JUN 09

Famous Reporter # 39






Review: Theatre by Alison Croggon (Salt Publishing)

You’ll find a theatrical aporia set up in the first poem of Alison Croggon’s Theatre, where ‘Poem for John’ begins with ‘You ask for a poem / and I say / I have no poem’. Clearly Croggon has a poem. She has a book full of them. This pretence of doubt though is manufactured to allow an idea to emerge, the deceptively simple idea that indeed we do ‘need poems’ – poetry is curiously appropriate during times that seem to offer ‘no balance’. It’s not too hard to see this feeling underpinning the whole volume. The existence of such a collection is an argument for poetry in times of violence and uncertainty (and Salt’s appealing hardcover presentation perhaps an argument for investment in poetry too). The titular poem ‘Theatre’ is set against a desert landscape, and describes a woman somehow punished for her actions, ‘action breached before its time’. In crisp and perfectly judged lines the poem builds on the first and begins to sketch out a method to Croggon’s book: the pieces will search out such complex issues are as constantly fodder for the media (war and cultural dissonance in the Middle East), and it will do so thoroughly, by investigating personal and general viewpoints, by utilising analogy and not ignoring historical context. And the technique gains its force from the pivotal idea of ‘theatre’. Representing reality as a stage-show does not necessarily remove any vital force; real situations can also take on the absurdity of a cartoon. The theatrical element pervades Croggon’s subject matter.

Of course it is a fallacy to assume that times now are worse than ever before and I don’t think Croggon does this. Yet she does draw a parallel between modernity and a diminished faculty for words. The two prose-poems ‘History’ and ‘Ode’ present an interesting divide between an abstract now and then. History was a point where power bases of civilisation were formed, a collection of incompletely understood ideas that somehow formed a coherent whole nevertheless. And even that concept is found wanting; the poet pictures herself ‘longing for the dazzling conceits of civilisation to be actual, for the profound and bloody pleasures which underlay them.’ If there was an actuality in it all we wouldn’t be so reliant on language, that that can be so easily taken away:

Words of course were beyond us. They were what killed us
to begin with. They were taken away from the mouths that loved them
and given to men who worked their sorceries in distant cities,
who said that difficult things were simple now and that simple things
no longer existed.
         (from ‘Ode’)

There are other poems in this collection that attempt to compare a distant past to a more constrained present. ‘Beasts’ references an ‘innocent age’, one where it seems all living beasts were free in their own habitat. ‘Coma’ invokes that ideal myth of perfect times past Eden, as if the writer seeks to gain a personal understanding of what can possibly go wrong by making use of the monologue.

But then there are phase-shifts in this volume. While the beginning might prepare you for a serious (and often dark) collection of poems that confront unrest and cultural dissonance, this is not to be the consistent concern. After an untitled and italicised conversation with herself – roving over the vain hunt for poetic images, the dissolution of any notion of a ‘self’ this often entails – Croggon presents us with a lighter aspect of her craft, poems that freely take on board the notion of writing as a means to creating whatever reality is desired. ‘From Out of the Hat’ imagines the item of headgear as the vessel of creativity, one where ‘souls of poets dead and gone / perfume the hat’s lining / with the grease of passion’, and it is never mournful of the predicament. Croggon’s found and freely constructed poems are also a delight – reminding us that here are also absurdities that are purely comical, as well as those that tend toward the malign. I think it is important that these poems exist because they do lead on from other discoveries: if in fact poems are necessary (as the existence of Theatre is testament to) what can they do? Highlighting unsolvable inconsistencies in civilisation that bring on dire consequences would be futile without also finding the joy that inheres in chaos. Like a kid running blithely around the house for no reason besides the fact that it is possible.

And as a dalliance in the mythic indicates, in the face of unknowing we find solace in singing, in poetry. In ‘Once Upon a Time’ Croggon paints a picture of a creature born inside a nut, who emerges to wonder at everything but receive no explanation other than that he can divine for himself. It ends thusly: ‘Something wet ran down his face, but he didn’t know what it was. He began to sing.’ Perhaps there is justice in the world and it can be found through poetry? Poetic justice? It makes at least some sense. And the justice could effectively be Platonic, justness undertaken for the highest of purposes, for the intrinsic pleasure, but also for the instrumental reasons outside of a poem – the change that awareness can create.

All of these concerns within Theatre do enable Croggon’s poetry to do something interesting, and furthermore to demonstrate that poetry should do something comparably interesting. The poems that are pasted together from other texts at times function humorously, but also serve to highlight a danger inherent in haphazard ideology. And the juxtaposition of ‘Poems for Television’ and ‘O My America’ helps to emphasise that the danger of unthinking dogma is evident in many cultures. Croggon adeptly uses language and form to show this. Death, torture, and the unacknowledged role of femininity in traditional religion are rendered powerfully, whether in tight sparse lines, or scattered across the page drawing attention to every ebb and flow:

THIRD         she is an ear
wet with song she is a cunt swollen
       with god’s glory she is an eye
blistered with light she is skin
                                   split by goading kisses she
                   is a stomach parched
to ecstasies…

                       (‘Dance of the Seven Veils’)

The volume concludes with the longer poems ‘November Burning’ and ‘Translations from Nowhere’. These pieces felt less assured to me, although I do see that this is the point, and that this is the necessary conclusion. It’s just that the questioning pose (no matter how immanent) can get repetitive:

I would like to know some answers
but can barely shape the questions out of fear
there are no new questions
only questions that have always gone unanswered
must I ask them
every night and every morning of my life
                            (from ‘November Burning’)

There is a truth to the pondering these poems demonstrate but there can also be a heaviness or lethargy that comes with pondering (continually answerless pondering). Although the following excerpts are taken out of their sequential context, the effect in ‘Translations from Nowhere’ is cumulative: ‘the world, naked as usual, thick with meaning, / and now it makes you so weary, how it dissolves / like eyes in water…’; ‘..every day / comes after another day / as if past and future / actually exist’; and then ‘Evening turns to metaphor’. The focus is on unravelling, dissolution, and finally the thawing of what seems set as ice. I think Croggon might be invoking hope for change at the close of this collection, but the danger is that the reading experience can also finish in a slightly dissolute manner as the poems take us through this process.

For me the ultimate result of a play labelled ‘tragi-comic’ is the tragic feel. Elements of comedy permeate but it is often the despondency of the ending that stays with me, the tragedy that underpins the work. Is this the case with Croggon’s Theatre? I suspect it’s not so simple; perhaps she is writing poetically with an awareness of what the mixture of the tragic and the comic can theoretically achieve. I believe this to be a seriously worthwhile endeavour. There is darkness in the imagery and themes of this book, and it means the reading experience will be ultimately a sombre one. Or it will be an up and down experience, and the transition from light to dark might sometimes jar. Yet the acute way in which these poems interrogate the state of the world – in parallel with the state and existential composition of the writer – means the sombre reading experience is also spiked with hope. Alongside this Croggon’s feel for the interplay of syntax and the line is always artful. The theatre of doubt she has constructed here reminds us that a creative act of speculation is always essential, personally and otherwise. And if the oscillation between humour and seriousness (as opposed to a smooth ‘collection’ of like-minded poems) seems uneven we should remember that this is the way it is. The theatre is a site for reality too.

DEREK MOTION is a final year PhD student at Charles Sturt University, where he is composing a 'Poetics of Failure'. He is the Director of the Booranga Writers' Centre. He is also putting together a poetry ms, as one tends to do.