I once saw Michael Earl Craig give a reading in Missoula, a town where he spent some years of his life living in a rented room on the top floor of the Hellgate Elk’s Lodge. He told a story about living there, how on the sidewalk below his window there was a working payphone, and sometimes when a stranger was about to walk by it, he would call. They might pick up or they might not. If they did pick up, he’d say, “This is the voice of fate calling.”
Turns out, he made a lot of friends that way. The playful imagination of calling that payphone is a good metaphor for reading Craig’s new book of poetry, Woods and Clouds Interchangeable (Wave Books, 2019). In this collection of poems, acts of shared imagination create communities while fraught relationships are often signaled by frustrated endeavors to share in creative, sometimes surreal, impulses.
Formally, the poems in the collection vary from the recognizable to the experimental. On a language level, the work is in conversation with the best of that set of poets whose biographies suggest a calculated primitivism: Frank Stanford, C.D. Wright, the people who one pictures writing their poems in a barn, a stubby drafting pencil held in fingers calloused from work. In fact, Craig, former poet laureate of Montana, is a bit of a legend in the literary circles of the North for being a professional farrier. Craig can write the poem you’d imagine a man who shoes horses for a living might write, but he also knows how to play on our expectations of grit and Americana to slip in sharp insights underneath those guises.
In his craft book, The Art of Recklessness, Dean Young writes that “the highest achievement of human consciousness is imagination, and the highest achievement of imagination is empathy.” It seems every poem in Woods and Clouds Interchangeable evokes Young’s aphorism in the way that Craig’s characters either connect or fail to connect with one another through shared or refused imagination. Sometimes this theme takes the form of a plea for empathy between imaginative beings. One of the best examples is in “The Problem”:
The insect said
to the rabbit
the problem is
I know who my
heroes are and
I know who your
heroes are. You
only know who
your heroes are.
What? said rabbit.
The insect trusts their own imagination in an endeavor for connection but is met with a refusal to reciprocate. The ending of this poem makes it one of the best short poems I’ve read in recent years, but I won’t spoil it for you.
In a poem titled “Town,” Craig shows how a shared surrealism can bring an entire community together. Many different characters create a dynamic community through unique imaginative interpretations of one surreal phenomena—namely, a hog on a small raft floating down a river in front of a crowd gathered for a festival on the banks: “‘It’s a greased hog on a raft with / maybe leeches,’ someone said. / ‘It’s not grease,’ someone said. ‘It’s maybe sunscreen,’ someone said.” This guessing continues among people of the town until the leeches take on positive qualities of kindness: “‘If those are leeches,’ / said a young mother holding her baby, / ‘I say they’re friendly leeches.’ / ‘Leeches ain’t always evil,’ said another.” The poem ends with an eye of youth aimed towards the future of the community:
Then the baby who was maybe six months old said
He blinked, working his fingers.
“That’s our greased hog.”
His voice was deep and calm.
“Covered with opportunistic leeches.”
Craig renders the characters and social ecosystems throughout this collection with such a surety of voice that one can hear the deep baritone of a six-month-old making a declaration about the hog floating down the river. In Woods and Clouds Interchangeable, insight is found in unexpected places, but a reader who opens themselves to this work’s imagination will come to understand the voice we least expect is often the truest.
In terms of scope, the collection’s table of contents suggests a global and omnivorous poetic. Titles like “Who Was Pontius Pilate,” “Who Was Franz Liszt,” and “Don Cheadle Poem” imply a broad historical attention. A juxtaposition of “Giant Hotel Fern” and “Who Was Simone Weil” clues readers to Craig’s agility to move between the quotidian and the highbrow. The political implications of these poems reveal themselves through irony and understatement, and their critiques are more concerned with ethics than policy. The poem “NPR” begins with a deceptively simple yet shocking occasion: “The doctors were cutting a man’s head off.” It then continues by narrating a surreal domestic scene in which two people argue lightly over the specifics of a head-transplant operation while they eat dinner. As many reviews of this work note, Craig is a master of a surrealism that never strays too far toward the inertia of absurdism or nihilism. By the end of “NPR,” a reader is led to contemplate the passivity with which we consume the easy moralizing presented to us daily by contemporary media. Perhaps my favorite poem of the collection, “Who Was Joan of Arc,” characterizes the historical figure with some contemporary allusions and vernacular, then questions our mythologizing of her while evoking modern anxieties: “It’s / believed there were / more than one of / her. Unlike the / rest of us she / had just one ex- / ecutioner.” In terse, staccato lines, Craig cuts easily to the heart of our cultural memory and derives new insights from familiar stories.
The collection’s closing poem is a tongue-in-cheek ode to the brevity of modern consciousness and the arbitrary nature of poetic conventions. “Briskly Jerked Rugs” performs exactly that motion through disorienting enjambments, metrical gymnastics, and Easter egg allusions to many disparate spheres of culture. Over nineteen pages, the playful lyric narrative nods to canonical works by Frost and Ashbery, but also sustains overt references to Jaws and the art of Duchamp. At times, non sequiturs enact a James Tate poem in limbo: “A volley of candied patter issued forth without warning. / The asininity surprised Barb.” Overall, it’s a delightful ride through orderly paired sestets which lend a dimension of control to the entropic content. Craig is weird, but never to the point of illegibility. “Briskly Jerked Rugs” follows the implications of many earlier motifs to their logical conclusions, and then keeps going.
Woods and Clouds Interchangeable is an affecting collection for anyone in search of an honest language for the mutability of contemporary perception. For me, this book reads like that anachronistic payphone in Missoula that Craig used to call, not ringing with anything so prescriptive as the voice of fate, but rather an impulse toward collaborative acts of imagination to create the world and each other.