There is a disorienting, though familiar, quality to Talkativeness, the new collection of poems by Michael Earl Craig. I’m ashamed to admit that, although I have run across his poems in journals, I had never spent any real time with Craig’s work. Perhaps this is why reading the first half of this collection felt a bit dreamlike (enjoyable nonetheless).
I found my footing nearly halfway through the collection Craig’s poem “Tap Water” when we are given a starting point:
I live in an experimental town.
We have 17 cops and the only thing
any one of them can say, ever, is
“That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
Michael Earl Craig lives in Livingston, Montana, which I begin to imagine as Cicely, Alaska, or Melon, Utah; a quirky, small town where perversion juxtaposes Americana. I begin to understand more clearly Craig’s deadpan delivery, simple language and hushed pacing, the black humor of it all. Interestingly enough, I find this starting point similar to what Richard Hugo describes as a Triggering Town, relaying the sentiment that once a poem starts somewhere, it is free to go anywhere.
There’s an absurdity—an irony—to the poems that make up Talkativeness. Craig has masterfully crafted a marriage of the macabre and mundane in the poem “Connect Four” with lines like:
A group of dark turkeys steps
as turkeys often do from the woods
and moves unsteadily toward the house.
It’s like our throats are about to be slit
I say, laughing nervously.
While many of the poems throughout this collection carry a torch for dark, comedic poetics, Craig also has a knack for crafting laugh-out-loud moments in his poems. One such poem, “What Will I Call This Poem”, offers a glimpse into these moments:
While sitting in the plane a man
struggling with his bags puts
his ass against my head for what
(corduroys) feels like a full
He goes on to document a half dozen or so silly Seinfeld-esque moments that we’ve all experienced while flying the friendly skies, my favorite of which is this passage:
It seems peanuts have made their complicated way
back into our lives. I am rehearsing the words
The next time I fly back to my hometown, or to the coast, I’ll anticipate that tiny party-cupped, half can of soda and say to myself a few times, “Ginger Ale,” and I’ll, without a doubt, think of Michael Earl Craig’s poem.
There is an understated intimacy that prevails throughout Talkativeness. One can imagine these poems as quiet thoughts or traded among good friends over a beer. They are holding your breath and trying not to laugh at a funeral. Another poem that chuckles like a fart in church is, “Wild For The Lord”:
Someone is sitting on a tall stool before me.
I have just very carefully cut
my best friend’s wife’s bangs.
My watch feels like a small corpse on my wrist tonight.
Like old men drinking coffee in a small town diner, all of the aforementioned qualities gather, ostensively, around Michael Earl Craig’s Lynchian table in the second to last poem of this collection, “Perhaps You See Where I’m Heading.” He begins the poem conversationally by nonchalantly addressing their argument, they being the self-crowned, I-know-I’m-right, nose-to-the-sky Old Guard naysayers that claim all the important Po-Ems have been written:
They say that poetry is dead. Or that
it might still live, but only
for insiders. Like the vintage
Corvette owners who work only
on each other’s old Corvettes.
Craig stokes the fire, pushes buttons; the state of poetry lacking seriousness from the perspective of the throne:
I say maybe, thumbing through my
Hasselhoff Dossier. This further
infuriates. The hoods are always
blue or silver. Or red. Or black
with silver stripes. Or tan.
And then like a modern day, poetic Robin Hood, Craig goes on an eighteen stanza crusade to take back what belongs to the poets, sewing together a myriad of macabre, mundane, shrewdly humorous vignettes making his case against said vintage Corvette owners. While it did take me a bit to figure out where he was indeed headed, his highly imaginative you’ll know it when you see it episodes led me by the hand until it was clear; not only is poetry not dead, it is alive, well and anywhere you are willing to accept it, whether you understand it or not:
I have to confess that only sometimes am I with you.
I kneel and touch the tranquilized gorilla’s face.
The zookeeper says I have about ten more seconds.
A wailing baby articulates the petroglyphs. Ruminations.
Gesticulations and orations. Perhaps you see where I am heading.
The stance of this poem would have been a fine curtain call. Yet, instead, Michael Earl Craig treats us to one last reflection, perhaps a comment on the magic, the mystery, and self-discovery of being a maker:
I took the rubber band from the deck of cards. “Solitaire, or
patience, as it used to be called,” I said to myself, “is said to
provide entertainment for one person.” Then, without hesita-
tion, I buckled the deck in one hand and sort of sprayed the
cards from that hand to the other, in a confident manner that
In the end, Talkativeness left me wanting more. I immediately ordered a copy of Craig’s previous collection, Thin Kimono, and have been thumbing them both on a regular basis. So many things can be said for the brilliance of his poems, but it’s the intimacy and awareness found Michael Earl Craig’s work that encourages us to take notice of the poems that continue on, unfolding around us, even after the book is closed. Sometimes it’s laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes it’s sinister. But it’s almost always startling to take notice.
Talkativeness, by Michael Earl Craig. Seattle, Washington: Wave Books. 104 pages. $18.00, paper.
Kyle Harvey’s first collection of poems Hyacinth (Lithic Press) was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. He is the editor of Fruita Pulp, an online poetry journal. Winner of the Mark Fischer Poetry Prize in 2013, his poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in American Life in Poetry, Colorado Journeys, Fat City Review, Grand Valley Magazine, and Heavy Feather Review.