Lynn Crosbie: Mistress Of The Dark
Copyright Ó by Dan Schneider, 2/29/04
A few years
ago I came across 2 books of poetry that were very good. This is, in & of
itself, a rarity in the world of poetry so usually suffused in doggerel. The
books were by Canadian poet Lynn Crosbie. The 2 books were Miss Pamela’s
Mercy (1992) & VillainElle (1994)- both by Coach House Press
in Canada. Both books trod much of the same territory that British poet Jeremy
Reed does- that of pop culture as fodder for poetry, admixed with Classical
As someone who shares Reed’s & Crosbie’s enthusiasm for such I have long enjoyed their poetry. The 1 caveat re: LC’s poetry vis-à-vis JR’s is that she is a de facto Anne Sexton to Reed’s Sylvia Plath. The reason for this appellation is that LC’s biggest flaw is that her poetry is not well-enjambed, which results in a sort of tonal sameness to her poems- despite their differing subject matters. Dangling articles & prepositions drip off of her lines with no real reason- musical, syllabic, nor dramatic. It could be argued that her poems might benefit from being formatted as proems. But, aside from this flaw, if you can move by them without feeling as if you’ve heard nails screech along a blackboard, you will enjoy the many good things her poems offer: vivid imagery & description, sensual word & sound choices, a sinuous ophidian narrative style that entwines a reader, & mnemonic markers that leave indelible phrases in the mind. If only there were more attention paid to the details of her work I would not hesitate to say that she could very well be a great poet.
Still, in this age of Carolyn Forché, James Tate, Nikki Giovanni, & Gary Soto, a poet like LC is a welcome change- in fact, LC superficially resembles Soto in that her poetry is all left-margined. But that’s where it ends. Here’s a poem from VillainElle- but it should be noted that there are several enjambment improvements, word changes, & changes in capitalization between this version I found online & the version in the book. I think this version is a little superior. I will comment after each stanza:
Skirt, My Pretty Name
and the space between my name and
myself grows larger until...
-- David Demchuk, Rosalie Sings Alone
After several Valium and a cup of
feel sweet and contented. The city is dangerous,
prurient, and I am a woman of mystery. I ask
the waitress for some napkins and whisper,
My husband's brains are in my hands. I ask her
to regard the blood and tissue, the horror of my
dress. I am wearing tinted sunglasses, a chiffon
scarf, patterned with lemons and cherries.
My wig, my hair is concealed, it really is awful,
a cerise-coloured rat's nest and it itches, badly.
When I leave, I move smoothly through the streets,
clutching my shopping bags; I fit my key into
the lock and gaze at my calling card, that reads:
Skirt, my pretty name.
Even though improved the poem could use some tidying. As example- is my
so intriguing that dress fulfills its dramatic ‘pop’? No. But let’s
look at the music, then the narrative. The alliteration & assonance of the
lines make it a slightly elevated prose, but not self-consciously poetic. This
allows the lines to skim along without building up the expectation of some great
poetic riff needed to make the stanza work. As for the narrative. The 1st
few lines could be just about any mediocre poets’ rant on late 20th
Century artiste life, but then the speaker’s words get noirish. The last 4
lines- especially the last- leave the reader wondering what it all means, &
a desire to forge on.
I am applying Lee press-on nails and listening to
The Magic of Mantovani. I am having a nervous
breakdown, You don't bring me flowers, I remember
coming home once and finding a sprig of lilacs
on my doorstep and I held them and thought of him I love.
He was a merchant marine, and I was his
novitiate. I held conch shells to his ears
while he slept, so he could hear the sea,
the sheets billowed like sails when he kissed me.
He would powder my nose, he traced his fingers
down my thighs, my flaw. He was never, he was rarely cruel to me.
When he left, I wore a mourning veil and sewed
starfish over my eyes. I cried like a siren, I slashed my
wrists with a broken bottle. It lay on the carpet
shattered, with a silver ship in its neck.
This stanza also has a solid music, but look at the narrative flow. Schmaltz mixes with typical Confessional dread, yet we end with a very intriguing metaphor of impotence. In the book’s original, neck is not the last word of the stanza- it is base. But the masculine image of the model sailing ship being stuck as it seemingly wants to leave its glass prison, is a far more powerful & fully realized image than being stuck at the base. Aside from the bottle’s phallic imagery, the neck suggests exit & the ship’s placement in it suggests abruption from its leaving, whereas having it in the base is merely a description- it has no metaphorical overtones. Whether this is the reason for the relationship’s end is not known, but suggested- even that the impotence may only be emotional. At this point the reader is left to wonder the title & stanza 1’s end in regards to the relationship.
Weeks in the hospital, without perfume, or candy,
and I still have no friends. Yesterday, a man
came over to me and screamed about the accident,
the blood! I shrank, smaller, into my sweater
and imagined I was somewhere else. The women in the
restaurant smile when I take their pictures
with a pink Instamatic and offer them
spoonfuls of chocolate, my number. I am staring
at the telephone now, willing it to ring, cradling it in my
arms and my stomach is turning. I beat myself
with my fists, my loneliness is relentless. I see its constancy
in the spreading bruises, the green and yellow echoes.
I am the quietest object here, I could rest here always, never moving.
The speaker now tells us of the aftermath of her suicide attempt & recovery. What’s important to note here is that the narrative now gives way to description. What is the accident & blood about- the speaker’s suicide attempt or the man who’s speaking to her? She reaches out with ‘spoonfuls of chocolate, my number’- an odd reach- but 1 that sticks in a reader’s mind for the oddity of the juxtaposition, even though we are not sure of the meaning. Does the # relate back to her calling card?
Only breathing, the faintest shadow, slowly
turning the pages of my library book,
Fashion in the 1970s, and naming the dances
under my breath. I would step from side to side
and do the hustle, but I am tired and solemn.
I am the light that jewels their white pantsuits;
the mirrored disco ball made of shattered stars.
The dancers sway beneath me in an orbit
and sometimes stare, with a comb or a tissue.
They see that they are broken, mortal,
and they look away.
stanza is the best (& broken better than the original). It is sheer
metaphor- but of what? The glass ties back to the shattered relationship, &
the title of the library book ties back to the title. 1 could surmise a # of
interpretations but the 1st 1 would be that the speaker is distancing
herself from her past. Not only is the trope of the poem away from the rather
banal opening to metaphor, but the epigraph works well because it encapsulates
& summarizes that movement.
This is not a great poem- but the fact that LC has in this day & age come up with an intriguing way to metaphorically say. ‘I’m kind of bummed with myself’ is in itself unique. Especially considering that she has used a totally unique metaphor in the last stanza, especially, to convey this. This is not some 50 page Romantic rant that could be summed up in 2 pages. It is a fairly concise way to engender a new but powerful metaphor into being. Yes, I wish some of the clichés were trimmed (I am a woman of mystery, the faintest shadow- although the former is said with a wink & a nod), & sometimes she states what she later shows much better (its constancy/in the spreading bruises, the green and yellow echoes much better relates the spread of the speaker’s loneliness than the bald statement so just before it), & of course, a bit tighter enjambment- but compare the start of this poem (a dime a dozen) to where & how we end up & this is an original poetic mind at work.
LC has her own website http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/crosbie/. A # of online bios sum up her life & career to date:
Born in Montreal in 1963 Lynn Crosbie is a cultural critic, the author of four books of poetry: Miss Pamela's Mercy, VillainElle, Pearl and a collection of new and selected work, Queen Rat. Her recent collection of poems, Pearl, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. She is also the author of the controversial book, Paul's Case and the editor of The Girl Wants To and Click. She lives in Toronto, and has a PhD in English literature (on the work of Anne Sexton). Crosbie teaches at the Ontario College of Art and the University of Toronto.
Let’s look at another of her poems.
Xtraordinaire (722 Queen Street West) 1994-96
I have never had a hairdresser
before but things come to this.
Hand-carved crosses, piercing, face-slaps, lipliner.
He fits my hair with extensions, someone else's hair,
twice now, I wear this stranger's
remains. My head scraped raw
with sutures, I sleep on my face, some fall out I am falling apart.
You look like a mermaid, Sook-Yin says when she sings to me.
He tells me about an associate, Ray,
who almost died from fluorocarbons,
his aurora of hairspray, and leaves me under the dryer
while I think about glamour.
How angry I have been, lethal shoes
talons corsets, you got to move on,
if you want to see glory, train train.
That glamour may be something else,
walking slowly and painfully,
so there are no mistakes. The discomfort, the drag.
Of effacing yourself; the sublimation. Of recovering the grotesque.
I wonder at the hair of the
skeleton, in museum glass, pulling a comb
through my own tangled memento mori.
I fought with my hairdresser once,
viciously. Pretend I'm dead, I told him,
and slammed down the phone. Before we made up and since, I think
this is the most glamorous thing I have ever done:
his clips clattering to the floor --
the nerve of that woman -- my hair
alight, as I turn in an outrage, switching beauty's tail, to get moving.
I found this
poem online- it may be from a later work, it was not noted, but it’s an
example of yet another way a poem can rise above the muck of contemporary
banality- a great opening conceit. The term ‘conceit’ has been out of
fashion at least since the Romantic Era, but that does not make it any less
relevant to why a poem works or fails. The conceit of this poem is its 1st
line ‘I have never had a hairdresser before but things come to this’.
What makes it work is that a seeming banality (having a hairdresser) is turned
into a philosophical statement. From there the poem moves along as the speaker
gives us snips of her rather petty existence. The end of the poem is a wonderful
portrayal of the speaker as someone barely cognizant of their foibles, yet who
still notes them in a poem. Going back to the opening conceit it makes the whole
rest of the poem seem almost a tweak of its sentiment.
As with almost all of LC’s poems I think a good threshing through at a critique group like my old Uptown Poetry Group would have kicked up the poem a notch or 2- but the important thing is that in almost all of LC’s poems there is an active will to test new ideas & push boundaries. &- yes- I’m talking to you James Tate- supposed ‘surrealist’ poet! JT has never written a line as surreal, funny, nor daring as ‘I wonder at the hair of the skeleton, in museum glass, pulling a comb/through my own tangled memento mori.’
LC has also garnered renown & infamy for her series of poems about murders & murderers (something I have likewise specialized in)- such as Paul Bernardo, Jack the Ripper, The Black Dahlia, & this poem on Jeffery Dahmer:
To thrust all that life under your tongue! -Anne
There is always the
smell of chocolate, the rich swirl and I
separate his wildflower curls when he sleeps:
Stephen only stayed for moments. Moonlight spooned into our bed,
his red cross grazed my lips, I tasted cherries, his
innocent hand in the night road, calling me - o la paloma blanca, the radio played this and he smiled, his mouth
the cranberries we stir into the copper vessels, their skin splits and offers bitter fruit.
He became restless: the guy wanted to leave and I didn't want him to leave.
A heart—shaped box, the candies are moss-green; I have held onto this too long. Anger hot enough to incinerate each scalloped chocolate I fold into gold foil and twist
his head around, it breaks, I crush his throat with a metal paddle (stolen from the factory, sweetness is only mine to steal),
wrap his confectionary body into plastic bags, and then retrieve it.
To kiss the rigid wrists and neck that belong to me, sledgehammer smashes each bone into crystals, stars entombed in stalks of grass.
My first love affair still glitters, when I am here
scattering starlets of cleaning powder on the tile floor, my orange coveralls the moon that tempered him, by the trees and street lights, his semaphore fingers spelling Jeffery, Jeffery, for he creeps,
when the first blow reaches my face, I have already retreated. Into romance (a raspberry purée), the rapture - I held them close
all that life under my tongue, unyielding in my arms, their hollow eyes like truffles in cream, looking back at me.
As a child, I would preserve insects in formaldehyde, dragonflies, spiders, a praying mantis. I fall to my knees in a glaze of pain and remember entreating them, don't leave me, don't leave me please, and what I read,
what I read today: In those days shall men seek death and shall not find it. My eyes close like gilded paper, and I find it and
death, my only lover, does not leave.
could use a bit of trimming- but think how your typical PC Elitist or Spoken
Wordist would have approached this material. The PCE would have told you all
throughout the poem that this is evil, that JD is sick & twisted,& that
the essence of life is sacred. The SW would have gone on & on, either in
mock anger over the actions in question, or trying to embrace the evil as an art
itself. LC splits the difference- she shows that life is sacred to JD- thus why
he kills- to ever preserve a moment, & she embraces the evil in this way-
without striking the pose as a poetic bad-ass. As usual, the poem could use some
I’d mentioned earlier that Jeremy Reed is a poet much in the same vein as LC- except he’s a bit better because he’s tighter in his forms- but even he does not have conceits such as ‘There is always the smell of chocolate, the rich swirl and I’ in regard to a serial killer. Here’s another in her series on killers. I’ll annotate:
I'm really sick when it comes to socks...They're parts of the combination to the deepest, most secret recesses of my mind. -Ted Bundy
It's one of my fantasies -
a wooden pharmaceutical chest, drawer after drawer, filled with socks. In crisp cellophane envelopes, the colors of the sky
at sunset when I sheathe my attractive feet in ribs of black with yellow bands and gather my sticks and gloves, the false sling
Read just the
poem alone to this point- rather odd opening- but nothing hints at possible
perversions. Now read it with the title & the epigraph & words like fantasies
& ribs are now sinister. Yet the rest of the opening is a feint away
from the murderous impulses. Onward:
starched and clean, secured to my shoulder. Later there is a sense of sorrow,
remorse, etcetera; I dislike the other field. Dried leaves and disorderly
scratches, from branches, her urgent fingernails
the pain in my hands. I soak them in a basin of warm water and admire each clever finger
following the even rows, the letters of the law in my own defense.
What is interesting in this snip is that the precise descriptions are
both reflected & tweaked by a phrase like ‘the letters of the law’. This
is another example of LC’s mind conjuring up mnemonic devices that will stick
in a reader’s mind, yet are beyond the usual a to b to c narrative progression
of a poem.
I object, the girls all looked the same — that girl with money enough
to fill each drawer with a ransom of wool and cotton - spinning gold from a
spinning when I see the part in her dark hair: her eyes are avarice, deflecting me.
I would wear my one pair of socks and underwear and rinse them in the sink, the sight of them. Deriding me from the shower-rod threadbare
The man was an enigma, intelligent, a semiotician:
the sock is an indexical sign, the police in Pensacola found traces of her hair, Even there I was buying socks everywhere.
I am too fine for this, I want to lay out my affluence in sleek pairs,
have her lie among the elastic and silk, like a daisy, It makes me sad because I've never seen such - such beautiful socks before.
This is probably the rhetorically weakest part of the poem & were
this a This Old Poem essay this is where I would trim the fat
because the fetish has already been established. An LC diehard, though, might
argue that the excess works given the character of Bundy. Also, LC does have a
tendency to trope toward overly flourished rhetoric of the sort that detractors
of Walt Whitman & Allen Ginsberg, at their best, also had, so I could let it
slide given the rest of the poem’s strengths.
I imagine it is
someone else, tearing their bodies apart, their skin in his teeth,
the bite-mark that is my undoing, the distinctive curve of poverty: I said that they were pinned up every night,
I did not mention they were red - they left pale blood-pools on the enamel, the white expanse of their ruined thighs;
I always felt that I would have really made it if I had all the socks and underwear I could ever use,
if I could tear this from one girl or another, her fault.
And somehow find the ecstasy (her last breath pulled slowly from her throat), hidden in the secret recesses,
the deepest pangs —
I had to restructure my life, from the beginning, I was always so cold. It may have affected me, alight with fever, I slip her over me.
She is argent, the sheen of the fleshings
folded together, lip to toe like rose petals in my bed, my bed of roses.
The last line is very weak- but the portrait of Bundy’s rationalizations is
interesting. I would have ended the line after lip to toe. Still, the
approach is wholly unique, even if the execution is spotty.
The reason I think LC’s work should be sought out is not because she is so flawless a poet, but that she’s a poet in whose flaws 1 can see the way to why poems work & fail. In a sense, LC is probably the best published poet, today, to read if a young poet wants to see the good & bad in contemporary poetry. Her laxness with form is her biggest weakness, but her themes, characterizations, mnemonic tricks, & conceits- in short, her daring- make up for that flaw, & then some. A young poet with talent might move beyond LC, but her corpus is 1 that deserves to find a wider audience- especially amongst female writers who have never moved beyond the Confessional-Emily Dickinson axis. LC shows how even trite themes can be revivified- if not always with the success rate of a great poet. My take on things is that a good deal of her lapses in poetry can probably be attributed to her other roles as pop critic & prosist- because those are what pay the bills. Poetry is therefore just an avocation.
But any poet who can describe foreplay with Jim Morrison like this-
his hand on my thigh is aqua
regia, corrosive, as we
drive through La Brea, inhaling
trimar from cotton scraps. (from Miss Pamela’s Mercy)
-should be read by far more poetry lovers than read her now. But, Lynn, spend just a little more time on tightening & revising. If so, the people who read this in 100 years won’t have to ask if you’re Bing’s daughter!
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