Michael Earl Craig and the Art of Defusing a Poem
by Gabriel Palacios
Woods and Clouds Interchangeable, by Michael Earl Craig. Wave Books, 122 pp., $22.
Two years ago at the AWP book fair in Washington D.C. I asked the smiling folks working the Wave Books table if any new Michael Earl Craig was on the way. Perhaps it was the convention noise in that arena, or I’d rudely butted in on the tail of a satisfying joke, but the reply that drifted over from from the table was just this: a vaguely affirmative chuckling, through which I was unable to discern a specific answer. “Oh yeah, don’t you worry,” I felt told, “Earl Craig’s got something up his sleeve, alright.” This communicative gap, lacuna, out of joint encounter, this irresolvable decoding I was made to walk away and into the aisles with—is that not the heart of Craigian humor?
Woods and Clouds Interchangeable, Michael Earl Craig’s fifth full-length book, and third to be released from Wave Books,reveals a lit-tarnished world: a world (Craig is fond of anadiplosis, too) that the observational intelligences who people this collection tend to translate through the circuitry of internalized literary description—an edition of Gogol’s short stories might lie open on their nightstands. “This Looks Russian To Me,” a new poem, leaves us on a line that serves on one level to describe the composition of a postcard, but might be twisted into a kind of poetics: “He is Russian like the others. And exists to draw the eye.” This defining impulse of Craig’s observers, to articulate their situation or their station through the lens of how it might be read, the drive to alchemize their daily molehill into grander Memoir, to write oneself magnified, or puffed up, into history, is a recurring aesthetic effect, drawing the eye,and rendering the speaker or subject cartoonishly small or large in relation to their circumstances. Do we ever imagine ourselves at scale?
This sense of distortion verges into Woody Allen’s visual poetics (in particular his 1970’s string of New Yorker pieces and other comic prose), and like Allen, Craig has a finely calibrated sensitivity to the tonal colors of word sonics. From “Ideas for a Mostly Silent Film in Three Fifteen-Minute Scenes”:
It should be pointed out that these poems, and the wit they deploy, don’t solely rely on wordplay, or music. Rather, these textures construct a form of sensorial wormhole to association: the bold sonority guides us to imagine the swather, and see the veterinarian’s clumsy conveyance of the rubber bucket.
In many moments, the humor is a microscope through which we study unsavory human behavior. “The Couple” calls back to the titular poem from 2014’s Talkativeness: In a scene of domestic discord, a woman spends “eight or nine minutes” throwing her Thomas Bernhard books at a man, eventually running him over with a car. So, in the architecture of this scene, within poem, we have high culture / base human behavior juxtaposed, but, in a rarer turn, stretched out. As in the poem “Talkativeness,” in which dollar bills are lobbed to and fro in anger, we find humor in the upsetting of time, in that protracted eight or nine minutes, and how absurd time-scale gives way to an absurd interior made visible: the run-over man’s dying meditation on the appropriate usage of the word darkle; how the poem fizzles out into its own affection for the word darkle.
Throughout this volume, these poems remain interested in how we as humans, and as the versions of ourselves we render into character, situate ourselves inside language: our sense of disbelief that the correct word is also the most absurd. That the final thought crunched under a car is voiced absurdly or reaches tonally for an incongruous note. This disjointure, born of prolonged tension, is what the poem breaks open. Craig mines a primal source of laughter in the collision of the high romantic subject matter of love, war, life, death, coupled with the hard quotidian turn. So the distortion can work in these poems by making the individual small, or at least to scale inside his or her moment of intensity, or inside a landscape or situation lent weight by virtue of its historical frame. Consider the series of “Who Was” poems that thread throughout the book: “Who Was Chief Plenty Coups,” “Who Was The Sun,” “Who Was Joan Of Arc.” The operating conceit in a poem such as “Who Was the Sun” hinges on our experience as reader entering credulously into what is ostensibly a biographical entry which then piles up or breaks down with gathering momentum into fanciful associative drift:
The flip side of this stakes-swapping is displayed across a poem like “From Bed” in which the tiny moment is writ momentous, and becomes aware of its own literary representation. On its face, the action of the second stanza concerns the motion of a cat, prancing across its human:
The authorial intelligence in the poem can’t voice, indeed can’t even see the cat, and the blanket underneath it without invoking the glowing craft briefcase of the writer: “pilly, filthy, beware of adjectives blanket.” From the scene-establishing first stanza to the eventual unraveling, Craig treats us to a play by play of an intimate feline encounter, delivered like the kind of boxing match you would dress up in full tux for just to stand in front of your radio at home.
The comically distorted world gives way to the macabre, to the paranoiac’s fantasia. In “Town,” the community depicted, named flatly, as “Town” hosts a pageant replete with “clowns, horns”—wait, what? Floating drowned men and drowning shriners follow. The narration, breezy and even keeled, renders the actions and images all the more nightmarish: townspeople and their uncertain perceptions; a baby’s implausibly deep-voiced speech described as calm.
Elsewhere, we’re treated to a distinct motif of observers spying through parted curtains, again and again, through binoculars, through telescopes. These images accumulate into a surveillance-heavy air— not the surveillance of drones and Alexa, but rather a classical, twentieth-century, human-scale eavesdropping. A lurid looking, which also turns inward, and is aimed retrospectively just as often.
In “The Dead Elephant,” Craig approaches a reminiscence in passes, finding it necessary to change the record, the year, and the POV:
As Craig invokes memoir and the stakes of writing one’s life in (or into) a heady or historic time, he also asks, what happens when a random slob tries this? Or the particularly forgetful? What we’re left with is a person out of time, lifting from the page’s description of himself in that time, and suddenly entered into dialogue with the historical figures of that time, and their time-related associations: Janis Joplin, the Stones, Martin Buber. There’s a familiar silliness in being human on a historical stage, of having fallible memory, of being granted unearned authority by the pen or the microphone that records. This universal positioning—tiny loud mouth atop the big careening orb— might embolden the teller of a story, or inspire vanity, or else vertigo and nausea. In “Findings,” Craig incorporates the assumed heft of dates and epochs, up against a kind of casual sports fan’s statistical vernacular: tanked, spiked. Likewise, “NPR” is able to so successfully string us along for the horror it articulates because something of the associated ethos of NPR the institution rubs off on our reading, and lulls our brains into a credulity. A puffing up in order to punch holes.
The theme of literary ghosts coloring the telling of one’s own story, and even the seeing, doubles back throughout Woods and Clouds Interchangeable in various guises. In “I Have Stuffed Myself At Dinner,” we’re interrupted by abrupt perspectival shifts. The writing, or the inability to capture experience in writing comes into view. Ultimately, the speaker cuts off with “I can write better than this give/me a minute.” Give me a minute— this pivot to the over-the-shoulder camera on the hand gripping a pen, throwing it down. In all of his books, Michael Earl Craig has always exhibited a dexterity in the art of walking away from a poem: backwards, gingerly, whistling. In his endings, you won’t find an abundance of neat bows (rather than sewing up, these endings tend to slice open), if what you’re searching for is voltaic resolution of the dissonant notes, you’ll likely be disappointed. Sometimes the endings feel most complete when they have imparted the most mystery, as in “Christmas,” which concludes, “I had a problem and I solved it. / How I solved it is none of your business.”
Craig saves perhaps his most masterful ending for “Currently Over Kansas,” which finds rest at a broadly elided and imagistic postscript of catalyzing events we are barely able to glimpse in the first place. This speaker, having come out of yet another scene involving a comically-rendered domestic row (frame, with portrait attached, smashed over the speaker’s head, as he sits before his oatmeal—and again, mood is generated through elements of comic juxtaposition, their proximity), catches us up:
The scene itself might play with trope, or bloom from it, but there’s no gesture here toward denouement, no taking account of narrative strands. The experience of the poem—just two stanzas—is too quick a flash to allow for that. Instead of concluding anything, Craig has defused his own set up. Events are set in motion, and even mid-stanza we find the author has directed our attention sideways, to the logistics of positioning and clothing the body in a train car. In this poem’s ending, the quotidian underpinnings of a heightened situation, counterproductive in terms of the dramaturgy of telling a story of escape, instead create this entirely new, airy space for us as readers to authentically try the experience on. We would never have considered the legs “just dangling.”
Considered as a whole, Craig has seeded theme in Woods and Clouds Interchangeable through the interspersed “Who Was” investigations: in absorbing the multiple entries, we come to realize that perhaps the book is concerned with how descriptors make worlds. Perhaps Craig’s voices and historical personages in these poems are positing that the telling, or the possibility of reporting or being observed infects our living, causes us to walk differently, as if a funky soundtrack was being streamed over us. We can’t escape seeing in terms of the accounts we’ve read: and this limits us but also decorates our perception, makes tender or florid.
The epigraph, a quote from Gaston Bachelard, reads: “A nest is a bird’s house. I’ve known this for a long time, people have told it to me for a long time. In fact, it is such an old story that I hesitate to repeat it, even to myself.” We recognize that an epigraph can do different kinds of work. For some books, the epigraph might function as a decorative testament to the author’s good taste: perhaps by seeing to it that you read something beautiful on page one, the text that follows will absorb some stray beauty. Perhaps this feels too much like a trick. Alternately, an epigraph can also address, clarify, or offer some perspective on the thematic concerns of a text. Craig’s epigraph might do something like that. Far and away the most transformative move an epigraph can make, and which Craig’s chosen quote achieves, is to create an effect by grafting carefully-selected old language onto the appropriate new receptive rootstock. To see Bachelard’s language and thoughts, nearly a hundred years old, as indistinguishable from Craig’s own syntax and concerns, provides us with an uncanny resonance to savor, and furthermore perhaps even connects this text, concerned as it is with temporality, to something immortal.
Gabriel Palacios lives and writes poems in Tucson, Arizona, where he completed an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Pulpmouth, Spoon River Poetry Review, Bayou Magazine, and The Brooklyn Rail.