V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Robert W. Crawford's First Book of Poetry



One can divide much of Crawford’s poetry into four
categories: short poems about New England; longer
narrative poems in blank verse; religious poems;
and love poems.  The first two categories hold up nicely,
 despite their forced residence in the shadow
of Robert Frost, and Crawford’s religious poems
 are unusual in that they are lovely, clearly heartfelt,
and not the least bit preachy.  But Crawford
really distinguishes himself in his love poems....

Before settling in Chester, New Hampshire, where he teaches poetry at Chester College, Robert Crawford spent over a decade working, as he puts it, “in and around” the Pentagon.  His experiences in Washington, DC appear to have had little discernible impact on the poet.  In the collection’s opening poem, “Town Roads,” the speaker ruminates on different ways of organizing knowledge, and the poem may thus provide some hints of Crawford’s perspective on the Beltway mentality.  The speaker explains that roads in New England change their names at each town line to indicate the town from which they come.  A Washington insider might find this proliferation of names offensive to a bureaucrat’s sense of order:

        What these towns need is a Copernicus
        To tell them that the center lies without,
        And agencies to legislate that roads
        That run between them share a common name.

    Crawford does not dismiss this notion out of hand.  Rather, he sees an alternative, a “possibility”:

        The towns were right.  All roads don’t lead to Rome;
        They do, however, radiate from home.

As far as I can tell, Copernican proposals do not recur in this collection.  But these poems clearly radiate from Crawford’s New England home.
    One can divide much of Crawford’s poetry into four categories: short poems about New England; longer narrative poems in blank verse; religious poems; and love poems.  The first two categories hold up nicely, despite their forced residence in the shadow of Robert Frost, and Crawford’s religious poems are unusual in that they are lovely, clearly heartfelt, and not the least bit preachy.  But Crawford really distinguishes himself in his love poems, and so it seems sensible to begin there.
    One might wish Crawford had stayed in Washington a bit longer, if only in the hope that he could teach master classes to the likes of Scooter Libby, William Safire, and G. Gordon Liddy on how to write effective sex scenes.  Those prosaic politicos’ approach to eroticism in literature is the frontal attack: “[She] bit his neck, plunged her head between his legs and devoured him” (Safire); “T’sa Li froze, her lips still enclosing Rand’s glans . . .” (Liddy); “He held her breasts in his hands.  Oddly, he thought, the lower one might be larger. . . .”  (Libby).  Crawford accomplishes what these writers cannot without ever describing a sex act.
    With two poems, “French Braids” and “At the Top of the Stairs,” Crawford establishes himself, in this, his first collection of poems, as a master of the erotic sonnet.  These poems illustrate and illuminate the vital tension between what the two poems alternatively name “restraint” and “release” and “resistance and release” that is at the heart of both eroticism and literature. 
    “French Braids” describes a lover’s desire to simultaneously admire and unbind his partner’s braided hair:

        While one hand is content to touch, admire
        A balanced, careful weave—preserve for viewing
        The beauty and the boundaries of desire—
        The other hand is busy at undoing.

    While these opening lines follow a familiar ABAB pattern, the next eight lines of the sonnet follow a more eccentric path, CDECDECD, with the “D” incorporating the slant rhyme of composure/over/closure.  As the poem is not divided into stanzas, the effect of this rhyme pattern is to suggest that restraint is losing the battle against release.  The sonnet’s turn, conventionally placed in line 9, is here deferred to line 11, suggesting the prolongation of arousal.  In thus simultaneously exploiting and resisting the sonnet form, Crawford demonstrates the eroticism of form itself.  When aesthetic pleasure in order finally capitulates entirely to the erotic, the poem provides a release that is the literary equivalent of a sexual climax:

        Your urgent kiss decides which hand is played.
        A gentle pull brings argument to closure.
        Surprised, my hands attempt to catch your hair;
        It falls the way the rain lets go the air.
    The lovely closing couplet is not without its own tensions.  The hands, treated as independent actors throughout the poem, now suddenly work in unison at the behest of a first-person speaker who makes his first appearance in the couplet.  The rhyme pattern is now conventional.  In short, Crawford expresses the moment of fullest release as consonant with strict observance of form and also as a moment of heightened consciousness, when the body’s parts, once acting as if of their own will, are now subservient of mind.
    “At the Top of the Stairs” is similar in subject matter but more orthodox in form.  A Petrarchan sonnet, with very few metrical substitutions, the poem has a more settled quality to it than “French Braids.”  One surmises that we are at a different stage in a love relationship.  If “French Braids” describes the passions of a new relationship, “At the Top of the Stairs” describes those of one that has endured.  The speaker of the poem is told that “War and Peace / can wait” by a lover who, with a kiss, puts all thoughts of reading to rest.  Here again, the prelude to love-making is described in terms that also, at least in part, describe the poet’s process of composition.

        The buttons on your jeans each come undone,
        A fumble here or there, but, one by one,
        Each one worked free—resistance and release.

    Unlike “French Braids,” in which the poet is completely absorbed in the sexual encounter that the poem describes, “At the Top of the Stairs” recognizes that passion comes in interludes, and that the lovers will resume their lives after the erotic urge subsides.

        Across the hall, a turned down bed awaits;
        The jeans can stay till morning where they land.

    It is fitting that a poem in which the closing lines anticipate a return to the life outside of passion should be so restrained by the Petrarchan form.  Here, resistance and release is heightened not by a postponement of the sonnet’s turn but by the poem’s acknowledgment (both through its language and its form) that life resists our desires at every turn, and thus enjoyment of (sexual) pleasure is always circumscribed by structures, be they clothing (the lover’s jeans) or work (the speaker’s need to read War and Peace) or the demands of finding words that both satisfy the form and render thought as art.  The book includes other fine love poems, including “The Whole of It,” “By a Window,” “Cosmography,” and “To Unlearn Love,” each of which repays reading and re-reading, but modern sonnets do not get much better than “French Braids” and “At the Top of the Stairs.”
    There may be no better way to illustrate why these are such powerful poems than to contrast them with a much less successful sonnet.  “Millay’s Child” displays Crawford’s wonted control of meter, rhyme and poetic diction.  The main problem with the poem is the lack of subtlety in its argument.  Its speaker “speculate[s]” on why Millay drank an abortifacient prepared by her mother in order to induce a miscarriage.  Was she forced by need, regret?

        No, I suspect it had to do with beauty;
        You feared—since Eros, your best muse, resigns
        When Wednesday’s play turns into Thursday’s duty—
        An interruption of your lovely lines; . . .

    From the opening line: “I speculate on why you poisoned him," the poet has staked out a position, one that is neither modulated nor refined with further reading.  The rhetorical force of giving the fetus a gender is muted somewhat with a parenthetical: “(or her, who knew?),” but the language here is so awkward that it merely raises suspicions that “him” was chosen for the sake of rhyme, or for the sake of the poem’s argument that the fetus be granted the status of a child.  The poem’s supposition that Millay might have feared a mere “interruption” of her poetry is inconsistent with other lines of the poem that imagine that Millay’s concern was a “gray, care-worn face, the wrinkles clearer—  / Those mortal faults highlighted by a child.”  In short, these lines suggest that Millay aborted her fetus not because she feared an interruption of her work but the surrender of her work and her life to the child.  Unlike the tensions between resistance and release in the love poems discussed above, the inconsistency of argument in “Millay’s Child” does not render the poem more interesting; it merely renders it confused.
    To be fair, Crawford has taken on a challenging subject.  Poems about abortion are hard to pull off.  But the key ingredient to any effective political poem that is not a satire has got to be some degree of empathy for the people involved, with due deference to the subject’s complexity — which, one would think, is what renders it worthy of the poet’s comment.  Does Crawford really want to weigh in on the abortion debate to say only that Millay aborted her fetus out of vanity?  And this based on speculation and suspicion? 
    In fact, not much speculation is necessary.  Crawford’s poem seems to be inspired by Nancy Milford’s biography of Millay, Savage Beauty.  As Milford explains, Millay was a single woman living abroad when she got pregnant in 1922.  She apparently entertained hopes of marrying the father of the child, a Frenchman named Daubigny.  One of Millay’s friends at the time described Daubigny as “a pseudo-aristocrat who did nothing.”   Millay’s mother’s estimate of the man was less ambiguous:

        He slinks like a whipped cur when he sees me.  He acts as
        if he had shit in his breeches . . . .  Of course, he knows how
        I feel toward him.  He has even acknowledged that he does
        not blame me, the slithering whelp!  The spineless jelly-fish.

Whatever his virtues or faults, Daubigny seems not to have shared Millay’s hopes for their relationship, since one week after procuring the documents necessary for marriage, Millay left France accompanied only by her mother.  
    Clearly factors other than vanity likely influenced Millay’s decision to end her pregnancy.  One would expect more sympathy from Crawford since, after all, Eros is his best muse as well.  The sad thing about “Millay’s Child” is that it threatens to taint the entire volume with its determined misogyny.  After reading it, one returns to the love poems to ascertain whether Too Much Explanation Can Ruin a Man contains any poems that portray women in a positive light and as something other than objects of desire.  Fortunately, as we shall see in turning to the narrative poems, it does.
    Crawford’s narrative, blank verse poems are reminiscent of Frost in the most positive sense: the strongest of them could easily be mistaken for poems written by Robert Frost.  The characters seem familiar — laconic, focused on their work, reserved in their relationships.  Many of the events crucial to the poems occur, as it were, off-stage.  The poems relate simple narratives in blank verse that manages to capture the cadences of ordinary speech.  Like Frost’s great narrative poems, Crawford’s poems have the compression of a short story — and then some.  Even when addressing Frostian themes, however, Crawford remains a love poet.  In these poems, he expresses not only sensual love, but love of place.
    In “The Road Agent,” the speaker recounts how his wife meets him at the door “so I / Would know some news for me that couldn’t wait.”  The news, it turns out, is that an acquaintance, Clarence Ward, had come by, campaigning for the position of Road Agent.  “Well, it is the only job worth having here,” is the man’s initial reply.  The woman recounts her conversation with Mr. Ward, imitating his voice and mannerisms in a way that makes clear that she does not take the job of Road Agent nearly as seriously as Mr. Ward — or her husband.  But her body language reveals that she has more news to tell:

        “And that was all?”

                    “I wish it was the end,
        But the way he stood, and that earnest voice of his
        So full of this concern for cracks and holes—
        It may have been the way the light was falling
        Behind him in the street, I just don’t know—
        It made me laugh.”

                    “You laughed at him out loud?”

        And all I could think of was her laugh and how,
        On some days, you know, of all the loves,
        Why this one.

                 She took the flowers from my hand.

        “If you see Clarence, tell him I meant no harm.”

    The echoes of Frost’s “Death of a Hired Man” are unmistakable, but in a way that sheds interesting interpretive light on both poems and on both poets.  In Frost’s poem, it is the wife who warns, “You mustn’t laugh at him.”  In both poems, the women are distracted at crucial moments by light.  Frost’s Mary notices as the moon’s “light poured softly in her lap.  She saw it / And spread her apron to it.”  That moonlight seems to fortify Mary and enables her to come to the crux of her argument with her husband.  In Crawford’s poem, the wife blames the play of light behind the Road Agent for her laughter.  Frost’s light brings tenderness; Crawford’s light is harsher, and that harsh light reveals an absurdity of New England life.  The reader has no difficulty understanding the reason for the wife’s laughter and the husband, while recognizing that the job of a Road Agent is the most desirable in town, is in no position to argue.
    Tellingly, a short rumination on love intrudes in Crawford’s poem — and may indeed be the central interest of the poem in the end — while Frost’s poem centers on a disagreement between the couple as to the meaning of “home.”  Crawford reveals so much in this short exchange and the husband’s abbreviated ruminations on it, one could spend a beneficial classroom hour unpacking it — especially with the aid of other Crawford poems, like “A Thing It’s Not” and “An Abandoned Garden,” which show that Crawford, though not born in New England, knows the New England mind very well.  The wife in the poem knows that she should not have laughed at the earnest Road Agent, but still she could (or would) not suppress her laughter.  Indeed, the wife has not internalized the New England frame of mind.  She goes through the motions of apology to mollify her husband, but that done, she takes the flowers from his hand and resumes her day.  Having chastised her with his incredulousness, the husband now silently receives her command to tell Clarence that she meant no harm.  Both know that this is what he must do in order to be true to his two loves — his wife and the mores of New England.
    In “A Walk Home,” the speaker comes across a neighbor struggling home with a load of books.  Crawford seems to be poking fun at himself as a New England poet.  The books include “a tome on sink repair,” a complete collection of Shakespeare’s works and “heavier books by Stephen King.”  Crawford repeatedly calls attention to the famous New England reticence.  “We walked in silence side by side— / As good friends walk.”  After a brief conversation, which is, once again, a poignant love poem set in blank verse, the speaker of the love poem takes his leave: “Have we said enough? / I must be heading right and home.  Good night.” 
    The theme recurs in “Passing,” which relates a much less comfortable walk with another man of few words:

        He kept in silence down the path, while I
        Kept coming up with something I might say;
        If wishing could not make him go away,
        I hoped that he could bear the quiet less.

        I folded first.

    And so the two exchange a few sentences.  Reflecting on the encounter, the poet concludes, “I was glad we met / In passing.”  The line break is brilliant.  The encounter has been enough to re-establish contact between two men who have some quarrel, and that was all that was needed.  A longer encounter might well have been unpleasant, but among men of few words, a few words may be just the ticket.
    It is nice to see Crawford winking a bit at the tradition of New England poetry.  A man who undertakes to write formal poetry about New England must acknowledge his debts and his burdens.  Crawford does so boldly in “Repetition”:

        The ground is covered in three feet of snow.
        This is a landscape good for repetition:
        Walk anywhere within the woods, walk slow,
        Walk fast, try to escape the admonition
        That “everything’s been done before, you know.”

    And so, Crawford covers ground well-trod by his great predecessors, Frost and Robinson, and finds new things to say on familiar themes, as in his rumination on a wall in “A Row of Stones” and on neighbors in “A Neighbor in Spring.” 
    Too Much Explanation Can Ruin a Man includes a few short poems on religious subjects.  They do not venture far from Crawford’s chief strength; they are love poems.  “Salisbury Cathedral” marvels at the “tons of marble resting on this bog” and concludes:

        The single spire celebrates, above,
        Their faith the ground could bear this weight of love.

    Love is also the theme of Crawford’s Christmas poem, “The Love of One.”  This poem catalogues the overkill of Christmas: wreaths, decorations, and above all “A thousand lights to celebrate / Redundantly, the love of one.”  Crawford acknowledges the cross-fertilization that occurs between his love poems and his religious poems in a clever bit of light verse called “Confession”:

        That poem I said I wrote to God;
        It wasn’t.
        I said it went beyond the flesh;
        It doesn’t.
        Your speculation on the “you”—
        I told you that it was His touch;
        I lied.
This poem illustrates what happens when one explains too much.
    Too Much Explanation Can Ruin a Man is a very strong debut by a poet of great talent and promise.  The poems rarely venture far from the well-traveled New England roads of snow and ice, but from what Crawford teaches of desire, I venture he is one who favors fire.


Crawford, Robert W.. Too Much Explanation Can Ruin a Man. Cincinnati, OH: Wordtech Communications, 2005. ISBN: 1932339671  $17.00


© by D.A. Jeremy Telman

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