- Strange Territories
Michael Earl Craig
122 Pages; Print, $22.00
For certain readers, perhaps most, the ideal text is a progression from a starting point to a defined end: a narrative, an argument, a series of premises leading to a conclusion. A speaker in a poem might stop for a moment in a snowy woods before choosing a certain path. That choice, we are told, has made all the difference. Or else a protagonist might believe a certain misguided theory of history and, therefore, kill an old lady, and must run from the police, steadily going mad with guilt and fever. The line of progression might twist and turn, or be arrow-straight; there might be rising action, or a poetic volta, or a Freudian unearthing of the past. But at the heart of this structure is a sense of causality or logical necessity. A is there because it leads, ultimately, unavoidably, to B.
There is another sort of reader, not necessarily opposed to the first, for whom the ideal text is not a teleological progression, but rather a space to be explored. In such a text, B still appears after A, but there is always the sense that it might not have; C could have occurred just as easily, or D, or F. What supports B is not a causal dependence on A, but rather the force of its own existence. The success or failure of such a text isn't in how the premises lead to a certain conclusion, but in how a series of objects, each a premise and conclusion in its own right, create an interesting territory to explore.
The second sort of reader is most likely to enjoy Michael Earl Craig's new collection, Woods and Clouds Interchangeable. Craig has said (in a 2011 Bookslut interview with Andrew James Weatherhead), "I like to think of a book of poems as a terrain that the reader will be navigating, and I want that terrain to be varied." The terrain here is certainly varied, though held together by Craig's insistence on speaking even the strangest things plainly. In the poem "Dimes" we are told that "Dimes dropped from a passing helicopter / were just beginning to hit the deep snow." In "How to Fix a Broken Butterfly Wing," we are advised to "go to your pile of used wings, / hopefully you've collected some." And in one of the collection's more overtly surreal poems, "Town," a group of parade-goers argue whether or not a hog is covered with leeches, only to be silenced by the pronouncement of a baby, held by one of the arguers:
"Opportunistic leeches."He blinked, working his fingers."That's our greased hog."His voice was deep and calm."Covered with opportunistic leeches."
At times, as in the description of a postcard in "This Looks Russian to Me," the speaker attempts to find some sense of causality, some logical explanation for what is. This attempt, the poem makes clear, is absurd. Is the woman on the postcard dead? Did the man sitting beside her, smoking a pipe, looking out at the viewer, kill her? The speaker points to evidence: "She looks waterlogged . . . we see what might be drag marks in the sand." But might it not be the case instead that they are "thespians taking turns pretending / to be dead?" Or perhaps she's simply sleeping. Nearby, a crow "is walking or standing"—even that, in the flat, still territory of the postcard, cannot be asserted for sure. This bird, the speaker says, is "tiny," "a little flourish, but full of feeling and purpose." What purpose, though? He exists, like everything in a painting, "to draw the eye."
Some of the pieces in this collection feel fragmentary: experiments, jottings-down, the sort of thing you'd expect to find in someone's notebook, something that might have become a poem. "Heimlich's Beagles," in its whole, reads:
Heimlich (of maneuver)and his beagles.Die Beagles von Heimlich.Seine Manöver mit/auf Beagles.Sein besonderer Wegmit ihnen.
Part of the humor here is not...