The first day I started reading my copy of Adore, I accidentally spilled coffee on it. It blends in just fine, since the publisher’s own image is a pair of coffee rings on the back cover, but it’s also apropos, since the collection makes pervasive use of liquids throughout the set. In just seventeen pages I counted coffee (x2), Coke (x2), booze, whiskey, drink, “sticky amber,” sap (x2), “liquid heat,” blood (x5)/bled, sweat/sweaty, spit, piss, water (x2) and a whole roster of water-related words (condensation, rain, waves, tides, oceans (x3), lake, rivers, streams/streaming, a “spurting wet spring,” wet, soaked, dive/dove, drip (x2), and, for good measure, a baptism) for an average of almost three per poem. The point here is not just an attunement to physical matter, which is true of a lot of contemporary poetry, but to a specifically fluid physicality, a physicality in the constant process of change. A messy physicality. After all, most of these liquids leave stains.
Adore is a new chapbook of fifteen short poems (the longest is just a few dozen lines, not even two full pages) by our own C.M. Crockford. It charts the narrator’s progression between two “lyrical I”s: the first is an introverted observer, a drinker, an occasional flaneur, not brash or loud enough to be a Bukowski, but maybe closer to a mid-60s Leonard Cohen. The second is a tentative sort of proto-Whitman, ready to cast off the shackles of material (and thus imperfect) connection and to merge his individual self with a deeper, more abstract being.
The first “I” wants to connect with others but either fails or finds those connections too temporary to be satisfying. Whatever successful connections he’s experienced, they are all in the past. No explicit use of the word lonesome/loneliness appears until halfway through the set, but it’s implicit from the very first poem, where the narrator wanders Boston “longing again / for love’s safe places” and wondering whether “they” still think about him (“The Boston Nights”). This promise of a past that cannot be recreated, of people no longer in his life, hangs around his neck like an albatross, sometimes with a slight edge of irony (like the “blank ceilings seeing all we were,” in “Chintatown Skyline”), but most often ruefully:
We remember what was
preserve it in glass coffins and sticky amber.
So we can always peer
at what could have been.
His present relationships are more often ephemeral, tied repeatedly to the motif of smoke, as in “Chinatown Skyline” (“the smoke marks the sky / like a kiss on parted flesh”) and “The Fur Coat” (“She danced one more time / looking like dissipating smoke”). The past is unrecoverable, and people are always disappearing, a point pressed even deeper into his consciousness during a trip to England. The old city, “soaked in ghosts”, bears the scars of broken connections all around him, the “lying traces of memory”:
Who sat here before me?
What coupling echoes
can be just barely tasted?
Not for nothing is the collection dedicated to those “who’ve shared those Allston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco nights with me.” Past delight has left concrete traces of happiness on the lyrical I’s life (“obsidian, diamond / leftovers of liquid heat / burned into beauty”) (“New World”) but it also means that that “liquid heat” has cooled in the present. Loneliness grows out of the distance between what was and what is. In place of those missed connections, we get an attunement to hard physicality, to the material world as an anchor against the ephemeral even as it reminds him of its own temporality:
Drinks flow like blood in the temple.
Coffee cups, sticky plates.
Broken things get swept away
These physical objects are more than just exterior anchors, but also anchors of self, “Proving that I am tangible / A great, sharp scar” (“2:03 A.M.”). That self is not fully sufficient however, because the lyrical I’s goal of human connection requires an engagement with something outside the self, something not merely material. Sex offers only a temporary reprieve, and a messy one that requires “absolution” in the form of literal ablutions (“2:03 A.M.”) He promises her (us? himself?) “I’ll be clean, I’ll be beautiful again” (“Cool Masculine”), but these cycles of boozy sex and disappointment lead him inevitably to a feeling of sinfulness (“Follow Close Behind”): physical connection alone feels every bit as ephemeral to him as the smoke:
When it’s done
we peck wet cheeks.
I’ll never see her again.
(“Follow Close Behind”)
What he wants is something more transcendent, something that can slake the thirst of his poetic inclinations, and it’s here that the emergent, Whitmanesque “I” who occasionally surfaces in the collection finally dominates over the isolated wanderer. Left with his own song to sing (“Gnosis”), he chooses a barbaric yawp. He seeks abstraction first through a flurry of disconnected physical images (the only time in Adore where Crockford flirts with prose poetry), then through pure metaphor, and finally through bare verbs stripped of any other adornment. In that climax, it’s not only the poetic material but that liquid motif itself that becomes abstracted; on the heels of “tossing waters” and sweat and maple sap and messy sex, the narrator seeks the purely abstracted liquid of “our source”:
I’ll dive in the rivers
that channel it.
I’ll find the endless dream,
take its Name.
With the closing lines, we complete the movement from an I who longs to connect with others to an I who wills himself to connect with pure Being, from specific and unsatisfying interactions with individuals to an omni-embracing and transcendent communion, from the lacerating wind in Boston that opens the collection to the Crown of the Sephirot that closes it. We appreciate what was, we acknowledge what is, we lay claim to what will be.
The lyrical I faces two dangers here. The first is that this kind of attempt at transcendence may result in solipsism (his “own” song), a place where the world seems “to shape itself to my personalities” (“England Evening”), unchecked by skepticism or empathy for other perspectives. The second, related to the first, is that any dissatisfaction with that resulting world has nowhere to go but toward dissatisfaction with the self, the locus of that solipsistic world. Crockford’s lyrical I largely avoids this with a healthier balance between self-validation and doubt, between viewing himself and imagining how others view him, so we’re able to avoid both arrogance on the one hand and self-pity on the other:
I’m beautiful in the mirror.
But who knows what I am
In this other world?
There are some minor growing pains along the way. Some word choices are a bit infelicitous (e.g. that doubled -ing in “looking like dissipating smoke” falls flat for me), and I don’t know if the too-tentative Whitmanism of pieces like “The Break” really lands. Nor is it any accident that the best poems of the set are the most tightly structured. “New World” pares the language down to slim, controlled quatrains, while the two repeating lines in “We’ll burn in sound tonight…” (one is about “we,” one is about them, “the crowd”) separate across the interlocked stanzas until they recombine in the envoy, giving the piece a cohesion and thematic force that some of the other, freer pieces don’t quite achieve. I’ll beat my usual drum here and say that constraint forces inventiveness, and that’s a good thing.
Still, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, and I look forward to seeing what Crockford does next. We need only look at the final, repeating line — “I Will” — as a gesture not to the present but a promise to the future. Let that be a rhetorical down-payment on his future work.
Note: the featured image above is James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue and Silver: Chelsea (1871). An image of England painted by an American, a solitary figure against the mass of flowing water, it’s almost too good a fit here.
edit: forgot to add a note about the publisher, Iron Lung Press. Adore is currently sold out, but with luck there may be another printing. I’ll let the author handle those inquiries: y’all know where to find him!