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Down Stranger Roads by Roger Craik Reviewed in London Grip!


craik stranger roads.

Down Stranger Roads
 by Roger Craik

Blazevox Books, N.Y.2014
ISBN: 978-1-60964-135-1 $16


Roger Craik is very much the Englishman abroad. The alluring cover image of his new collection is derived from a painting by Algernon Newton which is housed in Nottingham’s Castle Museum and Art Gallery. ‘Regent’s Canal, Maida Vale, London’, the picture is called, but the straight stretch of water heading off into the distance under a blue, innocently-clouded sky, could conceivably be of many another city. The names of cities – Paris, Venice, Rome –/ Held out their arms, Louis Simpson wrote in his great poem, ‘My Father in the Night Commanding, No’, and reading through Down Stranger Roads it soon becomes apparent that foreign cities have held out their arms to Craik. They include Amsterdam, Bruges, Sofia and Izmir, in all of which places he has taught and/or spent enough time to cast an attentive eye on people and objects.

But however perceptive he may be, he is always in the role, if not of flaneur, then of outsider. His characteristic tone is that of a slightly bemused, wry observer, yearning, perhaps, for a closer acquaintance with the exotica that passes before his eye and can be turned by imaginative process into something more substantial, but aware that this presumed substantiality is itself elusive, possibly even illusory.

                         And even though
I’m only thirty-three, and even though
I’ve told myself I’ve given up desiring love,
I long in my poorly-cobbled disappointing shoes to rove
these streets I think of as my own
to picture her behind one shutter, just a crack ajar, two candles
guttering, and her fleshy tight-ringed finger
beckoning to me.

Down these mean streets ….

Not hard to imagine a certain kind of moralist tut-tutting at such “orientalism,” as we have learnt to call it. When found, make a note of, Dickens’s Captain Cuttle would say, though he wouldn’t then conclude that Craik should be dragged before the thought police and asked to account for himself. (Thirty-three was, of course, the age which Christ had reached when he was arraigned before Herod, but I doubt Craik intends an allusion.) Cuttle would be more likely to enjoy – he’d certainly understand – Craik’s note of rueful acquiescence in his role as down-at-mouth-and-heel rover in his far-from suave, poorly-cobbled, disappointing shoes.

America, where for years Craik has earned a living as a university lecturer, is, for all its familiarity, no less exotic, or at all events an experience – a culture – from which the poet feels himself partly estranged. A suitably comic, abashed poem ‘Ulysses in the New World’ reflects how the narrator

used to marvel, stunned, when I was told 
how Ulysses would ‘goof,’ ‘screw up, 
and ‘kinda show he had to be the boss – 
a typical jock,’ 
as if he’d locked himself out of his car 
or run out of gas 
or spilt popcorn on his girl’s jeans 
the jerk, 

before recognising that Ulysses belongs to no one culture, because There never was / an Ithaca or home, but just himself, alone, / shiftless, yet immortal as the stars. The last phrase is a routine bit of cheer-up. The real poem ends on alone, / shiftless. Such words might well form an epigraph for Craik’s collection.

But this is not to say that the poems are in any way self-obsessed, let alone confessional. Craik is saved from the indulgences of soul-baring by his very real delight in the world-out-there which he registers, for example, in ‘Heron’:

 thin raincoated William Burroughs of a bird
 stalking hypodermically
 toe-deep in shingle
 or shallows of a stream.

 But on wing,
 shouldering off with six great languid flaps
 all birdbook posturing, you rise magisterial 

‘Magisterial’ is a near-lapse into cliché, although I suppose there is the possible justification of a nod toward some gowned magistrate – the “beak” (ha!); but anyway much can be forgiven of the writer who compares a heron to a raincoated William Burroughs. As it can of the lovely, funny poem in celebration of a grandfather remembered for his prowess at farting. Warned by his mother not to laugh, because ‘this is how older people get –/ you’ll be like this yourself, some day’ / ‘Oh, I do hope so’ the boy replies, and rejoices in the old man’s unembarrassed dismissal of his fart – Get out, you pay no rent!

Memories of home aren’t always so reassuring. Home is the past and, like the places you travel to, can be known only as you appraise it from a distance that it is both physical and emotional. One of the best poems in the collection – all the more powerful for its understatement, its readiness to rest in implication – is ‘First Journey’: As inch by inch the train pulled out / with me inside alone, it begins, with the boy noting his parents as they wave farewell from the platform and, through the glass, watches with a kind of blank detachment his father run alongside until the train leaves the station. The poem ends, powerfully, bleakly, heart-tuggingly, with the boy now seeing in his mind’s eye the father running beyond the platform’s end on stony ground, on straggling grass,/ outdistanced, and outdistanced further still.

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