(New York: Persea Books, 2020)
By middle-age, youth is a private letter tucked inside an envelope. No matter what emotions it stirs by looking back over it, the very fact of its presence makes one thing clear: We each contain the consciousness of another—preferences, hopes, hurts, disappointments, secret joys. Who is that in relation to the person we each think of as “myself”?
Ghost Hour, Laura Cronk’s ruminative second collection of poems, delves deeply into this question of identity. Divided into three parts, the poems examine childhood and other origins, a formative relationship that defines the speaker’s adolescence, and adulthood, each seen through the prism of midlife.
Two poems are called “Ancestry,” underlining its importance. The first, which opens the collection, acknowledges the presence of multiple selves: “I never know who is looking / out from my eyes.” A long line of ancestors stands ready to step into action, depending on the task. As a harried mother dragging a neighbor’s child to the bus stop, the speaker recognizes “the onion farmer in me / against the army vet in him,” whereas it’s the “poet who had séances” who’s “glad to be playing on the floor with the baby.” There are blue collar workers, athletes, musicians, two sets of twins, one pair of which is “arguing about my outfit, / but I don’t have time to change.” Most stifling of all are the ones who “never made their mark or even had a trade. / Everyday we leave together. They walk me to the train.” Somehow there’s the implication that the speaker’s vocation is the one thing that allows her to distinguish an experience as her own, and leave the voices behind—at least temporarily.
The word “If” begins the second “Ancestry” and hangs over it: If my grandfather really was a racist, the speaker wonders, what does that make me? She’d previously thought of him as “the quiet Appalachian clock maker,” remembering him as “the kind one, the gentle one.” Yet something has now happened to prompt her imagining him “putting on hoods and robes.” “If he marched with the others / ghostly but unbothered,” she speculates, that recurring “if” acknowledges the continued presence of doubt. Only one single-line stanza begins differently: “I resisted knowing.” Yet even the possibility of culpability engages the speaker’s sense of responsibility and ignites the fire of activism.
Racism is likewise felt in the poem “White,” an acknowledgment and renunciation of the speaker’s privilege-as-birthright: “My children are white. / I’m just as white. / Writing it I’m not less white.” The poem goes on to evoke a picture of suburban ignorance, complacency, and righteousness: Lazy sunbathers checking their tan lines, forgoing their hairspray to combat holes in the ozone layer, while burning through natural resources under the eye of a god-like, vengeful sun.
“Before” marks the clear demarcation of youth and after. The speaker seems startled to remember herself as “exquisitely thin,” and “so broke”—a phase, different than being poor. She comments on these states of being more than once, cementing their importance as long-ago facts. Home is some small town place, with “over-fertilized bean fields and half-closed factories and wet / asphalt.” Central is romance: “the vapor that was me and the vapor that was you.”
In “Dear Autobiography,” the speaker, 40-years-old, sits on a train, “watching the backs of buildings flash by in the dark.” “I give myself this time when I’m officially / nowhere,” she says of her commute spent writing, suggesting other demands on her time when she’s elsewhere. Bubbling up to consciousness is the memory of an important person she lived with in college, when they had “just broken out of the chrysalis of / childhood,” still wearing “children’s sized pajamas,” listening to “lesbian folk,” “our hands in each other’s hair.” The memory blooms into a scene, but somehow the remembered person remains unclear. “We loved each other and / we loved the same boy and he loved us and another girl,” the speaker recalls, elsewhere saying, “We were a brother and sister with a cat sitting / between us.” In a kind of coaxing out of the speaker’s true self, the friend encourages her to dance under the shadows of the trees at night, and another kind of shapeshifting occurs: “The trees became boyish and girlish and we / became trees.” Adolescence seems magical, full of unlimited possibility, whereas adult life is “quick fixes and workarounds.”
The second part of the collection showcases a single long poem, “As Made.” Another important relationship is considered, a boy the speaker meets when they were twelve. “Is it a kind of queerness, / loving someone queer?” she wonders, recounting “my story / of our story / of being young.” She tries to imagine his coming out, going over experiences and filling in details she likely missed. “Am I getting any of this right?” she wonders. “Am I getting any of this / right at all?” “We’re both alive, but this is an elegy,” she determines, yet the experience isn’t just something that happened — it continues to affect her. “Our young selves / are gone, as much / as anyone or anything / that has ever lived is gone. / Which is to say / never over.”
The poems in the third part of the collection contend with adulthood, and in poems like “What to Eat,” womanhood specifically. “Thirst” introduces a struggle with sobriety, and “Dusk” takes it to the mat. “I just want to be pushed / against a wall and kissed / by a drink,” she ventures. “I want / to be unspooled / by a drink,” she later says. “I want / the privacy of a drink,” she determines. “I want / the taste of oblivion,” she affirms. Finally, at dusk, the desire’s laid bare:
In the ghost hour
is really gone,
I want a drink.
Cronk tempers the collection with more humorous selections. In “Like a Cat,” a feline-hating partner is closely observed and found to have a lot in common with what he despises. The seemingly flat, “unpoetic” names of “Weather Poem,” “Vegetarian Poem,” “Love Poem,” “Poem of Attraction,” “Poem of Chance,” and “What Poems Are” all demonstrate a sense of playfulness and experimentation that coax out new ideas, for both poet and reader, about what constitutes a poem.
In its direct observation of feeling and plainspoken vernacular, “Mother Poem” feels akin to the best of Marie Howe’s work. For the speaker, motherhood doesn’t feel distinct from the rest of her,
it feels like
taking a small hand
Motherhood is further explored in “Garden of Earthly Delights.” The speaker begins by noting her observations as a singular person: “I forget, always / that we are on a hill,” taking in the surroundings as if from that great distance of solitude:
a black iron bridge,
an elevated highway.
Yet urban life proves to be a kind of paradise where the speaker finds community with other mothers. That single instance of “I” becomes a recurring, emphatic “We,” who lend and borrow what’s necessary, assist with “moving heavy things,” and help raise each other’s kids “in this city / of their first memories.”
“Portrait of the Summer Husband” doesn’t close the collection, but it brings the mood full circle. The speaker, on her way to the train at the start, is now met by her husband “halfway on my walk home / from the train.” The traditional gender roles are reversed. He packs the lunches; she’s presumably the bread winner. The couple is just starting out and the promise of youth infuses everything with a sense of possibility:
The heat was a thrill, incessant.
There was your hand with its new
ring. Your lips.
The past is often spoken of as something that haunts us. Ghost Hour suggests something more complex. Memories aren’t simply static remembered moments of life as it once occurred, but things that continue to change as we do. Cronk’s collection is a stirring invitation to reacquaint ourselves with who we once were, and to discover how that person continues to change.
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Michael Quinn reviews books for Publishers Weekly, literary journals, in a monthly column for the Brooklyn newspaper The Red Hook Star-Revue, as well as for his own website, mastermichaelquinn.