Woods and Clouds Interchangeable by Michael Earl Craig
Wave Books, April 2019. 122 pp.
Reviewed by Leah Kiureghian
The Study Sips the Balmy Air
Woods and Clouds Interchangeable by Michael Earl Craig is a dynamic work. The book takes as its project interiority or, rather, every sort of interiority one can imagine. The strongest poems are concerned with the domestic: children, interiors, and food. In addition to the standard domestic interiors one expects, there are also the insides of hospital rooms, rooms in doll houses, outdoor spaces (if we think of a garden as a sort of exterior interior). Death and illness are also pervasive, though the customs and rituals surrounding death are not very separate from other domestic habits.
The descriptions of domestic interiors are some of the nicest moments in the book. From “Chunk of Sea Glass:” “A thunderstorm’s just passed through,/ I type that. And one of your windows/ is cracked slightly—the study sips the balmy/ air.” Another really lovely poem, “Gently Tapping Raviolis in a Pot of Boiling Water,” ends with the lines, “We feel refreshed, watching./ We feel rinsed./ It is the end of a very odd year./ A very odd year is finally coming to a close.” A puppy is introduced to the house by the speaker (in “Ice, Salad, Gloves”) who tips the puppy towards household items: “This is the lamp (I tip him toward it)./ Just look at this lampshade (I re-tip him).” This poem is funny but also wonderfully sweet. The speaker begins by showing and narrating and ends by letting the puppy choose what he wants to learn. When the puppy moves his eyes from the potted amaryllis (“a long tip”) to the cheese, the speaker obliges: “Cheese, I say, tipping him./Ice. Salad. Gloves.”
The poet retains this sort of gentle encouragement with a number of poems in the book that are not necessarily addressed to children, though they could be, and are set in the world of children—a world somehow separate from our own. In “How to Fix a Broken Butterfly Wing:” “Alice I thought you’d want to see this./ It’s over nine minutes long but worth it./ I am your uncle and not a butterfly expert/ but still it looks legit.” Or from “Eloise,” “A horse we all knew/ would stand there looking down/ his long face at us, blinking./ It was a simpler time, woods and clouds/ interchangeable.”
There is also a sequence of “Who Was” poems (“Who Was Franz Liszt,” “Who Was Joan of Arc”) which immediately bring to mind the popular books for children (Who Was Helen Keller? Who Was Abraham Lincoln?) that both give information and shrink context to child-size digestible bits (“it’s over nine minutes long but worth it”). These books, like Craig’s poems, are no less surreal for their brevity.
The book ends with a long, extended work, “Briskly Jerked Rugs,” which I found pretty thrilling—there is so much jammed into these final twenty pages: two six-line stanzas on each page. Indeed, the reader might feel briskly jerked by the volume—however tidily contained within the form—of absurd images: “I held onto the banister with both hands/ as you pulled my socks off. Sausage thunder/ shook the hostel. Feed only Pepsi to a gerbil.”
There are so many poems I want to quote in their entirety—which is, perhaps, the best endorsement I can offer for this book. Instead, here is one last excerpt, from “Thanksgiving.” In the poem, company is coming over and the poet has fallen asleep with a washcloth covering his face: “And one of them will come/ quietly over to me/ I will later be told/ and touch my temple gently with/ her boot.” The book itself is gently touching in a way that with other works can come across as saccharine. With Craig it simply comes across as attentive and the reader is happy, as the aforementioned puppy, to be introduced to Craig’s objects of attention.
Leah Kiureghian was raised in Arizona. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Brooklyn College. Her most recent work can be found in SAND and American Chordata.