by Pamela L. Laskin
Gregory Crosby’s latest collection of poetry, Said No One Ever, is a nostalgic journey back through popular culture, music, art, form, birth and transformation as he explores the ghosts and the music of language. Ghosts since so many people Crosby has known and loved have died, and the way he keeps them alive is on the page. It comes as no surprise, then, to see a skeleton seated next to an old Victrola record player on the cover—yet another artifact of the past. He has immortalized those he loves, but it does not lessen the grief.
Of course, the book’s cover is red—blood red—bleeding profusely as Crosby’s poems demand of you because these are poems, “Often on the verge of tears all day/ gazing down at the white sail, black waves. Sometimes a greater notion prevails” (“September” 68). It is as if these ghosts are companions to a world we once knew, a longed-for world, that Crosby recreates through his brilliant, scathing, ironic and often quite beautiful diction. Though, the past can never die because Crosby is here to give it to us in a world where, “he does not want to go fast. I want Eternity curled up on my lap” (Vox and Echo 18).
And “Eternity” is surely what we get. It comes on “Highway 44;” “Back on the Chain Gang” in the ghosts of his Dad, his grandfather, his Mom, his brother, his friends Julie and David Carradine. There are so many deaths of those he has loved that we have come to live in a world where, “Thousands of sphinxes are standing by. /They’re ready to take your call.” And in the end “You hobble toward them/bent like a question mark” (43). Not only has so much died, but it is gone, “sometimes even the signs/and there’s nothing but dark water / where the road bows to the world” (“Charleston Underpass” 74).
Is this bleak enough? There is so much death here, so much darkness and mental illness (the first section” St. Valentine’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane is entrenched in this horror), that I found myself at times weeping. But then—surprise—like a magician, Crosby demonstrates another side, a playful side, as in “Ghazal (Not Guzzle)” where:
It has no end, thirst.
It will not bend, thirst.
Pump your own heart
if you would attend thirst.
Fill your mouth with stones
if you would befriend thirst (67).
He is a conjurer, whipping feelings figuratively “out of a hat.” This is one of many poems where Crosby displays what I would call literary gymnastics. He plays with words, manipulates them, squeezes all the juices out of the language, so the reader is left with only awe—a kind of what just happened here? These verbal contortions fill up every poem, so in “Light Verse” it is evident that words are intended to be nuanced as he employs synonymous, homonyms, all kinds of word play. You can imagine Crosby laughing over language as over a glass of wine when he says, “you know/the kind/ that shines at/shin-level/glows like/another word/for star/when the day/grows dark/& the sun/withdraws from the stanza” (82).
We are left “with all the ideas in them” (82). This line, suggesting encyclopedias contained in every poem, reveals a brilliant mastery of language play. Feelings are meant to shine eternal, even when the sun goes to sleep; in this case, withdrawing from the stanza. It is obvious Crosby is having so much fun with his diction, and the best part is that he draws the reader into this vision in such a hypnotic way—just with one line such as, “withdrawing from the stanza.”
Indeed, Crosby’s intellect, his playfulness, his love of form and content, is visible in all the structures he employs (not just the ghazal, but the villanelle, the sonnet and others), and also in the language. He is gifted at his craft and has the intellect to support his wild word acrobatics. Of course, in all of this is his passion and joy with the world, his love of the beautiful and sublime: “Strange to slowly wake/ with in and in a mourning wood/ aroused, stiff/with sleep & wonder/….I can still see/your face, farawayclose;/ your eyes, open and closed/ your astonished kiss” (“Isn’t It Good” 97). The language is consistently beautiful, whether it is encased in a form-or in free verse. Consider in “A Wave (Your Name Here)”:
The river’s glass, the air’s unclear.
There’s a frog deep in the throat of time
each answer begins I fear….
The river’s glass….
Now begins your promising career:
the hour’s handmaid, hammer and chime.
The gaze, shanghaied, that steps off the pier
Into the river’s glass.
Isn’t it good that Gregory Crosby’s Said No One Ever has given us the gift of magic—of the depth of sorrow and the heights of joy? Isn’t it good that the book is so impractical as to suggest the power of the unknown is grounded in what lies beyond the naked eye—what we conjure out of a hat? In the last poem of the book, “Catechism,” Crosby makes us aware of these powers, “To turn language into a hat upon/a table& to lift it, revealing/ neither the head nor tail of a coin, but a solid block of ice. A miracle/of rare device./The endless hours of/patience/practice. The rabbit,/twitching in darkness, waiting/to be pulled into the light./Who is the poet? One who re-enchants/the disenchanted” (175). Gregory Crosby has pulled many terrific rabbits out of his bag of fancy tricks and left us with marvelous enchantment.
In the end, with are still left with the ghosts and the beauty of language. I left the book feeling both mystified and haunted by a section from “The Aubades”:
1X (Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost):
Too many hours spent with the ghosts
of the living meant there was nothing
left for the dead. A woman sat down
at the far end of the table, a sun
setting over a desolate tableau,
Picturesque & emptied (emptied? Of what?).
Her eyes wavered like lit tapers, her words
Clear & steady. She said, Forgive me for not
Forgiving either this world or the next.
The next world! We had a laugh at that.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Next! Someone poured
More wine into a glass, darkly. We sat.
Silence is always companionable;
it’s always with us. It misses nothing (105).
Indeed, Crosby can write the ghosts away more beautifully than anyone, but they are always with us.
Pamela L. Laskin is a lecturer in the English Department at City College, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate Children’s Writing, and directs the Poetry Outreach Center. Several of her children’s and poetry books have been published. RONIT AND JAMIL, A Palestinian/Israeli ROMEO AND JULIET in verse was published by Harper Collins in 2017, and was named among the35 books to have on your radar for 2017. BEA, a picture book, was a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize for Children’s Fiction. She is the winner of the 2018 International Fiction Prize from Leapfrog Press, and WHY NO BHINE, an epistolary novel about the Rohinya Muslims, was published in 2019. The Operating System recently published a bilingual picture book, MONSTER MARIA, which is about Hurricane Maria, and is being used as a fundraiser for after-school programs in Puerto Rico. Linus Press recently published MY SECRET WISH about families seeking asylum, and also being used as a fundraiser.
Follow her: twitter@RonitandJamil and follow her blog: http://PamelaLaskin.blogspot.com/