Time for another look at three recently published poems, from three different poets in three different journals: ‘Small decrees of dust: A love song with moths’ by Sarah-Jane Crowson, published in Stone Circle Review; ‘The Other Cheek Turn’ by Kate Crowcroft, published in Berlin Lit; and ‘When asked to map the downfall of our relationship’ by Callie S. Blackstone, published in Rust & Moth. I readily admit that having decided to write about the first two I went on an afternoon scavenge for a third ‘Crow’ poet. I thought of Claire Crowther, whose work I admire, but couldn’t find a recent online publication (though the exercise reminded me that her Solar Cruise should be bumped up my to-read list). In the end, having skimmed through a dozen or so different contents pages, I decided I should content myself with a softer associational link — though the reappearance of moths in the title of the journal helps to make it a neat set.
These are all poems about love, of one sort or another — though look what happens to the personal pronouns as each unfolds. Blackstone’s ‘When asked to map the downfall of our relationship’ follows the most straightforward course; it announces its subject matter right away, then gives a bleak, lightly fragmented account of a trip to a lighthouse. But the first ‘you’ only occurs at the end of the first stanza, and there’s just one more after that (“The expensive sandwich shop turned you away”), plus a single ‘us’ and two instances of ‘your anger’. By the end, the addressee has become ‘he’, no longer a subject of the poem but an antagonist.
This is one of the ways the poem undercuts its own mode. That is, it sets itself up as an introspective piece — the speaker poised over a map, hesitant (“my fingers hover”), busy in thought (“images blur together”). It has the hallmarks of a tender address to an ex-lover (“I can sing about you”). The first two stanzas are of equal weight, the lines of decidedly average length. But then the first stanza break cuts off the word ‘you’ from ‘and me’, and it becomes increasingly apparent that something is wrong. The repetitions start to signal distress, emulating the manner of someone trying to make themselves heard (“the place that was my surprise, the place was my surprise // surprise, surprise!”, “I can’t, / I can’t”, “this was supposed to be / this was supposed to be”). The stanza shapes become ever more irregular, sentences run into one another, and as evidence of the male partner’s demanding, abusive and controlling nature stacks up, the lighthouse (“small, suffocating”) starts to look uncomfortably phallic — symbolic of a non-consensual sex act. It seems to me Blackstone first adopts the style and a genre of poem she knows many will find more palatable, using it as a way to smuggle in the tale she wants to tell. This is also reflective, of course, of the way awareness of our own mistreatment creeps up on us. For a moment or two, we think we’re in a love story — then the lighthouse looms into view.
Crowson’s ‘Small decrees of dust’ begins with a prominent ‘us’, and a flower-soaked scene of romance:
The lilacs watched us from the fragrant garden–
heavy and bewildered like a drowning.
OK, the proximity of ‘drowning’ and ‘bewildered’ gives it an uneasy edge, but fragrant gardens and heavy lilacs are strongly suggestive of physical intimacy. And yet the ‘us’ never appears again, nor ‘you and I’ (‘you’ is completely absent). I’d expected the poem to keep the couple locked in its gaze, since this is normally what love songs do, but instead there are a succession of sudden shifts. The second couplet is in italics, implying we’ve moved to a different vantage point — perhaps years have passed. The speaker of this couplet then appears to be interrupted by another speaker in the third, who completes their sentence:
That time before the world was boxed
in a whisper before…
before the darted glance, distorted.
Asterisks between the stanzas act as quick cuts, switching up the persona again. There is an ‘I’ and a ‘she’ who never quite settle into distinct figures, though they seem to be united in the closing phrase, “our hair unleashed, / rain-drenched, unpinned, unlocked”. Thematically, the poem quickly cools: there’s only a very short distance between that first fruity couplet and talk of a profound lack of intimacy (“It came to her that she had been alone for so long / that she had become a statue“).
This disjointedness — more complex and jarring than the gradual reveal of ‘When asked to map …’ — is in part a stylistic choice, tying the poem to an accompanying visual collage which mirrors certain images from the poem: the statue, the moth, the twisting of plant and human bodies. But what else is going on? To my mind, this structure evokes the way we look on ourselves from different angles in moments of doubt and hesitance, holding up the mind’s eye like a phone-camera when taking selfies. The person on the phone screen becomes a different entity, someone whose thoughts we can narrate in the third person. It’s also at that moment, posing, that we become statue-like, frozen in the headlamps of our own scrutiny.
The moths in the poem begin as “quiet words”, but the eyes of the lovers also turn into “moth wings”, disinterred from their context (“like a land that is locked, or lost”). So moths here are pieces of memory and language which fade away, but in doing so whirl and flare (they are “ecstatic with decay”). I think this makes ‘Small decrees of dust’ a poem about trying, fitfully, to love yourself, to gather up the evidence that will allow it, including the evidence of having been loved by another.
As intimated in both the syntactic arrangement and imagery of its title, ‘The Other Cheek Turn’ also sets out to mix things up. For some reason, I find myself thinking of it as half way between the other two poems. The first two lines require a double-take (or did from me, at least), since the well-known trope is of a face being struck — a woman striking a man’s after he confesses his betrayal, or a man striking a woman’s to cow her. Here it’s either the face or its expression of “a love so tangible” which is thought of as potentially dealing a blow. This convolution is immediately followed by a much more straightforward, almost cloying declaration:
Your face stalled in a love so tangible
it wouldn’t strike me when I asked it to. Hard
to learn how loved we are
when it’s unfamiliar.
Just like Crowson’s first couplet, there’s an unsettling element — in this case, the allusion to physical violence — but this stanza nevertheless seems to describe a moment of conventional romantic passion. And just like in Crowson’s poem, the sense of a ‘you and I’ vanishes immediately after this point, until the end, when a note is left saying “I want you / to know what is real and what is / not”. (The line break after ‘I want you’ momentarily gives the impression of a love letter, but the rest of the sentence reveals that the writer of the letter seeks control of the narrative). The speaker of the poem goes wandering, conjures a ‘he’ who may or may not be one half of the ‘we’ in the first stanza. It’s more plain here that time is reeling by — there is coffee with a friend, and this out-of-nowhere image:
… the neon
overalls of emergency
workers moved quick
in honeyed light
It reads like an unravelling — the rainbow becoming particles, then neon and honey. Like in Blackstone’s poem, there’s a line of reported dialogue which is blunt, off-register. Here, though, it’s the considered advice of a confidante. Crowcroft’s speaker seems, to my mind, to be trying to find the right groove, to be testing propositions and coming up against further uncertainty. They lie “in sheets — arrhythmic” at the close of the poem, giving in to … what? Perhaps “the charge” is not an accusation but a burden, or even an electric current, so that what the body must accept is a kind of tremendous confusion of the sort that comes from being in love. (Devil’s Elbow, by the way, is a double-hairpin bend in a now disused road in the Scottish Highlands, so the idea here is of someone walking almost back and forth, turning on themselves, in the effort to follow a marked route).
In all three poems, the traditional pose of the love poem quickly gives way to something more febrile, some more insistent energy which leaves me reaching to pull together the fragments. They make me think of how treacherous even simple settings and journeys can turn out to be when the senses are fully activated.