raider's guide
Postcards from the Asylum
Our Life is a Box./ Prayers Without a God
Vertigo | a cantata |
The ink brushed distance

A Refractive Eye

Poetry Review - Jena Woodhouse


Our Life is a Box./ Prayers Without a God

MTC Cronin
SO13 modern poets
an imprint of papertiger media inc
Brisbane  Chiang Mai 2007


Those who read poetry will already be aware that MTC Cronin is no dilettante, but a poet serious about her art and her craft, intellectually and aesthetically audacious in her experimentation, a seeker and a risk taker. All of which is the case with Our Life is a Box./ Prayers Without a God, a dual collection in one volume which poses and responds to challenges on a number of levels, including the conceptual, the structural and the lexical.

There is evidence in Cronin’s oeuvre of a fascination with numbers, sequences and progressions, geometry and symmetry, permutation and combination. In the present collection there appears to be also, by coincidence or design, an awareness of Wittgenstein’s theories of logical atomism, logical form and picture theory of meaning, or perhaps this is overinterpretation on my part.  Whatever the nature of the work’s inception, the result is a sometimes austere elegance of thought, form and language. 

The volume opens with Our Life is a Box, a sequence of 81 numbered poems which carries an embedded narrative referred to by the poet as ‘the autobiography of a poetic’. This formulation may be intended as a warning not to interpret the events alluded to in the text too literally. The ambiguity this sets up creates tension between text and reader; the effect is encrypted rather than direct, but the impact is nonetheless visceral at times, as in the opening poem:

My liver burns now
But when your father
Shoots your mother
The footsteps of the leaves
fall around you
Softly, the sound of the gun,
placed on the kitchen table
Bird-patterned cloth wet with
what was inside her head
(one particular piece of grey,
the memory: dance floor with
his hand on the small of my back,
a few too many but just the right
number of whiskies)
Nobody says a word

for many years

Cronin has taken a scalpel to the language of this sequence, which is spare, sinewy, sinuous, yet able to accommodate lyrical intensity, in keeping with an intonantion that flexes from terse to intimate, connecting event and commentary, interior monologue and the exoskeleton of daily life.

Laudable as the notion and intention may be, experimentation with syntax and lexical function in contemporary poetry does not always produce coherent and credible results. Cronin’s work, however, here as in previous collections, is genuinely and skilfully innovative. She seems to have an unerring instinct for structural and lexical inventiveness, excising the superfluous and paring language to the bone, working with the musculature of language, discovering fresh means to creative ends.

Similarly, whereas the absence of punctuation can lead to a lack of clarity in less accomplished hands, or, worse still, an impression of affectation, Cronin’s work achieves coherence with minimal or no support from punctuation:

as my hand over the soft belly
of a cat
of this cat or of the one
that went before
asks for
or remembers
a day of libraries
off work
to find and think
what others have made
of this ease
this surrender
of the most arrogant
in need of no soul
as my hand would grow
into a child
small enough to pass unseen
who cries
take me with you
and hunger is all
that wakes you
not these shelves or contemplations
where we move our hands
not in perfect sleep
but over the page
where in every word I write
I want to put every other word
I could possibly write
or have ever written
the burden
of the heaviest pen
and a cat that sleeps
despite the twitch of a dream
pulling at this far corner
of the universe

Interposed like an intermezzo between the two sequences Our Life is a Box and Prayers Without a God is ‘A Litter of 14 Sonnets’, titled The Cats of Rome, which are mentioned in number 71 of the previous sequence. My term ‘intermezzo’ refers to the positioning, but the preoccupation with philosophy, ethics and also practicalities; the architectonic structure of these sonnets that segue effortlessly from one to the next, not separated by punctuation, is of such calibre as to constitute a tour de force.  

Prayers Without a God is a more intimate sequence of 77 lyric poems, unnumbered and untitled, some of which are almost aphoristic in style, form and tone:

this is what we learn
pessimism’s humour
the bad practice of optimism
against our wills
the waiting that is living
and the little laughter


I salute you
for living so long
for taking your own life

the root lifting itself
from its bed

love mines us
until the earth
is empty of us

At work in these poems there appears to be a consciousness that anatomises then dissects itself, and contemplates the fragments with a refractive eye. It is an awareness that strikes me as both insatiable and rigorous, employing sound-associations at the sub-semantic and even sub-lingual level, in addition to technical and tactical approaches mentioned previously and others not discussed here, which have the cumulative and collective effect of imbuing the work with freshness and vitality. Abstraction, a lexical reductiveness that employs words as objects with taxonomic precision, hones the edges of these poems to an incisive sharpness.

mountains are ideas
looking for sea-beds to lie in

our reality is the pleura
of the world

in the closed sac
oxygen bounces its ball

the cup for the shadow
is left on the shelf

At times there are echoes that reminded me of Ritsos:

little star over the balcony
do you have any feet to fall on?

does the ocean know it is in danger
from where you might land?

As ‘the autobiography of a poetic’, this is a collection to experience, to reflect upon and to revisit for its many nuances and resonances, and the subtleties of its ideas and associations. The complexity of thought that underpins many of the poems is reflected in the sophistication of lexis, syntax and form. The quality of production standards is also noteworthy. Our Life is a Box./ Prayers Without a God brings together provocative, exciting, accomplished work by a mature and gifted poet at the peak of her powers.


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