Arrangements by Emily Critchley
Shearsman Books, 2018. 98 pp.
Reviewed by Brendan White
Arrangements is really two short books. The first, called “Arrangements” in the Table of Contents, is a 21-page pamphlet of thirteen poems offering unparaphrasable sentences that spiral and flex and withhold their predicates while jumping between clarity and obscurity, with odd flourishes of wit and beauty and a consistent sensation of returning to the scene of an argument. The second part, “Movement waving not sleeping,” is a winsome minimalist sequence, 145 lines spread over 56 pages, with a vocabulary mostly limited to coral and bodies and water and sleeping (one of the epigraphs is from The Tempest). It is ill-served by summary, but to me it’s not not about climate change drowning the planet and our bones turning to coral. Quoting it is like trying to excerpt whale-song or Gertrude Stein: “setting of grass / leaves waving of that which / (would pour / /show riches) / /hum / make coral / after how long / upon you / island / that sometimes sounding / will make / and then / clouds would.”
“Arrangements” is somewhat easier to talk about. Critchley sticks to a stately and barbed direct address, with lots of tonal swerves, insults, imperatives, and inscrutably familiar insult-like gestures: “but I can’t be moved / any more, / not even your prosody bores me.” Poems can seem to be bitterly addressed to a former lover, or to a prospective lover, or to Charles Olson, somehow all at the same time.
Six poems in the middle are either addressed to, or written “for,” specific people, but even the poems that are not so labelled move with the assured sense that the addressee already knows what the poet is talking about. This gambit generates intimacy, and enough things look like “context clues” to send one back trying to reconstruct the larger argument. It’s a good thing there’s enough local excitement to reward rereading, because while certain salient bits can seem to constellate with other plausibly explanatory ones, the sense stays diffuse and refuses to sit tight while the reader works to fit things together.
Here’s a sentence from the first page, without line breaks: “The bus - which doesn’t have wings or settle in Greenwich - because of that park, that sky, where we each have trod probably even the same space at the same time only mythologizing.” Throughout the book, clear trains of thought splinter off from determinate meaning as the poem presses on: “There is no far out secret / looking for the rose-coloured mood. / First, dear one, but everybody / is so busy or loved, I doubt they would / parade for love. I see there is an / uniform, and talk. And we must catch a view.” Poems accrete ambiguities and bow beneath their weight like trees in an ice storm, which is a fun process to watch.
Aside from providing the pleasure of trying to keep up, this effect is meant to serve a particular purpose. Critchley is a philosophically rigorous poet who once good-naturedly responded to a friendly review of her work with a 65-footnote essay, and I think she would say she intends, especially in the first two poems, to stage something like the difficulty (“almost impossible”) of finding space for free action as one goes through life being interpolated against one’s will into pre-existing subject positions. That’s a mouthful, but Critchley is good at herding abstruse philosophical points into the maws of beauty: “And those thoughts fly overhead like geese getting / used to the moonlight.”
The first poem is titled, “Then you thought me up,” and later in the book we read, “Though I was wrong, so I am not wrong. / To tell you the facts, I am explaining somebody / else’s feeling. Though foolishly.” Her two epigraphs, the first line of La Divina Commedia and some lines from “In Cold Hell, in Thicket,” combine into an image of finding oneself thrown into the world and then struggling to abstract oneself out of it. The second poem sets the stakes most clearly: “God that we could raise ourselves up / out of the cold blueness of judgement / be nearly ourselves in / view of developing reason.” My sense of the gist of the first poem is: arrangements between people are occult and hard to manage, but we have poetry between us, which might be nothing.
Brendan White is a poet and local government employee who lives in Chicago.