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.
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:
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).
Although Phillip spent the early years of his life in Belfast, moving to Canada when he was eleven, and took a gap year in County Down in 1995 (a couple of years before I left for Canada), we didn’t meet in person until we both ended up living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. I moved there as Writer-in-Residence in 2008 and stayed on teaching part-time in the English Department. Phillip arrived in 2010 and began his PhD at UNB a few years later. Poetry being the curious business it is, however, we had encountered one another on the pages of Poetry Ireland Review in (our own gap year so to speak) 2009 - alongside, coincidentally, the then current writer-in-residence at UNB, Patricia Young! Eventually of course we met up in person and many times thereafter: corridors, offices, readings, parties, festivals, as fellow editors at The Fiddlehead magazine, bookshops, corner stores. A pleasure therefore to interview here this very fine poet and, apparently, “Honest Ulsterman”.
Gerard Beirne: First off, Phillip, let me congratulate you on the wonderful success of your recent collection of poetry – nominated for both the New Brunswick Book Award for Poetry and the J.M. Abraham Poetry Award in Atlantic Canada. A tremendous achievement.
Although living in Canada, you have published widely in Ireland and indeed have a strong Belfast connection, can you tell me more about that?
Phillip Crymble: Thanks so much Gerry. And many congratulations on your own recent nomination for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Receiving recognition here in the Maritime provinces means a lot, as I’ve come to think of the region (Fredericton, in particular) as an adoptive home. And the fact that Not Even Laughter was a finalist for both The New Brunswick Book Award and the Abraham has really made me feel welcomed.
I feel very connected to Belfast, as my family are of French Huguenot descent, and have lived in Ulster since the time it was a plantation. My granda was a tenter at Ewart’s, where he met my granny, who operated a loom. My uncles were skilled tradesmen who cut their teeth at Mackie’s foundry, and my father apprenticed as an electrician in the merchant navy. We moved to Canada when I was eleven and settled in Milton, Ontario, but I always feel the pull to return to Ireland, and have travelled back many times. In 1995 I spent a gap year between university degrees living on The Parade in Donaghadee where I first attempted writing poems, and in 1999 my wife and I spent our honeymoon in County Kerry.
Despite my recent success in the Canadian market, it was always important to me that I debut as an Ulster poet, which is why I worked so diligently to have my poems published in Irish and UK literary journals from the start. In 2007, after years of hard graft, I was invited to Dublin to participate in the Poetry Ireland Introductions series, an event that coincided with the publication of my Lapwing chapbook Wide Boy. Since then, I have continued to send work to magazines and journals in the UK and Ireland, and I’ve even managed to place my poems in some of the bigger ones like Poetry Ireland Review, Magma, and The North. I also had a poem included in the 2013 Salt Anthology of New Writing and just recently, “Onions,” from Not Even Laughter, was selected to appear in The Forward Book of Poetry 2017.
GB: Apart from Ireland, you have lived quite a nomadic life, based now in the Maritimes but having lived in Ontario, Michigan and Zambia – what role does place play in your writing and how does it impact upon the notion of identity?