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J A C K E T   #   E L E V E N   |    A P R I L   2 0 0 0  


John Bennett

Autobiographies - Inventive Connections

¶ M.T.C. Cronin; Everything Holy, Balcones International Press, Temple, Texas. ISBN 1 891811 04 5

¶ M.T.C. Cronin; the world beyond the fig, Five Islands Press, ISBN 0 86418 61 8

¶ Essay - Legal Poetry Practice: Thoughts on Writing Outside the Law - the Poetry of M.T.C. Cronin.

This piece contains 2,700 words or about seven printed pages


      Everything Holy

Early on in Everything Holy, the poem "The Constitution of Stars" begins "the moon has moved" and goes on to track horse-traders back to the mythic age of elephants. Even at these beginnings, there's "the nine models of evil justice" and systems of State and Law:

children fight over wildflowers
and judges sit in caves to pronounce
'You have' and 'You have not'.
Until recently, it was thought that writing began in one place, Sumer with clay models and the economic imperative - what do you have? How many goats and sheaves of corn? Writing soon became a capable vehicle for both the law and poetry. The poem hopes for social solidarity but leaves us in a grim world of murder, judicial or otherwise, and two bodies:
swinging, turning
the light bounces off their teeth
Cronin provokes a slippage of syntax and sometimes absence of punctuation that frustrates easy readings of some works but encourages a fluvial reading that works the reader back past print, past grammar to poetic possibilities, thanks to the fecundity of this poet's imagination.

She uses 'and', one of the small words George Oppen took so seriously. One of our low-key words that add particles of action, memory, scent and death to planetary systems and narratives of lives - she uses 'and' with enthusiasm maintaining the rhythm of an enthusiastic and exciting voice through the collection.

Connections form between a Zen master's death and a tiny red Sydney spider in "Be Spider":
the body suddenly remembered
its life (the speed with which fires
can burn through forests?)
It seems to me to be a poetry fished out of the streaming presence of language, rather than building a house brick by brick, or a machine, bolt by bolt. I read aloud fast swallowing the images hook, line and stanza.


The poems shift between the personal & familial beginning with "The Cuan" to the cosmological, mythic, feminine (the majority) that tend to the surreal, showing Latin American influences. Reaching towards the rear of the collection to Latin fantasies, poems dedicated to Neruda or Lorca:

a small man with a mouthful of tongues
and a limp on which he limped for his people,
was shot in the back.
Words that obsessed Symbolists, such as 'dream' and 'moon', are central and recurring to a number of poems (sometimes in same poem as in "Not a Real Beard"). After a number of these, my personal baggage weighs on me. I enjoy poetry embedded in the world and just as I suspect the poetry of becoming ethereal and losing focus, another poem e.g. "Bouillabaisee" grounds me again, or "The One-Pointed Star":
the baby pulls off a fistful of cat
& I hold my hand out to grab eternity

but the night envelops me in its muddy vigilance
says, You, trying to grow over and over again

only your hand remains
your grasping

a one-pointed star.
Such a personal poem, without show or contortion, bounds with lunar gravity and ground haecceity in the body, eternity and the stars.

The poems are at their most compulsive when dystopias dance with utopias. Cronin brings both inclinations successfully together in one of the longest poems in the collection (4 pages). In "The Confetti Stone" (which won the Gwen Harwood Memorial Poetry Prize in Australia), a young woman frees herself from the memory of sexual abuse, a freedom won, perhaps in spite of, her forthcoming marriage:
Tonight she celebrates her own wedding: marries
what she remembers with what she forgets, waits

with the stone heavy in her palm as outside the colours of the day
fight through black and break; where the dogs are barking

at a few old cows and the morning laughs reckless
in the thin-spread dew.
Her transformation follows with pathos:
. . . they'll drive away from this place unseen by snakes

or ghosts too busy to look up from sifting pans and while her
husband talks about cricket and rubs his thumb bent by the ball

all the way back to his wrist, she'll count telegraph poles
and fossick for opals in her head . . .
The enjambment powers an energetic momentum that her narrative supports (rather than the other way round). Again, the poet pushes off the well-made poem into a sea that takes it far and wide without any huffing or puffing. The currents and tides of the reader's own imagination carries the craft.

      the world beyond the fig

This collection starts with a dazzling psychological ethology.
In the poem "the world beyond the fig":
            This woman who forces
herself through a hole in the fig.
In the fruit. to lay eggs ... Waspish
The poem "Surrealism and Damages" tells of the ubiquitous and clumsy sexual advances men are prone to make. This book is dedicated to the women she knows and, to my male sensibility, celebrates the presence of women most successfully.

In the poem she notes gender difference,
. . . in speech
women use numerical specificity
less often whereas
men us it more
but with less accuracy?
[I recently wrote that men use the word 'red', whereas, women tend to distinguish between vermilion and crimson, puce and blood. Celebrate difference and understand difference! Back to Sumer and the origins of writing - men may have invented writing there but elsewhere, writing began with ritual significance. For example, the earliest writings are scratched on Chinese oracle bones and perhaps women inscribed the ancient sacred markings recently brought to light in Transylvania]

I find the world . . . a more uneven collection than Everything Holy but still packed with interesting poetry, especially the poems originating from the experience of being a mother; the intense, "My mother, Her mother, her daughter/My Daughter, Her Mother,/My Mother, Her Daughter,/My Daughter" (almost a prose poem) which rivets the past to the present while anticipating the future:
Her love is in buckets. Easily tipped over.

She has the most beautiful skin of any of us. She thinks it's hers.
it took hundreds of years to grow.
like her hair, her fingernails, her legs.
She's going to be tall. The tallest of us all.
Such poems as "Another Paradise Lost" give domestic scenes, intelligibility and passion. I prefer these to the more political/didactic ones, such as "That man", which still has some provocatively interesting parts:
the man moved in the shadows
mimicking the shape of animals
and was denied access
to write or wrong
there are moments when the poetry in these poems seems to lose its energy as in this excerpt from the litany of "But This":
she walked as quiet as a kitten
she walked with a tongue always bitten

she recognised his face for him
she would never takes his place for him
Then there are the quirky poems madly inventive like "Blow Up (Doll)" with its hilarious ending that I won't give away. There are a number of poets in these two collections, all of them inventive and perceptive.


I don't know the full story behind the publication by a North American press but it is a welcome development and has resulted in a well presented book of poetry loaded with excitement. And Five Islands Press in Australia, yet again, has presented an important collection by a local poet. Both books are well worth searching out for what a blurb-writer might describe as 'a unique poetic voice'.

      Legal Poetry Practice:
          Thoughts on Writing Outside the Law

          (the Poetry of M.T.C. Cronin)

[Click on the numbered note to read the note; likewise to return to the text.]

M.T.C. Cronin's legal background come through, though is not unduly emphasised, in both her recent collections (reviewed above). She does not mention her work, instead, using the style and linguistic formations of legal processes and brushes against jurisprudence.

Since Sir Thomas More's Utopia, the first text to radically question the primacy of the law, many political theorists and poets have argued for privileging freedom and self determination. Art, generally taken to be an autonomous activity these last few hundred years, is viewed as outside the legal sphere (and poetry, of all the arts, is probably seen as most disinterested and autonomous).

I understand that she is currently working on a thesis examining legal and poetic discourses. I imagine she could argue that both systems (in terms of institutional structures or procedural similarities) reflect the intense sociability of human lives and resultant conflicts and difficulties. The law attempts to define, make explicit, classify a taxonomic process of human activities that always falls short of accounting for human behaviour let alone any quantitative analysis for judging (demonstrated by the burgeoning legislative programs of governments all over the world). Poetry, rather than taking such a reductive approach, seeks to make connections between what we think about and feel about; 'all care no responsibility' some critics might say.

The second poem in the collection Everything Holy, is "the law of descriptions". It's epigraph is from Wallace Stevens' "The Latest Freed Man":

Tired of the old descriptions of the world,
The latest freed man rose at six and sat
On the edge of his bed. He said
                      'I suppose there is
A doctrine in this landscape.'
The poem goes on to suggest a man
. . . rather lawless in a red shirt
with opinions and writing poems
about his dreams

he saw ideology . . .
The law imposes a structure of due process, institutional use and language (no hint of blood on his red shirt) on messy, complex and often paradoxical human acts. Acts we want to earth in a solid world but, as Wallace Stevens wrote in a letter, 'We live in the description of a place and not in the place itself.'[1]

There are no objective positions (let alone an objective position) from which to view ideology, or descriptions. Karl Mannheim attempted to show that competing ideologies have comparative advantages and disadvantages, but how can one find a position from which to tally them ('Mannheim's paradox')? If all discourse is ideological how can one escape? Ideology is a contested term and outside of Marxist interpretations, terms like episteme, discourse or tradition have been developed.

I find it more useful to talk of an 'epidemiology of representations' (Daniel Sperber), 'cultural software' (J.M. Balkin) or memes (Susan Blackmore). But then the danger is leaving the politics out, a danger art is always facing.

The law and poetry can both be unreasonable and lacking in reason. The Anglo western legal system uses an agonistic process similar to the competitive processes of the market economy. This may partly derive from the language we use for argument (which poetry neglects and the law and the Academy reifies). Lakoff and Johnson have shown how metaphors of war are used for rational argument, one reason why negotiation to consensus appears to be relatively uncommon.[2]

Plato is in a pragmatic mood in Laws, his last work. He proposes detailed legislation, wanting to make an ideal city work. But the ideal city is still, like the Republic, a fascist state - poets are exiled. John Dewey, Richard Rorty's hero, thought democracy a vital process that had possibilities of developing new cultural formations. This culture of democracy could be seen as reviving democratic individualism, or encouraging empathy with fellow members of a shared community. The law is always in tension with democracy, though Rorty concentrates on social solidarity rather than dealing with the law.

The law is public, whereas poetry, in the last couple of hundred years, private. This is the very distinction that Rorty is forced to make because of his neo-pragmatist position on description which is the heart of in his anti foundationalist project. In Rorty's view, all philosophers can do is describe, and all descriptions are subject to interpretation, dependant on the language of 'chosen descriptions'. Rorty wants us to avoid irony about these descriptions in the public sphere so socialisation of citizens and solidarity is not disrupted. It is an argument that confuses attempts to illuminate the relation between individual beliefs and responsibilities and votes for the status quo. In the US, this results in an infant mortality rate worse than that of Cuba.

Description at least gives room to the arts: 'What the novelist finds especially comic is the attempt to privilege one [set of] descriptions, to take it as an excuse for ignoring all the others.'[3] Rorty thinks novelists, television producers and artists in general are useful for promoting social solidarity, but he does not mention poets in this book which, of all his books, most closely seeks a place for the arts.

Though elsewhere Rorty has written, 'I think of metaphysicians as footnotes to poets . . . My utopia, as I have often said, is one in which poets rather than scientists or religious prophets are thought of as the cutting edge of civilisation, and are the heroes and heroines of culture . . . [because] it would have given up the presupposition . . . that everything we do take place within an eternal, unchanging framework, and that discerning this framework is an important human task.'[4]

Or as he writes, 'The utility of the 'existentialist view' is that, by proclaiming that we have no essence, it permits us to see the descriptions of ourselves as on a par with the various alternative descriptions offered by poets, novelists, depth psychologists, sculptors, anthropologists, and mystics.'[5]

It's clear, from diachronic and synchronic investigations, that all known languages give similar descriptions of the world. There are limits to our freedoms of redescription. There is no anarchic relativism here; evidence can be given for preferring one description over another. Experience of the world is relevant to our statements about the world. Rorty argues that on the larger scale, in terms of human projects in the political or social sphere, we cannot ask for evidence from the world and that such different viewpoints may be seen as incommensurable. He writes, 'When the notion of 'description of the world' is moved from the level of criterion-governed sentences within language games to language games as wholes, games which we do not choose between by reference to criteria, the idea that the world decides which descriptions are true can no longer be given a clear sense.'[6]

Rorty is a pragmatist and thus subject to epistemological uncertainty. The law, on the other hand, can have no doubts about its foundation or project. Cronin asks "What is / the law of water?" She knows there is no answer. Poetry emphasises experience which always owns emotion dimensions; art is not in the business of providing answers to abstract or metaphysical questions.

Cronin's poetry flows between the interstices of judge and jury, plea and bargain, appeal and police, witness and judgement. She does not deal with cases histories, has none of the documentary sense that Charles Reznikoff gives in Testimony, a poetry mined from court transcriptions and case histories, an objectivist poetry, pared down and tightly toned but highly charged for all that.[7]

She brings something other from studying law than Reznikoff, who learned to . . .
scrutinise every word and phrase
as if in a document of the opinion of a judge
and listen, as well, for tones and overtones
leaving only the pithy, the necessary, the clear and plain.[8]
Could Reznikoff's Testimony, a documentary poetry interested in the everyday, ever be taught as history, social history or anything else?

In the acknowledgements to the world beyond the fig, it is noted that some of the poems were used as course materials in university law subjects ('Law and Gender' and 'Feminist Legal Theory'). That's wonderful. I'd like to have sat in on one of those discussions. We talk of legal practice but what of poetry as practice? And not just endowing Beowulf to a history lesson. We may not concede to Shelley that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but we may agree that poetry brings illumination to the whole gamut of human discourse and curiosity, including, institutional practices like the legal system.

You can read eight poems by M.T.C.Cronin in Jacket # 8

¶ M.T.C. Cronin; Everything Holy, Balcones International Press, Temple, Texas. ISBN 1 891811 04 5

¶ M.T.C. Cronin; the world beyond the fig, Five Islands Press, ISBN 0 86418 61 8

You can order M.T.C.Cronin's books via the Internet - choose the bookstore closest to you, and select the live link -

In the USA - Amazon at
In Paris, France - The Village Voice Bookshop at

In Britain - The Internet Bookshop at
In Sydney, Australia - Gleebooks at
In Melbourne, Australia - Readings at


Notes -

[1] Quoted by Harold Beaver, 'Language and Silence', p419, Parnassus Vol 19. No 1, 1993

[2] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson,  Metaphors We Live By, Chicago UP. pps 4-5, 77-87, 1980.

[3] Richard Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers, v 2. p74. Cambridge UP, 1991.

[4] Richard Rorty, 'Dewey Between Hegel and Darwin', in Herman Saatkamp Jr. Ed., Rorty and Pragmaticism, p.32/3, Vanderbilt UP, 1995.

[5] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p.362. Princeton UP, 1979.

[6] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p5, Cambridge UP, 1989.

[7] Charles Reznikoff, Testimony, Vol I & II, Black Sparrow Press, 1979.

[8] Reznikoff, from 'Early History of a Writer' p137, in Vol II of The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff, Ed S Cooney, Black Sparrow Press, 1978

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