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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Brett Lauer reviews

By and Large by Chris Wallace-Crabbe.

Brandl & Schlesinger, $A21.95, and Carcanet, £6.95.

This piece is 700 words or about two printed pages long.

The title of Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s fifteenth volume of poetry, By and Large, reflects the broad spectrum of terrain that the collection traverses. It shifts between subjects such as the Beijing uprisings and the government of China (which ‘prevents the future from ever taking place’), to America and its intellectuals (‘in their gaily padded plastic jackets, / writing a serious dissertation, / eating muffins / with Unitarian deliberation’) and the geopolitical landscapes of Australia, where government officials strive to ‘unfuck the economy.’ Wallace-Crabbe’s new collection is an expansive cataloguing of our contemporary milieu, but it does not settle for quick, superficial glances across a spinning and blurred globe. Rather, Wallace-Crabbe examines various historical events and figures, political institutions and landscapes, illustrating that ‘Like plain morality or the universe / things grow more complicated and eccentric / the more you peer at them.’ Indeed, while observing such myriad subjects, his poems often self-consciously acknowledge the process of peering in order to produce meaning. What results is not disparate or a poetic globalization, but an eclectic philosophical investigation of the self in the modern world.

In the collection’s first poem, ‘We Being Ghost Cannot Catch Hold of Things,’ Wallace-Crabbe examines the inability to possess meaning: ‘What a piteous quest we have/ to brood upon down here // given that Meaning is a blind God/ who limps through the actual world. . .’ He pokes fun at his own line of questioning, as well as at postmodern theory, as the poem dismisses the value and purpose of superimposing a gender on his personification of Meaning. The poem shifts from philosophical discourse toward lyricism: ‘if wishes were horses, / be ever so gently handled and stroked / and Meaning at last / come home / in a susurrus of bay leaves.’ For Wallace-Crabbe, Meaning arrives ‘home’ with the whisper of the natural world, not in technically precise jargon or theory. The poem seems to mirror the mind working through an equation, until it finally rejects both the traditional notion of meaning as ‘a blind god’ and a contemporary gendered version, arriving at last in the romantic realm of nature.  Wallace-Crabbe’s poems frequently are not satisfied with the old descriptions of meaning:  ‘Somewhere between truth and meaning’ is where one will find ‘a terrible heap of old descriptions of god’ or with the new discourses and their practitioners:

Now its comfy ackers who’ve taken on
The engine-driving of the avant-garde,

Pretending, in their salaries and jeans
To be the saltimbanques who cycle round
The edge of a volcano (boop-a-doop!)
Vertigiously. Their superannuation
Cushions the cutting edge it’s pretty tough
To be a PoMo shithead jacking off.

Yet many of the issues that underlie Wallace-Crabbe’s poems are indeed informed by postmodernity: where the ‘status of knowledge is altered’; where ‘History is here/ being unmade and renewed / among the straw-ricks’; where even the fluidity of language, the necessary medium for such discourse and experimentation, is beyond classification — and is indeed the necessary classifier:

Yes, but language feels to me
rather like the taste of water,
a flavor frankly beyond all naming,
it is general, clear and ready
to flow out
filling our every need.

Wallace-Crabbe’s poems utilize high and low art, blending the historical and the contemporary, with Coleridge appearing in the same poem as the humorous and poignant consumer-culture critique ‘REAL PUNKS CAN’T SPELL CAPPACINO.’ His poems, which are always pushed forward by an amazing and somewhat traditional ear, shift fluently among linguistic styles, philosophical diction, slang (‘what lies between gossip and metaphysics?’), and forms — including lyric, prose poems, a slightly comic light verse that never quite becomes trivial, and a sonnet sequence — as well as across continents and time periods. It is precisely this grab-bag of options, ready at Wallace-Crabbe’s disposal, that makes the collection successful: an effortless mixing that responds perfectly to contemporary politics, academia, meaning, and language, all of which the contemporary person must process simultaneously and attempt to make sense of — or, alternately, acknowledge the nonsense of it all, as Wallace-Crabbe often does.

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