writing - men may have invented writing there but elsewhere, writing began with ritual significance. For example, the earliest writings are scratched on Chinese oracle bones and perhaps women inscribed the ancient sacred markings recently brought to light in Transylvania]
I find the world . . . a more uneven collection than Everything Holy but still packed with interesting poetry, especially the poems originating from the experience of being a mother; the intense, "My mother, Her mother, her daughter/My Daughter, Her Mother,/My Mother, Her Daughter,/My Daughter" (almost a prose poem) which rivets the past to the present while anticipating the future:
Her love is in buckets. Easily tipped over.Such poems as "Another Paradise Lost" give domestic scenes, intelligibility and passion. I prefer these to the more political/didactic ones, such as "That man", which still has some provocatively interesting parts:
the man moved in the shadowsthere are moments when the poetry in these poems seems to lose its energy as in this excerpt from the litany of "But This":
she walked as quiet as a kittenThen there are the quirky poems madly inventive like "Blow Up (Doll)" with its hilarious ending that I won't give away. There are a number of poets in these two collections, all of them inventive and perceptive.
Tired of the old descriptions of the world,The poem goes on to suggest a man
. . . rather lawless in a red shirtThe law imposes a structure of due process, institutional use and language (no hint of blood on his red shirt) on messy, complex and often paradoxical human acts. Acts we want to earth in a solid world but, as Wallace Stevens wrote in a letter, 'We live in the description of a place and not in the place itself.'
There are no objective positions (let alone an objective position) from which to view ideology, or descriptions. Karl Mannheim attempted to show that competing ideologies have comparative advantages and disadvantages, but how can one find a position from which to tally them ('Mannheim's paradox')? If all discourse is ideological how can one escape? Ideology is a contested term and outside of Marxist interpretations, terms like episteme, discourse or tradition have been developed.
I find it more useful to talk of an 'epidemiology of representations' (Daniel Sperber), 'cultural software' (J.M. Balkin) or memes (Susan Blackmore). But then the danger is leaving the politics out, a danger art is always facing.
The law and poetry can both be unreasonable and lacking in reason. The Anglo western legal system uses an agonistic process similar to the competitive processes of the market economy. This may partly derive from the language we use for argument (which poetry neglects and the law and the Academy reifies). Lakoff and Johnson have shown how metaphors of war are used for rational argument, one reason why negotiation to consensus appears to be relatively uncommon.
Plato is in a pragmatic mood in Laws, his last work. He proposes detailed legislation, wanting to make an ideal city work. But the ideal city is still, like the Republic, a fascist state - poets are exiled. John Dewey, Richard Rorty's hero, thought democracy a vital process that had possibilities of developing new cultural formations. This culture of democracy could be seen as reviving democratic individualism, or encouraging empathy with fellow members of a shared community. The law is always in tension with democracy, though Rorty concentrates on social solidarity rather than dealing with the law.
The law is public, whereas poetry, in the last couple of hundred years, private. This is the very distinction that Rorty is forced to make because of his neo-pragmatist position on description which is the heart of in his anti foundationalist project. In Rorty's view, all philosophers can do is describe, and all descriptions are subject to interpretation, dependant on the language of 'chosen descriptions'. Rorty wants us to avoid irony about these descriptions in the public sphere so socialisation of citizens and solidarity is not disrupted. It is an argument that confuses attempts to illuminate the relation between individual beliefs and responsibilities and votes for the status quo. In the US, this results in an infant mortality rate worse than that of Cuba.
Description at least gives room to the arts: 'What the novelist finds especially comic is the attempt to privilege one [set of] descriptions, to take it as an excuse for ignoring all the others.' Rorty thinks novelists, television producers and artists in general are useful for promoting social solidarity, but he does not mention poets in this book which, of all his books, most closely seeks a place for the arts.
Though elsewhere Rorty has written, 'I think of metaphysicians as footnotes to poets . . . My utopia, as I have often said, is one in which poets rather than scientists or religious prophets are thought of as the cutting edge of civilisation, and are the heroes and heroines of culture . . . [because] it would have given up the presupposition . . . that everything we do take place within an eternal, unchanging framework, and that discerning this framework is an important human task.'
Or as he writes, 'The utility of the 'existentialist view' is that, by proclaiming that we have no essence, it permits us to see the descriptions of ourselves as on a par with the various alternative descriptions offered by poets, novelists, depth psychologists, sculptors, anthropologists, and mystics.'
It's clear, from diachronic and synchronic investigations, that all known languages give similar descriptions of the world. There are limits to our freedoms of redescription. There is no anarchic relativism here; evidence can be given for preferring one description over another. Experience of the world is relevant to our statements about the world. Rorty argues that on the larger scale, in terms of human projects in the political or social sphere, we cannot ask for evidence from the world and that such different viewpoints may be seen as incommensurable. He writes, 'When the notion of 'description of the world' is moved from the level of criterion-governed sentences within language games to language games as wholes, games which we do not choose between by reference to criteria, the idea that the world decides which descriptions are true can no longer be given a clear sense.'
Rorty is a pragmatist and thus subject to epistemological uncertainty. The law, on the other hand, can have no doubts about its foundation or project. Cronin asks "What is / the law of water?" She knows there is no answer. Poetry emphasises experience which always owns emotion dimensions; art is not in the business of providing answers to abstract or metaphysical questions.
Cronin's poetry flows between the interstices of judge and jury, plea and bargain, appeal and police, witness and judgement. She does not deal with cases histories, has none of the documentary sense that Charles Reznikoff gives in Testimony, a poetry mined from court transcriptions and case histories, an objectivist poetry, pared down and tightly toned but highly charged for all that.
She brings something other from studying law than Reznikoff, who learned to . . .
scrutinise every word and phraseCould Reznikoff's Testimony, a documentary poetry interested in the everyday, ever be taught as history, social history or anything else?
In the acknowledgements to the world beyond the fig, it is noted that some of the poems were used as course materials in university law subjects ('Law and Gender' and 'Feminist Legal Theory'). That's wonderful. I'd like to have sat in on one of those discussions. We talk of legal practice but what of poetry as practice? And not just endowing Beowulf to a history lesson. We may not concede to Shelley that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but we may agree that poetry brings illumination to the whole gamut of human discourse and curiosity, including, institutional practices like the legal system.
You can read eight poems by M.T.C.Cronin in Jacket # 8
¶ M.T.C. Cronin; Everything Holy, Balcones International Press, Temple, Texas. ISBN 1 891811 04 5
¶ M.T.C. Cronin; the world beyond the fig, Five Islands Press, ISBN 0 86418 61 8
You can order M.T.C.Cronin's books via the Internet - choose the bookstore closest to you, and select the live link -
In the USA - Amazon at http://www.amazon.com
In Paris, France - The Village Voice Bookshop at
In Britain - The Internet Bookshop at http://www.bookshop.co.uk
In Sydney, Australia - Gleebooks at http://www.gleebooks.com.au
In Melbourne, Australia - Readings at http://www.readings.com.au