MTC Cronin: The Flower, The Thing

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006, 122pp.

At first sight a book of one hundred and twenty poems each devoted to a single flower and each exactly the same length looks like an attempt to expand (by half), or even to answer, Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers. At second view however The Flower, The Thing is a long way from inhabiting Zukofsky’s weirdly hermetic universe being, in most respects, a talkative and engaging book.

The book’s final poem – a kind of addendum – suggests, at least on a superficial reading, that the book might be an attempt to capture the “thisness” of each individual flower:

Urgently, now,  before us, the flower, the thing,
entered before any window would allow it,
always living, always posthumous, breached
by the world and unabstracted.

Again, this seems an error. Many of the poems glance only superficially at their flower which acts as little more than a host. Of course the poetic function of “capturing” essences is one that involves complex questions about the status of the world, the status of the mind and the status of poetry and these turn out to be major Cronin themes throughout her extensive and prolific career.

Complicating the issue is the fact that this is a book of dedications as much as it is a book of flowers. Each poem has a dedicatee: some are dead poets, some currently alive poets, some family members, some friends, one is a fictional character (Peter Henry Lepus) and one is the kind of philosopher (Descartes) who might have been alarmed to find himself in a book of poems. Indeed the essential structure of this book, as so often is the case in highly formal constructions, is the variety of the ways poems of the same length can be constructed bringing in both title-flower and dedicatee. It is a great pleasure to read it in this way and it reveals much of its undeniable charm but it does mean, of course, that a review of it is likely to be taxonomic. Bear with me.

Some poems are fairly straightforward narratives, very often based on stories which, one presumes, the dedicatees have provided. “Strawberry”, dedicated to Christine Hearty, tells the story of children in Ireland thinking that they were picking strawberries only to discover, after the uncle’s death, that he bought the fruit and, during the night, scattered it over the ground for them to “find” the next day. Yes, it is about the unexpected and often inauthentic origins of revelation (it would have appealed to Patrick White) but the pleasure of reading it arises to a large extent from the often much more intractable meditations in which it nestles. “Leis”, dedicated to Stuart and Vivian Saunders, describes a lei-decorated pair of octogenarians falling backwards into a flower patch while having their photographs taken and, essentially, laughing until their death and burial:

and what a wonderful way
to die on a day completely
devoid of good sense (thrown into the water &
goodbye ha ha hello drifting back to land)

Some of these narratives are family based anecdotes. In “Stone Flower” the breaking of a stone ball during a game (I think this is what happens) provokes the poem to deal with the theme of worlds inside worlds (flowers hidden inside the stone matching flowers in the outside world) and the image of stone which regularly recurs in this book:

Their game has caused
the flower to bloom
at the heart of the stone

. . . . .

But the stone cracks and releases
a world to orbit the sun
The green grass grows greener
and rushes to the drop of rain
that contains the day
The jeroboam tips night to the lawn

Other family-based poems like “Blackberry”, Sweet Violet”, and “Calendula, Like Cleopatra” tend to focus on the child-parent bond and the inevitable and necessary future separations. The last of these (dedicated to the poet’s daughter, Agnes Mohan) is interesting in that, in recalling Cleopatra’s dissolving of the pearl for Mark Antony, it repeats the image of “Stone Flower” in that the frozen world of the pearl is released:

Like Cleopatra,
I dissolve my pearl for you.
I take the flower
from the earth
and make it happy
in your hair.
Everything has a life.
The rock wakes from darkness
and turns its heart
to fire.
Colliding planets
enter a new age of faith.
I hold the serpent
daily to my breast and daily
I die.
Life is a wound
made by your love
tunnelling to my heart . . .

Sometimes the interactions of narrative, flower and dedicatee get quite complex. Following “Calendula, Like Cleopatra”, for example, is “Calla Lily” dedicated to the Cuban poet, Dionisio D Martinez. On the surface it is a simple enough poem about a friend suffering from breast cancer and the complex effect of this on their relationship:

. . . it is not your teeth I fear
when you part your lips but that you
might speak a fact we would be
demanded by instinct to dispute
past midnight to four a.m. and then fall
asleep upon as if it’s both death
and life that support the breathing
unconscious head for the eternal
moment of its vulnerability.
then at tomorrow there will be a point
like a small smile where the mouth
does not open where unspokenly
we choose to go on with the cancer
between us like a new garden
we have stumbled into and must tend.

This is a terrific poem as it is but why the Cuban poet and why Calla lilies? It turns out that Martinez is the author of a poem, “In a Duplex Near the San Andreas Fault”, in which a woman tells her partner that she has a lump in her breast and, in the background ,“Calla lilies bloom / like some glorious, abandoned music out on the lawn” (this knowledge derives not from my own wide reading but from Google, I’m afraid!). The poem either alludes to this in its title and dedicatee or, conceivably (though it is unlikely), invents a scenario which is an extension of the Cuban poem.

A number of the poems whose dedicatees are poets could be described as homages. Even within such a tight subgroup, however, there is a lot of variety. “Afton Blommor” is dedicated to the Swedish poet, Par Lagerkvist, and praises the man who

. . . asked our questions
When we could not have asked them
Because we did not know what would fulfil us
Because we did not know what to ask . . .

“Reed” recalls Rumi’s great poem but is not an imitation of it and “Midsummer Flowers”, while very Rilkean in its interests, is not at all a poem one could imagine Rilke writing with its assertive opening:

I am too young to die
yet have set my foot
on the journey that goes
deep in the soil of fact
and condition to find
the jewel to arrest me!

The only time these homage poems seem to come close to the style of the dedicatee is in “Mayflowers, Hyacinth & Dead Anemone” which is very much in the mode of Gatsos’ “Amorgos”. I think this is because the style of that poem is closest to Cronin’s own preferred utterance. It is a kind of rhapsodic, Spanish (as opposed to French) surrealism focussing either on love or on social justice. We can see this style at its best in a section from “Late Rose 2″ the second poem dedicated to Judith Beveridge (each of which, by the way, has a very difficult tone to grasp – I’m not at all sure what the poetic and personal relationship between these poets is):

There are new words for happiness.
Have you heard them?
They sound like the snapping of a stem
or the silences here and there
in crowds which have become too great
for even the cities’ shoulders.

We also hear this style in the single-sentence-per-line poems like “Dead Fuchsia” (for the Lithuanian writer, Oscar Milosz), “Fifteen Chrysanthemums” (Proust), “Three Pear Trees” (John Berger) and, perhaps best of all, in “Blue Flower Second Version” (for Trakl):

Landscapes occur as if they were limits.
Repentance seeps from the body in breath.
Winds have speech with shadows.
Paths break into infinity along their sides.
Autumn again after the last autumn.
Beyond, a man’s back.
He is always walking away.
He turns many times to glimpse his executions.

Essentially the structure of this book involves a continuous set of variations playing with flower, dedicatee, tone and theme. The Cronin themes are not so different from those of her earlier work. The first of these is the sense of there being a language of muteness in which the great truths (necessary for true justice) can be spoken. Parallel to this is a distrust of conventional poetic styles and a preference for surreal utterance. This extends to narrative and when, in “Impatiens”, she says:

But do not search in what this story
is about for what it is about, for those
thoughts that slip cleanly and smoothly
from one to the next are for stories
themselves. Life is not a novel; life is like poetry!
Tight and ready, like the ripe capsules of the impatiens,
to burst at a touch. Completed and completely
out of practise with time!

she is echoing sentiments found in most of her books but especially in Bestseller – which still remains, in its focus on the nature of language and poetry – the most accessible of her earlier books. It is also there in the opening poems of Beautiful, Unfinished:

There is not one thing I will say
outside of parable
For in the mind is another mind
one as far back
as you have not yet reached
It chuckles like the one who
invented laughter

and in a little poem, “Searching” from Bestseller:

Too many times
I find myself searching my poems
To see if they make sense

When will I learn
That joy has its own logic
Shaped like a sunburst!

Combined with this view that language and narrative must be disguised and apparently meaningless to speak true meaning is the sense of the true world as a closed phenomenon which it is very difficult to break open. The dominant images here are of irruption and breaking into. The flowers of stone need to be released to match the flowers of the world and “Saxifrage” begins by asking:

What breaks the rock
with such delicate insistence,
moves the stone to open its silent dwelling
to the universe of melodious worlds?

Perhaps a recent poem says it most clearly:

The Law of Wine

Is not in the grape
or the earth
in the nose or time
or beauty of words
unable to describe the wine
but in cracking the heart loose
at its edges
just enough to let sunlight
beneath its serious face
to illuminate the smile within
the glass’s umbrous curve
the little bit of rest
that moves us towards chaos
and acceptance
towards the slight opening
in the clenched world.

In this poetry, the inner world, though infinite in its possibilities, needs to have its heart cracked if it too is to effect a similar breach in the hard, permanently “clenched” external world. This is probably the significance of the conclusion of the final poem, “The Flower, the Thing”, in which the world asks us for commitment before it reveals itself as a seemingly endless set of individual items:

. . . The flower says
I have believed enormously, have you? And so,
the vulture, the hat, the hand, the cobra, the dog,
the sand, the arm, the trail, the reed, the two reeds,
the foot, the bone, the leaving, the basket, the back,
the folded cloth, the jar, the stand, the gold, the rope,
the tether, the sound, the viper with horns and the
sound of these like pins in the throat which are eased
by water . . . and always now, before us, the thing . . .