Work by Alison Croggon:



Specula: The Essay


Imaginative Life

A Review of Attempts at Being and The Common Flesh
by Alison Croggon

By Rebecca Seiferle

It’s not too often that a poet will appear with such a range of their work as Alison Croggon has with the appearance of Attempts at Being (Salt 2002 ) and The Common Flesh (Arc Books, 2003) which includes work from her first two volumes, This Is the Stone (Penguin, 1991) , and The Blue Gate (Black Pepper Press, 1997). Despite their differences, for The Common Flesh is more conventionally formal, its subject matter more rooted in the personal, with that rawer intensity characteristic of a poet’s earlier work, whereas Attempts at Being is more formally inventive, including short lyrics, sequences, prose poems, a full-length play, several performance pieces, an essay, both of these works have a commonality of poetic preoccupation. Both evince a continual intermingling with other literary forms—varieties of prose, from prose poem to fairy tale and fable, music, the theatre, the essay—which suggests a restlessness with and a refusal to be confined to any narrowness of the 'poetic.' An imagination that finds the poetic not in some narrow confinement of definition or school or theory but everywhere is at work here. This amplitude of embodiment in itself makes Croggon’s work highly original among contemporary poets, who are more often concerned with the narrowly poetic, presenting a collection of definable poems gathered within a common theme or preoccupation.

A few reviewers have faulted Attempts at Being for its inclusion of the theatrical pieces, feeling that their presence mars or interferes with the power of the lyric poems, in one case, attributing that critical sense to a lack of interest in the theatre, in another case, feeling that the theatrical pieces were weak in comparison to the poems, and in still another, feeling that the theatrical pieces were a kind of prop, disguising the weakness of the poems themselves. This sort of either/or seems to miss the point, so distracted by the difference of form, that what's overlooked is the presence of poesis in all of these works, rather than a narrowly defined sense of the poem as definable artifact. Here, we have a sensibility extending itself with fluency and fluidity of poesis writing into any number of forms and, while so doing, expanding the sense of what might be called the 'poetic.'

Croggon is undoubtedly an Australian poet if one proceeds from the characteristics of Australian poetry as defined in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics where it is defined as evincing “a hard earthy skepticism' a certain fondness for the ballad which has of course been moderated and developed into more contemporary terms” and the “ manifest reluctance of the poets to subscribe to an unreservedly intellectual poetical convention” and even perhaps in its use of “ dream time” altjira , that aboriginal sense of native mythologies where one dreams awake, and waking, dreams. Croggon's reluctance to 'subscribe to an unreservedly intellectual poetical convention' is evinced by both books' formal variety, though she takes it further than most, in that she not only refuses to subscribe to a particular poetical convention—writing the somewhat conservative sonnet, the open field form, the prose poem— but to the convention of poetry itself, by expanding poetry into other areas of writing: the performance or theatrical piece, from which poetry is formally separated and subscribed. Nor is there any evidence of subscription to any particular school of poetics or theory in these volumes. That 'fondness for the ballad' is here, a form seldom seen in contemporary American poetry, though 'developed into more contemporary terms' particularly in The Common Flesh. It should be noted that Croggon's ballads eschew the narrative common to that form; they are unabashedly lyric, and more in the mode of song. This simplicity of form used to convey complex emotional states has the effect of emphasizing the complexity of feeling and idea, for the simple form moving by means of association rather than narrative creates a fluid movement, which, while as easy to follow as a song, is full of contrasting edges which refuse to blur into one another.

The usage of dream time requires some explanation, for I do not mean by this that Croggon's work is preoccupied with the local, there's no mention of aboriginal culture or a preoccupation with it. Rather I mean to suggest a way in which a poet may come to embody or express a particular landscape in an autochthonic way, the work arising out of the cultural and linguistic intersections found in a particular place, wherein the idea of dream may be in the air itself and so enter the breath of the poet. Given the harsh honesties, the hard-edged sense of reality, and their formal sense, it may seem odd to describe the poems in The Common Flesh as those of a kind of dream state. But the poems, like dreams, for all they are clearly and sometimes painfully delineated, their underlying movement always seems to originate in a kind of subterranean self. The realm of dream is marked by a fluidity of identity and embedded or submerged emotion. So while Croggon's work eschews the merely regional, for there's nothing in these works of the obvious trappings and symbols of Australian aboriginal culture, her work is aboriginal in sensibility, in its use of 'dream time' and threshold states of being, where one dreams awake and waking dreams. For the state of dream which underlies her work is not connected to the Western poetic of surrealism but rather is some intuitive and natural state of being, which allows one to delineate the exact characteristics of an object encountered while in a dream state, and it might even be possible for the unaware reader to be so caught up in the honesties and real delineations as to not notice how the reality so delineated is premised upon a a submerged and complex dream of being. The ‘speaker' of these poems is always behind or beneath or below or less often above the realities depicted, curiously disembodied. This has the effect of making the reality so compelling that one might almost not notice the spell is cast by a particular original sensibility.

Most of what Croggon does in The Common Flesh could be mistaken for certain cruder resemblances. There are many poems in this text which may seem autobiographical, from the opening poem 'Quickening' which is a poetic account of the family of the poet's origins and the origins of her own family, or the sonnets and series of poems that follow that delineate a painful love relationship, but these are not confessional poems. Rather in these poems, the personal is used as if it were raw material like everything and anything else, and, unlike confessional poetry, where the poem tends toward the poet, the unveiling or revelation of the self; these poems originate in and move toward a kind of representative feeling of being, an anonymonity, instead of the 'everyman' of Medieval plays, every self, the no self. The poems are never merely biographical, what chronology is traced is less that of a particular ego, bound by particular life circumstances, confessing its "weird losses" through a particular and demaracated self, as it is the chronology or biography of a 'self' which is both oneself and an anonymous no one. Though it should be said that the imagination at work in this theatre of everyman' 'every woman' is relentlessly heterosexual, operating on the assumption that Monique Wittig, critiquing Lacan among others, replies to when she writes “No wonder then that there is only one Unconscious, and that it is heterosexual,” for the fluidity here is very much within the 'he' and 'she'. Even Croggon's angels to which Milton granted the flux of fluidity in gender are, at the least, implicitly, male, and the value of her 'poeis' is hinged upon an implicit valuing of the erotic, of sexuality as that which produces a child. The powerful opening sequence 'Quickening' of The Common Flesh , intersected as it is by the landscape of Australia where "the ash-dry grass was a joke/ mocking our lush memories of green" and the requirements of culture "a cold land of money" "fathers strung in their fiscal skys" and of confinements of gender "The first lie/ you are a woman and smile in your pain," is the birth of the child that one was, the birth of the child that one will have, the birth of one self, a representative anyone.

From the beginning of her work, Croggon is preoccupied with the voice of the other. In The Common Flesh , there are poems to Frida Kahlo, Emily Bronte, Billie Holiday, but again they are characterized not by narrative, but by the qualities of voice which speaks interiorly of a complex emotional state, so that they seem to speak both of these particular people, but of that state in their being which intersects with the reader. The theatrical pieces in Attempts of Being are a natural outgrowth of this poetic preoccupation, the particular voice which tends toward the anonymous intersection with others. For instance, in 'Billie Holiday' it is hard to confine the 'you' to any particular reality, who may be variously the singer, the singer of the poem, those listening to the Holiday, or those listening to the poem—a kind of anonymonity prevails and this is further emphasized by the bodily sense of these poems which is always rooted in the erotic, as if the rhythms of sexuality and procreation in particular were the underlying reality, "seeing in your drowning voice how their flesh collapsed inside you/ and how the pure note hardened like a child" where the imagery is of the erection collapsing in another's flesh and the agency of hardening, of power, is given to the child and the pure note of the voice. In a sense that passage is a key of key to these poems in which an amorphous self is entred by many realities, and unable to enter any, even the girl in 'Quickening' who jumping into the sea on faith nearly drowns, as if it were impossible for this speaker to enter even the water, though as a result of this, she is entered by the sea, and it remains in her. When these presences enter the amorphous self and collapse in their "weird losses" what remains is the poetry, the pure note of the voice, the being gravid or pregnant with language "the way to push/ through these softening walls/ its whole inevitable voice." The underlying theology of these poems, is sexuality, by which I mean not so much that all the poems, or even many of them, which given their subjects, could be expected to be, are given over to conventionally erotic imagery and relationship, but that the underlying premise of them all is generative, sexuality, as as a correspondence between various realities which results in the quickening, the birth, or sometimes the stillbirth or abortion of the word. It is as if in these woundings of being, all that remains is the voice, one's own, or another's admitted into one's own ,
except a stubborn voice
casting out its shining length to where I walk alone
sick and afraid and unable to accept defeat
singing as I was born to

There's a sort of apocalyptic vision at work in these, so many wounds, so much broken or rotting flesh, and no shrinking from violence, and yet the vision is less otherwordly than rooted in knowledge of what exists in the world, as if images of injury were significant in heaven. In this, Croggon is less like most contemporary women poets than she seems a descendent of Eliot, the sense of the wasteland everywhere. Kisses rot here, love is a fist, there is an underlying sense of pain that is unlocatable. If there is a sort of Blakean element in these, it is the harsher sounds clinging to the skin of Blake's “London” not his latter works of prophetic vision, even the angels here are made of flesh that breaks and decays. And if there is also a hint of Whitman, it is less his celebration of the body politic, the democratic many, as it is of the many that exist in the self, the delight felt only in a particular body.

In Attempts at Being, which came out earlier but which is actually newer work, a fluidity of being becomes dispersed throughout the language. The formal qualities are more open and diverse, and the poems have a less self-contained quality, in that many of them could be read as if from one long work, rather than as so narrowly bounded simple poems. In this they are more of the nature of the sequences, and it is in the sequences, that some of the most powerful individual pieces occur. For instance, “Mnemosyne”, which is again preoccupied with the coming into being, reproduction but not just physical reproduction but the birth of the self. In this, it might be argued that Croggon is one of those women poets for whom the giving of birth was the birthing of the self, for instance I am reminded of Rukeyser in later years rewriting her Orphic myth to include the realities of her birthing herself by being torn open to birth her son into existence. It may be that the romantic model of the muse, the male poet attended by some inspiring feminine figure, is in women poets altered into the erotic relationship, with the self, with the other, by the process of birthing. That the metaphor of labor, of giving birth, is fundamental to such works.

The performance piece "The Breach" which is the voice of a policeman, recounting a terrible event, is utterly compelling, in part because of the poetic power of the voice, but also because of this intersection with the metaphor of labor and of giving birth, "the breeching", with the sense of belaboring and being broken, "breached" like a wall. Croggon is best when she is possessed by someone, like a medium, or a channeler of other voices. And it should be noted that in these poems, even the voice of the 'self' arrives as if it were someone else's. This may also be why the landscapes here are those of a wasteland, of estrangement from being, as if speaking were being born and torn into another, so far and estranged from oneself.

The erotic is the premise of all of these poems, which is not to say that they are necessarily or even many of them given over to erotic subject matter. It is rather that the energy on which they are based is that of the erotic, a kind of coupling with all things which gives birth to the voice, not an exacerbated or aggravated sexuality, but rather a mingling of being with other beings, whether of another person, a stranger glimpsed on the street, an event, and I describe it as a coupling because as in the erotic encounter, it is hard to tell who is who, whose hand is this, whose feeling is that, a kind of intermingling of being and voice, and a certain mysterious quality (though always within a heterosexual matrix) since the encounter can never be reduced to a mere statement about it but can only be embodied in that intermingling. The surface qualities of Croggon's work, the linguistic ease, the formal sense, the intelligent awareness of other forms, are so accomplished and compelling that it might be easy for the undiscerning critic to rely on them alone, to see in the formal elements of The Common Flesh a kind of conservatism, or in the multidisciplinary approach of Attempts at Being , a kind of polygot multiplicity, in which the theatrical pieces and the shorter poems, might be seen as weakening the purely 'poetic' effect. But this underlying complexity of movement and feeling, the erotic nature of physical existence juxtaposed with the anonymonity of being results in a deeply aboriginal sensibility at work, where I is always another, or you, or someone else, deeply anonymous but rooted in a particular locale, autochthonic in the sense of originating from a particular place, full of the intersections of detail and experience.