Michael Earl Craig — Can You Relax In My House?

After my first encounter with this Fence Books 2002 edition, I admit I was a bit dismissive. I tended to write the book off as an exercise in the imagination that never came to terms with history or philosophical or social issues. In short, it seemed to lack substance. It was a book that exhibited, of all things, a kind of rural surrealism that provided some amazing observations, some beautiful poems, but left one with a feeling of a bit of “style fatigue” near the end (though in all honesty, this could be due to a bad editor at Fence who wanted the poems to be all of one piece). The book seemed immature in that regard. Perhaps knowing that Craig was several years my junior, my own bias against those who have done what I have not (namely, publish a book) kicked in.

However, I am mending my first impression for mainly one reason. There is such a scarcity of thirtysomething poets who write well and also have something to risk (without risking it all by lumbering through the mire of disjunctiveness—more on this in an ensuing post). I appreciate the courage it takes to do that.

Also, Craig has made interesting choices in his life (just as he does in his poems). He is a farrier (I had to look that one up—it is a horseshoe maker) in Livingston, Montana. The often bizarre scapes he presents seem to return to this rural setting. He is that rarest of commodities, a surrealist in a red state.

The imagery, however, is never baroque; its minimalist bent reflects the movement of a mind across a lot of open range. Also, there is a kind of bemused wonder expressed towards the world, a childlike amazement in the attitude presented in these poems. Perhaps it is this quality which caused me to see his work as immature. The speaker has obviously stopped taking the world seriously a long time ago. From “Unto,”

I was a child crouched in a tub, fixed
in a yogic trance.

Indeed. This seems to encapsulate the speaker’s voice. He is calm, but there is very little intellect on display, a penchant for strange words at the most. However, as mentioned above, there is no attempt to take on larger historical issues. The poems exist in a kind of ahistorical place. In this way, seemingly-important-sounding place names can be invoked. These places take on the dimensions of the mythical. They exist outside a recognizable time, a recognizable politics. Perhaps it is not part of the ironic pose to associate oneself with a particular school or view or thought.

Often times the images can evoke real life counterparts, but for the most part there didn’t seem to be a lot of cross-fertilization with the real, even by implication. The pieces seemed largely entertaining. The intellectual architecture has been stripped away.

Craig resists the temptation to outline a “thinking life.” That would be solipsistic, and he doesn’t want to go there either. The most we get we are told is that thoughts are being thought. Craig is not going to risk intellectualizing anything. Apparently, there are no larger fish to fry.

Perhaps this is the right move aesthetically rather than point to a “real context” that could weigh down the poems.

Good Night, Star

You can’t step out of your tragedy, it wouldn’t be a tragedy.
Neither can I.
Together we walk

and think thoughts in a cornfield.
I take my blue pencil, snap in half my blue pencil.
A thing carries out from the interior of Corn.

A thing cries but nothing rises as a crow.
You light my cigarettes, I smoke two
at a time. I lay back on the tractor

staring up at the sky.
I stare up through you
into the backside of the cosmos, the backlit

blaze of the backside
where a clean-shaven God untangles two lampcords.
That’s what one eye does.

The other trails off with the comet.
I am tired and full of sloth, you
have just shown me this.

I look a bobwhite in the eye.
A kind of insect bounces off my forehead.
I feel almost put here to lean against a tree.

Am I whole, dear star?
As my eyelashes grow down
to the ground might you braid them?

The two jarring images here that quickly point to the piece as surreal are the “God (who) untagles two lampcords” and “ the braided eyelashes.” These are very interesting images, and they involve a similar kind of action, which suggests the images are parallels of each other. I like how Craig sets up these two images with rather matter-of-fact observations that are fairly rooted in real experience. He doesn’t want to step on those two images I just mentioned and risk that the reader’s mind will not arc across those two similar images. These two pointedly absurd images serve as speed bumps in the James Wright-like delivery and pace of the poem. For this, I’m sure most workshoppers would tell him to take it out. But that’s what workshops mainly do is whitewash the odd detail out of something so that it can be more palatable to the mainstream and, therefore, more mediocre. Without those two interruptions, the poem would be much flatter, perhaps too close to lived experience to matter that much.

The New Constellation

I look into the night sky the way someone else might
look into a microscope. Let’s face it, snow
is mysterious. Beside me your pillow
fills like a wind sock, which is another way of saying
I am lonely and exhausted, not wanting any
enormous fern to wither and die.
A trolley squeaks along and then bangs
into another, each carrying its own
patient. Good luck I say, wave
and turn away, my left foot dragging a bit
on the sidewalk, making in the snow the patterns
of a foot that recently drags its man through
the snow. The snow that is difficult.
The snow that whispers down on me, that dusts
at the night and leaves its etchings
on my eyepiece. I back away.
I lean forward again and use the eyepiece correctly.
Through the microscope I can see now the new constellation
called Path to the Boathouse at Evening, floating
like a troubled school bus. Also, a field
of bright flowers and rocks
that are spotted with moss and have history.

They have history! And what kind? I can’t imagine Aime Cesaire allowing an opportunity to pass by like that. Again, the poem turns on a few absurdities. The “foot dragging the man through the snow” is the first departure from the mostly experiential narrative until that point. The other absurdity is “the snow’s etching on the eyepiece.” Invoking this image allows Craig to move the speaker to the microscope (which has transformed from a metaphorical microscope to a presumably real one) where the speaker can get at the new constellation. The leap at the end seems almost calculated for impact through the sheer wildness—“floating like a troubled school bus?” (again workshoppers pronounce the “forced simile” accusation. This seems to be the intent of Craig though. Perhaps he wishes to just mention “history” as a way of underplaying it and hinting at the notion of an imagined thing having a life of its own—with a history and everything. I am puzzled by this move, but I will not allow it to dissuade me from seeing the merit in the piece’s interesting movements and relative rhetorical ease.

The accumulation of odd and jarring details seems to be what sustains this effort. Craig often seems to be creating his own constellations of items in his poems. In this way, the poem could also be read as an ars poetica.

Unto

And because of my little tuft of hair
they called me Fetlock.

They said I cried too much
and put me in a tub and floated me
down the river. I passed a talking bush

but could not steer the tub toward the bank
so I floated on.
It grew dark and then it grew light again.
From the grassy banks people hissed
and threw tools, calling me

Inventor of Stories, and Robert.
I was a child crouched in a tub, fixed
in a yogic trance. When I dropped my rubber balls
into the water they floated

upstream. Someone called me Lamp of Philosophy.
Another called me The Ark.

A great first two lines although a little bit precious. The events seem to transpire fairly evenly until the tools are thrown and then the name-calling of “Inventor of Stories and Robert,” a detail, though humorous at first, that seems to be too clever on subsequent reads.

I agree that I am older, perhaps too old to get what this book is about at times. The idiosyncracies are intoxicating until one realizes that Craig’s habit of turning away from the reader into more fashionably odd detail gets a little thin after a while. In some ways it is like discovering an unusual little café where the customers and the menu are charmingly quaint. Everything is fine until you realize that all of the customers you have met are odd all in the same way. They’re a carefully studied kind of unique.

To be fair (is that possible for me?) to Craig, perhaps the lack of daring in stylistic approach is the result of editorial choice. However, as I go around the Web, I see a very similar tone and diction to many of his pieces. A few more pieces of Craig’s reside at Jubilat and Ralphmag 2 and Crossroads: 20 New American Poets, but with all of them the intense psychological and otherworldly landscapes persist.

In “Work Way Up the Ladder” at Ralphmag 1 the line that alludes to a real historical context is “Psychology was invented by the Germans in 1874. Quickly, however, the poem trails off from there into the same dreamy atmosphere.

The larger question here is what responsibility does a poet have to being true to history. If one contextualizes historical material within a clearly imagined realm, is this somehow bastardizing the actual historical record? Going the other way, does the mention of actual historical places and people lend credibility to the imagined realm, a credibility that might cause a reader to blend myth and fact. For my money, I enjoy it when this difficult no man’s land is entered into between the imagined and the historical. It challenges a reader’s belief system about the limits of reality and imagination. Michael Earl Craig’s project is to never have us question that we are in an odd place. This is good enough, all he is asking of the reader. Perhaps this is why, although I admire Craig’s chops, I am left a little bit wanting because of Craig’s disregard for imposing his intense dreaminess onto anything that matters.

Originally written August 16, 2005
— Victor Schnickelfritz

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