Bloody Words



review by Steve Evans






M.T.C. Cronin
Sydney, Vagabond Press 2001
118 pages, rrp $22.00.
ISBN 0 9578378 2 8



Bestseller is a book about making meaning and some broad concerns of communicating. It is conceptually quite dexterous, within its self-imposed range of issues. Though flawed, it is a refreshingly individual collection.

The five sections of Bestseller are named for various aspects of words and writing. They are preceded by the allegorical title poem, which reminds me a little of Miroslav Holub (and Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, for that matter), though its wry appeal does not reach the heights of his work.

Red is the signature colour for the collection. It infiltrates many poems, echoing the actual red of the leading and trailing pages, and blood is its frequent complement. Other motifs? The moon shines its ghostly light over a number of poems, and fists and spiders appear several times. Not surprisingly for a collection that deals with language and meaning, the poems are often populated with poets.

There was so much repetition of imagery that I couldn't help thinking about a poem-generating software program I once found, and the likelihood of producing something like 'the moon is a bloody red fist/watched by a poet/who dreams the language of spiders'.

More seriously, I had to wonder why Cronin resorts to such vagueness as, 'And mountains meaning something else/ Than mountains' (in the ambitious 'The Poet in an Epoch of Influence' sequence). It is as if she is striving for a kind of mythic quality that does not always come off. That kind of abstraction may appeal to readers who look for an emotional landscape rather than a physical one, but I prefer a more direct and literal connection with the subject.

Cronin addresses the significance, and individuality, of this struggle for understanding:

For all the things I write
Even those which seem
To have no meaning
Are true
Somewhere inside me

Is that enough?
Can we, with kindness,
Elevate ourselves to mystery?

'To What I Created' (2)

Cronin has a tendency to associate fragments in a disconnected list, relying on a reader's willingness to fill in gaps. Placing such trust in both the reader and the value of the poem is not always going to be rewarded. A riddling rattle of brief statements can be offputting.

Fortunately for those readers who find comfort in such things, most poems seldom stray far from a personal outlook, so there is the anchor of a narrating character. The reader can usually identify a narrator's voice, even in the middle of a storm of abstractions.

I do like the fact that Cronin takes risks and explores different paths. The rewards when this succeeds are substantial. She has a pleasing diversity of approach in style and subject, and an absence of cynicism. She plays philosopher but it is with a degree of attachment, so her musings retain a sense of personal investment and power.

I don't agree with all that Cronin writes, however. In 'These Days', she addresses the stillness of poetry. The poem moves fluidly through the way things fit into the spaces we have for them as a prelude to making a case for poetry as an agent of brilliant activity, but it then suddenly lapses into pessimism. Words 'sit in silence/ Like protestors/ Stay hidden in books/ Even when those books are read'. I would argue that this is manifestly not true; even the imagined monastic reclusiveness of words falters as an image. In life, words do not stay hidden. Poems live in our heads, are remembered and are spoken about, and they often haunt us into seeking them out again.

There is also an occasional awkwardness, such as 'My unacted upon desires' (in 'The Poet in an Epoch of Influence') and 'as long/ as it takes to change to an/ acquaintance from a stranger' (in 'Be Spider'). These suggest a need for tighter editing. There are some poems that still read like drafts, waiting the critical turn or idea that will lift them, but alongside such work are more developed and arresting pieces.

Though humour is sometimes strained by effort, and seems too earnest, I did admire its effect in 'The Enormous Night' where a stilted voice and an essential warmth combine to create a compellingly positive sense of identity amid grief.

A word about the book as object. Bestseller is an elegant thing. The cover design unifies the collection through its spare use of pictographic characters on the cover, and the coloured pages inside reinforce this. Such attention to detail is a constant reminder of the collection being a treatment on a singular theme.

Reading these poems and thinking of Cronin's engagement with the world recalls Seamus Heaney's statement:

Technique...involves not only a poet's way with words (but) also a dynamic alertness that mediates between the origins of feeling in memory and experience and the formal ploys that express these in a work of art... It is the whole creative bring the meaning of experience within the jurisdiction of form.

(from 'Feeling into Words' in H. Vendler, Seamus Heaney, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998.)

The mechanics of Cronin's poetry may sometimes be too visible but there is no doubting her integrity, or her ability to conjure a poem that jolts the reader with an original concept.





Steve Evans is a lecturer in writing at Flinders University. He has published three collections of poetry, and is a member of the AAWP Executive Committee.




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Vol 5 No 2 October 2001
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady