Before the First Word: The Poetry of Lorna Crozier edited by Catherine Hunter

Lorna Crozier is a knowledgeable poet and a worthy matriarch for Canadian poetry. Before the First Word: The Poetry of Lorna Crozier is a part of a new wise series of texts from Wilfrid Laurier University Press that strive to bring Canadian poets to a larger audience. Without pretence and with an eye to producing the effect of improvisation, these collections come selected and introduced by a critic with an afterword from the poet represented. This project is one of the most exciting, cooperative, communal and familial endeavours that I have seen coming out of the poetry establishment in the past few years and all of my praise goes out to Wilfrid Laurier Press for their efforts.

The poems of Lorna Crozier selected for this collection show a poet in control — a poet with a strong, confident narrative voice. Catherine Hunter, in her introduction to the selection, focuses on the retelling of Biblical stories and the feminist overtones in Crozier’s work. While I acknowledge this appreciation, it is one that seems easily guessed at and does not convey a round impression of Crozier’s work or development as a poet.

In the five poems that form the beginning of this collection (selected from Crozier’s The Garden Going On Without Us), we see a poet actively seeking liberation. “Poem About Nothing” depicts numerous “zero’s” and in the poem “Onions” there are also three o’s: “O,O,O” (10). It is hard not to read orgasmic potentials into these poems, especially when we read the first stanza of “Carrots”:

Carrots are fucking
the earth. A permanent
erection, they push deeper
into the damp and dark.
All summer long
they try so hard to please.
Was it good for you,
was it good?

The sexuality is vicious, acutely replying to the “power-dominating sexuality of the male.” Crozier is stretching for a voice that is just as strong and forcible. She is making it proper for the female parlance to speak this way. Crozier is to be credited for her audacity, bravery and honesty to herself.

The dialogue with “the aggressive male” is one that runs throughout Crozier’s work. In “Male Thrust,” selected from Angels of Flesh, Angels of Silence, the difference between comedy and commentary is not always easy to distinguish. The poem takes as its epigraph a quote from Anthony Burgess: “I can take no pleasure from serious reading… that lacks a strong male thrust” (16). Burgess is often known for his humorous witticism and asides, but Crozier might have a sinister or damning stance to take:

This poem bends its knees
and moves its groin.
It does the Dirty Dog
at parties.

This is not the first time that the Crozier begins a poem with the declarative, self-referential statement “This poem.” I suspect that the sentiment here is overwhelmingly critical of what it allows or performs at least in this first section. It proceeds:

It pushes
against cloth, against
the page. It pokes
between the lines.

The description here is clearly sexual. Its playfulness, punning and double-entendres are not chastising in this case but are humorous and even inviting. The middle of the poem then provides more humorous anecdotes of “the male thrust” alongside references to a literary culture—to suggest, perhaps, that men dominate literary culture. There is no double meaning in this part of the poem, but in the end, the poem again doubly identifies itself in a very interesting way:

This poem won’t stop.
Even when you close the book
you can hear it
making obscene sounds,
smacking its lips,
completely in love
with itself.

Is it the poem that is in love with itself or the “male thrust”? Or both? Are they synonymous in a male-dominated literary culture? The poem is very humorous on first glance, but its deeper meaning may be too sharp even for the “sharp-edged male” to bear.

In one other poem, the picture of male aggressive will is further considered and elaborated upon. In “The Wild Boys,” from Everything Arrives at the Light, she writes: “It was the wild ones you loved best” (29). The image of the over-sexed male is deliberately over-sexualized. In the second stanza she writes:

Under the glare of the outdoor lights
you watched them bang
their hard bodies against the boards,
gloves and sticks flying.

Puns and double-entendres fly every which way. But notice “who” is possessing “whom” here. It is a back and forth and the relationship is never entirely reconciled:

How you loved
to move inside the shape of them,
the smell of sweat and leather
kissing your skin. For months
you wore their hockey rings
wound with gauze and tape
as if one day
you’d need to bind a wound.

Crozier makes the sex “wild” this time, but also makes it strictly collaborative according to her rules. Even if the boys are the braggarts it is understood to be a doubly-active act. And this time Crozier/narrator does not play double agent:

and [the wild boys] told anyone who’d listen
what they’d done to a girl
the night before
though in the narrow darkness
of a car or on a blanket
by the dam where eels slid
just beneath the surface, you knew
you did it to each other
and the words they said were sweet.

The last stanza of the poem is the most interesting. There is the customary conclusion on the price of innocence prematurely lost, but there is also so much more. The stanza begins by telling us that these wild boys “showed you what you really / wanted from this life.” Still these “wild boys” are inescapably shown to be vulnerable documents, like a frail piece of paper at risk of tearing to the touch:

it is their brokenness
you long to touch, the parts
they left behind or lost
as they learned too soon
too many year ago
what it took and took
to be a man.

This is the most evolved representation of Crozier’s vision of men in relationship to literary culture. It is one not without strain and repression, but it is still full of tender emotion and compassion. Elsewhere, in poems like “Watching My Lover,” Crozier demonstrates that “tough compassion.” As she says in her afterword, “Resistance is often the place where poetry starts” (56). For me, this is the best of what Crozier has to offer, not when she utters a polemical voice of feminist poetics but when she assumes a troubling voice or position and discloses and conceals the subtleties of her tough love.