Online Edition: Winter 2004

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<More or Less Than>, 1-100

MTC Cronin

Shearsman Books ($15.95)

by Richard Owens

First published in 1993, MTC Cronin's work has increasingly resonated and rippled outward from her native Australia, finding solid support in the U.S. and the U.K. where small presses have vigorously promoted her work and published several of her collections. Cronin's tenth and most recent book, <More or Less Than>, is among her most complex, introducing a multiplicity of seemingly dissociated discourses which flow in organic concord throughout the text. As these discourses rhythmically intersect and diverge, coming and going in alternating currents of harmony and discord, a confusion of voices groping for the temporal origins of their common source emerges:

is it the other side of the body
what speaks from what was prevented
as they prevent what they can
and should, and should
leave the rest to fate
as if there was an arena
and not only that but themselves
as both spectators and participants
the outer and inner circles

Here meaning and conventional conceptions of the world are shattered, dualities are smashed. Outer and inner circles converge, collapsing inward on one another even though conventional illusions are maintained "as if there was an arena."

Yet there is an arena, at least for the work--an arena carefully constructed for the purpose of containing and governing the complex liaisons established between the work's various voices. The 100 parts of the work form a whole, replicating the cycles of organic life--Part 1 beginning with one line, Part 2 with two, and upward to Part 50, from which point the work winds downward, a gradual diminuendo wherein Part 51 has forty-nine lines, Part 52 forty-eight lines, and so on. Part 100 ends just as the poem began--with one line evoking water, the source from which all life flows.

The work is thus not only organic in its cyclicality, but also in its momentum, its constant struggle to maintain a natural center of gravity, its relentless and unceasing movement. The opening line--"not simply the stream but they who thought of following"--charts the book's course, drawing a sharp demarcation between the natural world and human civilization. The decision to follow, however, is a conscious and voluntary one, a decision that invariably separates existence from extinction. The corresponding line which mirrors the first, Part 100, carries the reader back to the beginning in cyclical fashion: "ice follows water follows."

Just as the work is cyclically structured, the interlocutory voices which emerge and diminish and reemerge are timeless and dramatically varied. To avoid any confusion regarding the players involved in the text, the narrator clearly delineates the interdependent dialogues, outlining three main participatory spectators using simple, active and direct language:

'follow me' means three, the speaker
a page of water and they, addressed, wavering,
as the third beckons as well as it can, hidden

The narrator in the first half of the book is distanced and clinical, discussing detachedly the Objectivist conception of universality as it is expressed through the particular, "The burning circumstances straight from the pit." In this first half both narrator and audience are appointed judge and jury, plaintiff and defendant. The commerce between narrator and audience is mediated by "a page of water"--the text itself, the meeting place or crossroads where a living dialogue can be established. But the futile efforts of the third party which "beckons as well as it can, hidden" are exposed in Part 32. Here any attempt to preserve interiority and maintain a genuinely human dialogue collapses:

and they tried, in their most prominent places,
in their places most hidden,
to remember the words, to retrieve the words
that might have been spoken in chaos
but the words flew, dead and fast like stones

The confusion of voices here makes it difficult to determine who is hidden and who is not, who is following and who is not. Any attempt to construct meaning, to extrapolate meaning from language, from human relationships, via conventional, orthodox means crumbles inward on itself. Putting the horse before the cart cannot be an issue if one cannot be distinguished from the other. Narrator and audience in this first half merge, the dichotomized parties freely flowing back and forth through the text so that distinguishing one from the other by means of language becomes impossible. Language is everywhere in abundance but, despite its availability, fails to clarify and inform, to resolve. The meaning we, the audience, struggle to establish for ourselves "in the chaos" falls through the quicksand of the presuppositions that all meaning is based on.

From Part 51 forward the book takes on the feel of an epistolary novel. To read the text is to wear the cloak of a voyeur eavesdropping on a private, intimate conversation. They becomes you. The narrator engages directly with the subject--whether the subject be an isolated reader or humanity at large, or, more appropriately, both in their relationship to the sum total of human civilization uninterrupted by time and space. In the intimacy of this second half the narrator betrays the complexity of the poem in one quickly paced passage written in the simplest language. The narrator is tired of hedging bets and offers up the heart of the work, shifting to an all-inclusive we and refusing to mince words:

we are all the same
we are all the same
we are not magical
we are not strong
we think we are magical
we think we are strong

The formidable equalizer in the poem, then, becomes our common humanity, the time-bound fragility of human life we share in common. Cronin's meticulous attention to party and pronoun, to the voices that flow through the poem, give this work a complexity and penetrating depth which carries a timeless theme--the issue of mortality--firmly into the 20th century.


Winter 2004 Table of Contents