Rosanna E. Licari: Earlier; Amy Crutchfield: The Cyprian

Rosanna E. Licari, Earlier (Port Adelaide: Ginninderra, 2023), 128pp.
Amy Crutchfield, The Cyprian (Artarmon: Giramondo, 2023), 72pp.

Books of poetry are usually more than a random dump of poems. They, like the poems they contain, tend to have a structure, sometimes loose and sometimes very tight. Its function might be positive: to show the poems up in the best light by putting the strongest ones first, for example. And it might be defensive: to resist a charge of randomness or to place poems near each other so that they give each other some support and deepen the context of any single work. Both these books – Rosanna E. Licari’s Earlier and Amy Crutchfield’s The Cyprian – raise the issue of book structure: it’s likely to be one of the things that a reader notices early on.

Despite this, in the case of Licari’s Earlier, one’s first impression isn’t of its structure so much as its size. It’s a big book, made up an amazing variety of poems ranging from rehearsals of cosmic history and the processes of evolution, to historical portraits covering a spectrum from Giordano Bruno to Mary Anning and Rilke, to snapshots of family history (where it touches the genre of migrant experience), to laments for lost loves, to lyrics (at the beach or in the garden) of life now. One’s initial reading suggests that there are at least two books’ worth of material here, one perhaps dealing with the processes of historic deep time and the other with personal poems. In fact, it turns out to be a remarkably unified book, it’s just that the unifying features aren’t those of theme and style that readers are used to.

The first of these features is a consistent cast of mind spread across this widely varied subject matter. It’s hard to find an exact adjective for it, though “hard-nosed”, “wryly sceptical” and “unillusioned” came to mind. The first poem – it’s also the title poem – is a straight down the line exposition of the development of the current world – a modern, scientific origins story. But, of course, the original point of creation is, scientifically, unknown and the opening of Licari’s poem, “Perhaps, the loneliness wanted / to share its darkness”, carefully avoids the certainties of the Priestly writer’s first chapter of Genesis choosing instead, as its text, the so-called “Hymn of Creation” from the tenth book of the Rig Veda. This is unusual among the various religious texts of creation for its uncertainty and downright scepticism. Wendy Doniger, putting it first in her selections from the Veda, speaks of it as desiring to “puzzle and challenge, to raise unanswerable questions”. As the hymn says, “Who then knows whence it [creation] has arisen?” The sceptical, questioning spirit is in keeping with Licari’s poetic sense. It’s perhaps no accident that the title of her first book proclaims the same opposition to religious explanations: An Absence of Saints.

Coupled with this is what might be called the direction of the gaze: it is unremittingly backwards except for some of the conclusions which gesture towards the future. As the book’s title suggests, its interests are in the past and the way the present has developed out of the past: that is, in the “earlier”. It doesn’t feel, in the poems themselves, that there is anything oppressively deterministic about this but it is everpresent. I’ve mentioned the first poem where the poetic tension lies in the opposition between the vastness of historic time and the inevitable compression that all poetry imposes on its subjects. In this case nearly fourteen billion years are covered in eighty short lines. There’s also a tension in that, although the view is backwards the material is pushing and developing forwards: humans are allotted only the last four lines of “Earlier” but they are seen walking “naked / through wind and savannah, / their dark eyes fixed on the horizon”. “Evolutionary Lap” is another poem in this territory. It is about swimming laps and looks, on the surface (I apologise for the bad pun), to be a lyric poem about the experience of living physically in the rhythms of water. But its conclusion – “your head and elbows / moving in and out of the splash // as if preparing to fly” – inverts the poem into one about evolutionary developments. “Evolutionary Lap” is followed by one of the many ekphrastic poems in the book, a piece based on Willian Robinson’s “Bright Sea at Cape Byron”, where one arrives at sea and sky after struggling through lush undergrowth but “this delicate blue has no concern / for the distant headland / or your curious desire to plunge forward”.

The family history poems detail the poet’s first few years in Rijeka and Trieste before emigration to Australia and you feel that the interest in the detail is very much about what the past contributes and what it withholds. How much of such a migration, for example, is determined and how much simply part of the vagaries of life. A long poem, “Oliver”, is about a cousin, dead at nine months, whose photograph the author has known from childhood. The history of his death exists only in partial comments over the years and, in the poem, this is worked into the domestic image of a gecko flitting in and out of the kitchen looking for odd scraps. Some losses last, almost unimaginably, a whole lifetime:

. . . . . 
                        Her loss had a relentless hunger. And
in her solitude, thoughts fed on themselves. When my aunt
was very ill in hospital and the breast cancer had
metastasised, we didn’t know how long she would last. It had
been eating her up slowly. Sitting by the bed,

my mother said, She’ll go soon. I asked Why? Mother looked 
up and said, I dreamed of her with the child. 

Here, known history is a thing of shreds and patches but the underlying process of grief is as remorseless as the processes of evolution. And the nature of personal history is the subject of another poem in this fourth section titled significantly, “New Histories”. Here, the mother, in a state of dementia, creates new versions of her life so that she is convinced that she visited Africa and “gave lectures to the scholars of / Europe and Russia”. Sometimes the backward view shows only a simulacrum of the real history.

The book’s fifth section begins with a poem, “Paradeisos”, which establishes the garden as the central location of some poems which are personal though not in the migrant-family-history genre. Licari’s garden is a pretty contested place, where there is an aggressive neighbour (introduced in an earlier poem, “The Spaniard”), and the “yells of neighbour’s children slam against the high wooden fence”. But wild as the garden is, the great regular processes go on underneath – the centipedes, burrowing beetles and worms – and above – the bees and spiders. “Shimmer” is a poem where all these other perspectives enter:

There’s no one here as the soft rain presses
the day into eucalypt leaves and bark.
In drops of water, glimmers of red, yellow and blue
and again red. Move through its shades to crimson,
two syllables crushed from Kermes insects
which dyed ancient cloth and shrouds:
a colour privileged in both life and death.
The sky bears down, draws me out to the distant haze
into the dome of the world. Its fickle blue
does not comfort – sun, rain and sun - 
the humidity thick as ritual smoke.
It seeps into vines and ferns as does yellow and
blue to utter viridity. But I contemplate indigo
and how I will step out from another night,
its nebulas forging new stars.

Tonally this is done in high lyric style and there isn’t so much of the wry, clear-eyed tone that I have said is common to Licari’s poetic position. But its interesting complexities sustain it, I think. Firstly, it brings into a poem set in a garden on a rainy day, the ancient origins of the word “crimson” – “two syllables crushed from Kermes insects” – and thereby continues the concern with the operation of the past which is contained, often unnoticed, in the present. Secondly, by concluding the survey of colours with indigo, the colour of the night, it enables one of those juxtapositions of perspective that run through this book: domestic garden and pale blue sky opposed to one of the largest events we know in the universe – star creation.

Earlier is a rather surprising book and my emphasis on its tonal unity among a wide variety of forms may be only one way of uncovering unities in its widely varied poems. But it is that tone which informs a late poem, “Causality”, whose title warns us that mechanisms which operate across time to produce outcomes are always present even if not perceived. It’s one of a series of beach poems and is a compressed picture of the present from an ecological point of view:

The tideline, a scar of fishing hooks, cigarette butts and broken plastic. My toe bleeds when it moves across the sharp break of a bottle that once held water. Flask parts now mingle with the greater blue. An offering to the deep. Minute shards find a home everywhere. Microplastics float into the mouths of zooplankton, into fish, into us. All flesh infused with it. Wading into the shallows, I drop to my knees in the soft sand. I cup my palms to show gratitude. A brisk wave slaps my face.

It’s a world and a poetry where rhapsodic celebration of the joy of living in the world is given short shrift by reality.

Amy Crutchfield’s The Cyprian is a much slighter book than Earlier and, perhaps as a result, is even more intensely organised. One might even say over-organised. It is arranged in five sections, each with a title for Aphrodite translated from the Greek: “Who Turns to Love”, “Armed”, “Common to All”, “Delayer of Old Age”, “Protectress of Births”. Most of these were new to me (Anadyomene and Callipygos being the only titles I knew!) but they all appear to be attested. In fact, Aphrodite seems to carry dozens of epithets around with her, although they are comparatively late. I know it isn’t strictly relevant to Crutchfield’s book, but I share her interest in Aphrodite who has always seemed an odd figure to me. She comes from Cyprus (hence the title “Cyprian”) perhaps as a figure initially associated with copper mining – why else would she be married to an ugly, lame smith? She is part of that westward movement where figures from Mesopotamia and the Levant wind up in Greece. But where you expect an avatar of the great, stately Middle-Eastern goddess of birth, sex, death and rebirth, you find instead a figure who seems early on to have sunk into a sort of sexy, fun-loving girl. In Homer (mid to late eighth century BCE) she is already trivialised, fainting on the battlefield from a cut to her hand in the Iliad and getting trapped by her husband when she gets into bed with the god of war in the Odyssey. The fact that this latter sexy/farcical episode is not narrated by Odysseus but by the Phaiakian rhapsode Demodokos seems to add to the sense of its being a little infra dig.

There is no doubt though that Crutchfield takes Aphrodite seriously as a guiding figure over poems that are, mainly, about love and death. There is also a strong tendency towards the ekphrastic: the first poems are sequences which explore a statue of Pothos and Picasso’s “Dora and the Minotaur”. The first of these deals with desire in its incarnation as an actual god. Pothos is variously thought of as a son of Aphrodite and a son of the god of the west wind: either of which seems a good origin for desire. Crutchfield’s poems are interested in what motivated the sculptor Skopas (the existing statue is a second century AD Roman copy) and in what he knew of his subject:

. . . . . 
Did he catch it in a calm pool of water
or watch it pass as the shadow of a cloud across the plain
face of an apprentice
in the workshops at the growing temple?
What had he learned of longing and its
fierce metamorphosis?
Because the categories are not fixed,
needs jostle on the ladder and we
do not sleep, we do not eat.

She is also interested in the fact that the statue was originally misnamed as an Apollo – the god of, among other things, art – and the fact that pothos now gives its name to Devil’s Ivy: a plant so indestructible that it can survive without light. Like desire itself. The Picasso poems also explore the perversities of desire, Picasso and his lover/muses being an excellent site for such investigations. The final poem of the four focusses on the moment when Picasso switches his attentions to Francoise Gilot and asks

. . . . . 
What is a goddess when she’s forgotten?
First the plinth and then the doormat.
There are not enough museums
for all we once believed in.

Each day she starts 
a life after, but not without . . .

Which recalls the odd question that begins the book’s prefatory poem, “Egg”, a fine lyric about loss rather than desire: “What shall the mother of the dead be called? / As widow is to wife, / what of the woman left behind?”. The last poem of this opening section, “Camera Obscura”, is about the solar eclipse in North America in 2017. It seems a long way from the poems of desire that accompany it but there may be a clue in the last of the Pothos poems: Desire survives and flourishes even in camerae obscurae – darkened rooms.

The second section has some more personal poems of desire but also an interesting meditation on Helen of Troy, especially the way in which Lattimore translates “kunopidos“ – “dog-eyed” – as “slut”. The complex (and uncertain?) characterisation of Helen in both the Homeric epics enables Crutchfield to arrive at a “multiplex” figure, including an embodiment of all the fears that ultimately derive from desire.

The poems of the other parts of the book, as their Aphroditic surnames suggest, tend to deal with death and loss more than desire. And the death and loss is complexified by being seen in a narrow domestic sense, always related to being a child or having children. I think the best of them is “Beautiful Corpse” which, presumably, takes its title from the Surrealist game of “Exquisite Corpse”. The poet brings four children to the dead body (we aren’t told who the dead person is but children’s grandmother is an outsider’s guess) not to pay standard respects but “to hear the corpse speak”. It’s a powerful and very convincing idea that the dead can communicate to us, not by “sables and visitations” but with a kind of eloquent deadness:

. . . . 
I could explain it, the amalgam
that makes a person, but the corpse insists.
Lips, almost resting, glimpse of teeth,
say leave this with me.

Both Earlier and The Cyprian have poems about poetry itself: bordering on what I usually call “poem-poems”. “Some poems birth easily. Others don’t” says Licari at the opening of her poem about how her mother’s dementia creates a new history and “Degrees of Flight”, begins with a portrait of what Hollywood America loves to call “writer’s block”:

Call me tonight
because I’ve been scribbling
the same poem for days. 
Lately, I have stopped 
not just mid-sentence but
at the beginning,
after the first letter,
or even between the space
where my hand moves
from air to paper. . . 

It turns out to be a poem about the dark – in all its meanings – but does have one of those spreading-of-the-wings moments that often occur in Licari’s work. In The Cyprian there is “True in the Senses” which connects poetry with truth:

I have always been a liar.
Some years I lied on the page as well – but
the poem won’t stand plumb.
Truth is ballast – without these stones
a poem is a pleasure craft, heeling in the wind. . .

For someone who sees one of lyric poetry’s great achievements to be its refusal to accept existing and fashionable ideologies and fantasies, the idea that a poem has to be “true” for it to work is more than a comforting thought even if the alternative – that the truest poetry might be the most feigning – could also be true.