Arsenic Lobster poetry journal
Issue Twenty
Summer 2009
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Review
Chris Crittenden, Gordian Butterflies
April 2009, 23 pp

In the summer of 2006, I became an associate editor for Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal. The first poem I earmarked for publication was Chris Crittenden's "Orange In The Desert", an exquisitely lovely poem despite opening with "rot" and "mildew" and closing with "bat goop".

I was not alone in seeing Crittenden's talent: over 400 of his poems have been published, in prestigious print journals such as Chelsea and The Atlantic Review, and a slew of online journals, such as Drunken Boat, The Rose & Thorn, DMQ Review and Octavo. In fact, every poem in his fifth and latest chapbook, Gordian Butterflies, has been previously published. One of them — "Weapon Possessed" — was submitted by the editor at Raving Dove to nominate Crittenden for the Best New Poets annual anthology.

A little about Crittenden's background: after earning his Ph.D. in philosophy with a concentration in ethics, he moved to a remote area in the easternmost part of Maine. He works as a part-time professor of ethics at the University of Maine Machias, a liberal arts college committed to the environment, where he teaches environmental ethics.

Gordian Butterflies is a testament to Crittenden's deep sense of concern for, and connectedness to, the environment. Throughout the collection, he meditates on the essential nature of nature, those aspects of his subjects without which, they would be some other thing altogether.

In many of these poems, bugs, reptiles and invertebrates are anthropomorphized, given human characteristics: these black-clad clones / are sexton beetles ("Proselytizers"), are you tadpole or anaconda? ("Pain"), and we move across each other / like snakes on a hunt ("Dark Touch"). In others, nature becomes a metaphor for society — we all suffer that wintry fate, / buried without wanting to know ("Long Term Snow") — or the human condition: airy green foams / above centurial brawn, / who touches these tomes, / learns from the roughs of their grimalkin bark? / their midlife knotholes? / their sapling dreads? ("Ranch Trees").

"Ranch Trees" illustrates the ease with which Crittenden weaves carefully observed, concrete images with the more lyrical and figurative ones of his imagination. When this happens, an undeniable fission occurs, fulfilling his mission, as stated in the introduction, to "mimic those little particles that prompt chain reactions...to spark a kind of mental fission throughout a community."

The word "community" here feels telling, because these poems relay a definite sense that Crittenden does not observe to glorify things just because they are — to quote a line from Czeslaw Milosz's "Blacksmith Shop" — but to acknowledge the interrelationships of the human race with animals and the earth. Having acknowledged that, though, Crittenden ups the ante: he seems to posit that people are perhaps the least important of the three; that we pale before the architecture of, say, a tree.

It goes to follow, then, that the environment figures more prominently in Crittenden's verse than any speaker. In fact, it isn't until the ninth poem in the collection that we even encounter a first person narrative, and then it is introduced with a lower case "i", almost as if hoping no one will notice. Crittenden seems, rather, to favor a collective "we"— to acknowledge that we're all in this thing, this life, together.

In "Collecting Yucca Brushes", one of the few poems written in third person, the poem's main character harvests yucca husks for a spiritual ceremony, collecting only / last year's husks to gleam spirits into life / on the hide of a cave. After being used for this purpose, the husks will join / blue smoke dancing— / incense lifted / to Grandmother. This recycling of what was stripped from the land in honor of a matriarch isn't surprising, since Crittenden is a self-described ecofeminist, a movement which purports that the social mentality that oppresses women is analagous to the social mentality that leads to abuse of the environment.

But Crittenden is careful to remind his readers that just because something is natural does not necessarily mean it's benign. In "Pharmaceuticals" he writes that what was once root, bud and agave teat, can become a pill that is a clean cousin / of LSD, capsule / that settles the suicidal. And Crittenden doesn't shy away from other subjects difficult to look at. Like Denise Levertov's "Life at War", his "Soldier Turns Atheist" forces us to see the reality of war, without becoming sentimental: pieces of little girl / raining down everywhere, / one eyeball mashed / the other ten feet away, looking / like a pollywog at the sky.

Crittenden writes in crisp, free verse and his syntactically parsed lines don't often rely on enjambment to earn their poignancy. The relatively diminutive lines evoke a consciousness that every single word is precious and has been scrutinized. This scrutiny does not seem to arise from obsession, but to evolve naturally out of a respect for the language and the subject matter of his poems. Similarly, stanza breaks are not imposed, but organic. His form clearly instructs the reader as to how his poems should be read, where to pause, what pitch a word should take on.

And Crittenden's ear seems to be constantly tuning itself to find perfect pitch. In "Nude In Wind", he knows the word "pasts" deserves its own line, not only because the sibilance of that one-syllable word can make it sound like three, but because the final "s" should be savored, evoking the meaning of the word itself. And when, in "Ice Leaves Road", he begins with "water neath white", you know he mulled on that "neath" long and hard before deciding it was right. And because it is right, and arrives in the very first line, the poem gains our confidence immediately, as so many in this collection do.

Crittenden enjoys inserting the occasional archaic word — plinths, grimalkin, nacre — wonderful words for their sounds, almost onomatopoeic. And if they are a tad obscure, their meanings can almost always be derived from the context. It's clear that Crittenden doesn't want to send his readers running for the dictionary, but rather to linger with him as long as he himself wants to linger with his subjects. Or as he states in the introduction, he simply likes to "speak as if we lived in a world where the heart could be free".

An electronic version can be viewed on Issuu, and Crittenden will also be happy to e-mail you a Word .doc version that can be printed out, folded and stapled into a chapbook. Perhaps your best option, though, is to query the author for a signed, forest-green card stock covered copy for $7.00, for Gordian Butterflies may just become a collector's item one day.

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Lissa Kiernan
Poetry Editor, Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal
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