Not Even Laughter by Phillip Crymble
From Salmon Poetry and the lovely Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland, comes Phillip Crymble’s first full-scale collection Not Even Laughter. Crymble, born in Belfast, a teacher for many years at the University of Michigan, and now based in New Brunswick, has published many of these poems in Canada (Arc, CV2, Fiddlehead, Malahat), the US, UK, Ireland, and Australia, so it is intriguing and timely to see them assembled in a well-thought-out whole.
Crymble is a deftly formal poet, by which I mean that his interest in metrics and traditional forms flies subtly under the radar, informing and shaping his work at what feels like a molecular, as opposed to a rigidly skeletal, level. “The Bird Cage,” for example, is a dexterously fluid Spenserian sonnet that wears its formal learning lightly. In his notes, Crymble is generous in his acknowledgment of other poets who, like him, have worked at the edges of form and breakage: Robert Lowell, Robert Pinsky, Theodore Roethke. Always that fluidity in the lines, working powerfully across their “formal” elements: “As if the ritual of making kept / him safe, and in providing there was space / enough for love. The other lessons I forget” (“Onions”).
The most accomplished poems in the collection, by which I mean the poems that best show us what Crymble can do, are those found in “Domestic Reel,” the first section of Not Even Laughter. These poems of the everyday disclose the mixed emotional consequences of nostalgia. “Tomatoes” deftly modulates from an unexpected receipt of a letter containing old newspaper clippings to an embedded memory of what lies beneath: “A wheel for sharpening. Dim electric / light. The years of quiet violence. What that was like,” the laconic final words not cancelling out but amplifying, rather, the menace uncovered.
As the title “Domestic Reel” suggests and foreshadows, film offers crucial intertexts for Crymble, and his section of poems “Answer Print” contains many of these film-centric poems. (The title refers to the first version of a film printed after the processes of colour grading and sound mixing have been completed.) These poems stake out the territory of the film aficionado, and as such may be a bit more difficult to access for those lacking the requisite expertise. The issue is not, to my mind, one of simple referencing but the frequency of that referencing: “Harry Callahan inevitably / comes up, Lalo Schifrin film scores, the Walkin’ Boss / in Cool Hand Luke, Boss Godfrey, and how Conrad Hall / shot Newman pinned against the walls of those Ray Ban / Aviator lenses” (“Sing Out”). I think of some of Michael Ondaatje’s film poems which, while they are not generally recognized as among his best (Bart Testa once snottily remarked that Ondaatje “has expressed a vulgar taste in films”), are engaging partly because they take a film as their point of departure but then allow consequent meditations to spool out from that reference.
Philip Crymble is a poet who richly deserves the fuller hearing that a collection like this one affords; he is adept at the half-shades of emotion, beautifully captured in a poetics that is itself a half-measure of formal structure and release.
Returning to Crymble’s “domestic reels,” these poems are outstanding and, in the final event, more searching than the film poems because they strike a complicated stance: a wry recognition of the way in which beauty, like nostalgia, discloses a harsher affective landscape. However, Crymble typically does not stop there, with an unmasking of a “real” post-romantic substratum. Instead, his speakers search gamely on, to espy hope amid the ruins. To return once again to those compelling final lines from “Onions,” the speaker’s frying of yellow onions irresistibly calls to mind his father’s return from his night shift; as a child, the speaker would awake in the morning to the aromatic remnants of that “greasy sweetness”—a prefiguring of the traces of the father’s life that remain distantly accessible to the now grown son:
As if the ritual of making kept
him safe, and in providing there was space
enough for love. The other lessons I forget.
This is complicated nostalgia, no easy perfumed remembrance (as the invocation of onions rightly would pungently suggest). And once the speaker pushes through to reach for the possibility of “love” that he grasps for, longs for, in this memory, he is quick to step back, into an inverse testimony that is powerful in its reticence. “The other lessons I forget.” But not this one.
In a collection full of such deft explorations of the mixedness of our emotional take on the world, the gritty mixture of our nostalgias, it is sometimes surprising to see that Crymble doesn’t consistently trust his readers to bring the poem home for themselves; some endings offer a surprising heavy handedness. “How ominous,” the poem “Theremin” ominously ends, when the notes sounded just before have already done this work: “its [the thermin’s] tremolo / tones repeat themselves like history.” Ominousness achieved: no need for a signpost. Or in “The Roxy,” whose concluding line reads: “What we can’t make up—the horror of the real.” The distance between these closures and the twilight complexity of “The other lessons I forget” is considerable.
Phillip Crymble is a poet who richly deserves the fuller hearing that a collection like this one affords; he is adept at the half-shades of emotion, beautifully captured in a poetics that is itself a half-measure of formal structure and release. In an accomplished poem, “Little Light,” the speaker muses on a small votive candle on his desk that he has lit after having neglected and allowed it to collect dust for some months. The fragrance, he notes, has the power to “disguise[s] / all the ugly things—the things we know / as primitive, obscene.” But once again Crymble doesn’t stop there, with the unmasking of the atavistic beneath the veneer of fleeting beauty, for lovely perfume and ugly obscenity are not there to be imagined as separate; as he says of his candle, and as he might well say of poetry itself, “It also warms that leaves / us cold.”
Phillip Crymble was the poetry winner of the 2016 Thomas Morton writing contest with his poem, “Paydays,” judged by Jan Zwicky.
Lorraine York is the Senator William McMaster chair in Canadian Literature and Culture at McMaster University. The author of numerous scholarly collections, her most recent projects include co-editing Beyond “Understanding Canada”: Transnational Perspectives On Canadian Literature (University of Alberta Press, 2017) and Celebrity Cultures in Canada (WLUP, 2016).