Having Been an Accomplice by Laura Cronk

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What I enjoy about Laura Cronk’s Having Been an Accomplice (winner of the Persea Books’ Lexi Rudnitsky 2011 First Book Prize in Poetry) is that the way that it brings the reader into a feminine landscape and mindset. Naturally, I tend to gravitate towards female poets, in terms of their perspective and a shared collective, and typically don’t enjoy “political poetry” (actually, I’ve probably never used those words in an actual sentence before) but in this collection of poetry, I’m also brought into a political world that is flushed with female agency. Cronk’s collection is split into two sections: one that is embedded in love and the natural world, and a second that is political in so many ways.

Cronk’s first section is composed of love poems that exist in the natural world: about the sun, bodies of water or even other mammals like horses. In the series of poems that make up Selected From The Wheel of Night, I am drawn to the last two sections. In the first, the speaker talks about love and the struggle of communication. Her imagery and metaphor align to create this sort of marsh the reader enters with the speaker:

It hard to communicate
With anyone in any way at all.

It means walking into the lake
With you
Over and over.

The feeling of sinking.
I can say this. You know it too.
We’re in love.

Here we go, down we go,
The unsayable
Between us, we accept it.

The next and last section of “Wheel of Night,” foreshadows the rise of the female voice that is in the second section of this book as it reveals a woman taught to be on-guard; a woman taught to remember the where she is in the Order of Dominion,(which is nowhere); and a woman who must stay “natural” in her role as Female.

My mother said instantly,
Though I thought I was alone,
Always pretend you’re a tiny animal.

You are prey.

You should be alert
In the natural way
When you are alone.

In “Horse Neck-deep in Water, the speaker of the poem aligns herself with a horse. The horse walks all day and night as the speaker walks through her thinking, her mind frame, and her confessions.

The full strong breast of the horse is morning and day. Its thin legs and make are night. It walked all day and night through the water and won’t last much longer. I confessed my love, confessed all my dept, last night…

Then, a transformation occurs:

I knew I would be climbing into the river and this would be what to wear. Lack bridle. I wore these things and washed my face, took down my hair, slipped down the wet grass, left my things on the bank, left streaks in the mud and climbed into the water. Or I wish I had…

The speaker connects with the horse and in doing so the reader feels both of their strainings with life:

I watch the beginning of its movements, the limbs learning to move in the black water, and find myself what I was before any of this, before it became very late and the river became black…I am what I was before and will continue to be.

The notion of acceptance and taking ownership of one’s life and one’s doings are central to this book, especially in the second part of the book. In the poem “The President’s Companion,” the political threads begin to unravel. In doing so, the speaker of the poem recounts the ways in which She and the president have co-existed or coalesced:

That we found ourselves together in the ritual of the everyday, in the
ritual of opening the notebook and writing, the ritual of consulting
the newspaper, the ritual of standing before the questioning crowds,
does not speak to my ingenuity but to the way of the world forever.

Your back slumped as you sat at your desk preparing to leave this
office. I, older now, will meet you on the other side. Everything I
have learned about consequence, I’ve learned from you

Here, the speaker acknowledges and accepts. It is a strange balance of female power and male defiance. In the long poem “Having Been an Accomplice,” Cronk reveals more about this speaker’s ferocity. This is a woman who accepts the spectacle of being female and parades it.

From one bridge to the other I walked, a show for anyone who might see –
now that’s someone spitfire, sure, split of lightning, ramrod, shining axe
glistening steely tale of comet, a streak, a parade of one.

In the next section of this poem, she gives this female a voice, or at least the direction of having a voice:

I want to walk deeply into the darkness, nude as a god, through the /
Self into the darkness.

I want to blow up the Law with Language, having run my tongue/
Around my mouth then thousand times. Instead of not speaking, I/
want to speak.

The idea of blowing something up with language resonates with poetry as the written word is a silent one on the page. The beauty of poetry is the power it packs often in such a small space. Here, Cronk’s narrator may not be speaking publically, but is speaking here, in this book, and it is enough. She is blowing up the world she’s a part of with her language and her ideology, and furthermore, her sexuality.

In “The Bride Queen,” the speaker is newly married and queen of her kingdom. She has power and grace, but she is also a queen to her husband’s king. This poem is one of my favorites as it echoes the live of the ritual, we women often live in. There are echoes here of everywoman:

I’ve taken a husband.        My single ruler days through.
His great big body gives me weak knees,     weak voice.
What do I mean?     What do I mean?
Satisfaction comes    at this price.

Here, the disjointed lines and fumbled spaces add to the confusion the queen is feeling. She is somewhat defined through her husband, and perhaps that’s why there is a price to pay. Later in the poem, we see the queen struggle with the agency she actually has, only to then take matters into her own hands.

Maybe that’s the trouble with being queen of an apartment.
You think you’re queen of things you’re not.
The vote I cast withered and died in the box.

But there are things I could do. What a nasty queen I am.
I’ve read the reports, I see all the fakery and I let it go unpunished.
What a foul, selfish queen.

She grows unsteady, and she falters:

Oh, I do want him of course, there go my knees.
(Wait, no, knees, stand please!)

There was something more I was going to do.
I need just a few minutes.
There was something I was ready to see.

Cronk’s Having Been an Accomplice is layered in the “imagined” of the real world, no matter the continent. Knowing that it has a political landscape, it seems that we can all be any of her paginated queens. Sometimes, we don’t know what to do; sometimes we don’t have the right words to diffuse a situation; and sometimes we have ulterior motives. Other times, we accept our place in the world. I feel like women have been told one of two things their whole lives, either (a) you’re only a woman (which negates our sex), or (b) you are foremost a woman and use that to empower you. In her book, we see both things amidst the royal world and the domestic world. When the queen stamps around her apartment, it could be you or I stamping around our apartments. But like Cronk proves, there is always power in the word—no matter what form it actually takes.

I’m going to end this review as a true teacher with a common cliché, “Power is knowledge,” but I’m going to add in, “so is reading.”

Leah Umansky's first book, “Domestic Uncertainties,” is forthcoming in 2013 by Blazevox Books. She is currently at work on her second book of poems. Leah also hosts and curates the COUPLET reading series in New York. Read more at her blog: http://iammyownheroine.wordpress.com/ More from this author →