Book Reviews, Recent

Strange and Funny Doors of Deep Feeling: Michael Earl Craig’s Iggy Horse

by Sam Robison | Contributing Writer

Iggy Horse
By Michael Earl Craig
Wave Books, 2023  

Reminding us that play is as rigorous and suitable an impulse for a book of poems as any, Michael Earl Craig’s sixth collection Iggy Horse pulls readers into a strange, slightly hazy world of impossible observations, barely understandable jokes, and dazzling—or confounding, or surrealist, or uncanny—scenery. In this eighty-odd-page collection just out from Wave Books, bits of cheese parlay with talking owls and ornate cocktails. Horses, capable of deep knowing, stride alongside animate eyeglasses, mysterious flecks of trash, and coy, almost-ever-present lawnmowers. Works of great art forsake their own grandeur, trading it for something weirdly, damningly human. There’s a kind of world-building here, deftly done, and unlikely in the realm of contemporary American poems. 

The wash of imagery—however discordant, however eclectic—provides Craig’s utterly unique mind enough fodder to achieve simultaneous senses of fantasy and intimacy. In the collection’s second poem, the first of the book’s many ‘insomnia poems,’ for example, we witness the speaker jostling around a sleepless bed. Their mind moves from a simple consideration of the various “sides” available to human sensation (“. . . The side of a house. / The side of ship. / . . .  A side of slaw. / A big spoon of mac & cheese”), to ramekins (“the inspections and the bubble wrap”), to land, finally, on a consideration of doors: 

Any door that groans a bit. 
Any door that vibrates. 
The old door of redemption. 
The door of deep feeling.

In lines like these, Craig demonstrates both a clever, capacious eye and an interiority replete with solemnity, doubt, and meaning. The power—and perhaps the ultimate challenge—of these poems resides in their insistence that we revel out in the open and retreat far inward, both. 

Despite the collection’s inclination toward play and jest, we often witness the speaker alone, sort of groping for purchase, for a sense of place. Sometimes sleepless, usually in transit, the speaker more often than not remarks from the interstices of their life. In “Pep Talk to Self Eating Salad at Airport,” the speaker enacts a mantra-like comparison of Italy (their supposed destination) and Montana (Craig’s home state). 

Montana is the Italy of the New World. 
Montana is God’s Italy. 
Montana is the Italy of the people. 
It’s the real Italy. 
Italy is Montana. 
Montana, the Italy of God. 
Like Italy only different.

Here, beneath an increasingly thin lacquer of humor, is what feels like a real nervousness of belonging. The certainty of the penultimate line’s end-stopped “Yes” is immediately undercut by the final line’s deliberate ambiguity—a joke (which did get a laugh when I saw Craig read it) and not a joke at all. 

Arguably, the foundational pleasure of this collection is the invitation to view Craig—decked out in all his rural uniquity and intellectual quirks—amble around a new, strange land: Italy. Many of these poems were written during Craig’s Civitella Ranieri residency in which international artists, composers, and writers stay in a fifteenth-century Italian castle. Craig registers an earnest awe and appreciation for these temporary, flashy digs, but doesn’t forsake his characteristic wryness. “As usual,” he writes in the quintessentially Craig poem called “Field Trip,” “the castle turns out to be / a dense arrangement of shrubs / at the edge of the north end of town.” Most compelling of these American-writer-abroad poems are those that lean on Craig’s impossibly meticulous observations. From “It Was About to Rain”: 

It was about to rain and she waited 
on pear spears with pine nuts, on a plop 
of burrata with burnt winter rocket. 
An older woman on a carbon-fiber fat bike 
approached quickly the square, squinting, 
feathering the brakes, her tires massaging 
loose pavers. Strappy Roman gladiators passed 
a pair of flat black shower sandals, Adidas, 
and the panatelas were selling. 
And then the rain came.

The eye grazes, the ears perk up, the stomach rumbles, and the cast-away object is elevated to symbol. Delighting, we witness the witness and are invited to revel in a surplus of detail. Importantly, the details here are relatively mundane—if not shockingly ordinary. The inclusion of a “fat bike”—those increasingly popular, enormous-tired, often electrified lumberers—so smacks of contemporary life, the quaint Italian city square is momentarily obliterated (though, the bike’s “massaging” of the “loose pavers” no doubt deserves further inspection). The clausal aside and name-branding of “Adidas” works to a similar effect. Craigs devotion to the quotidian—the normal, the actual—compounds the collection’s admonition that we include all dimensions of a life into poetry. These details add to the book’s humor, of course, but they enact a real reflection (mirror-like) too. Nearly every one of Iggy Horse’s poems provokes us to deeply consider the life of things—the inherent possibilities, joys, and pitfalls of thingness. 

But even beyond the mere mimetic, Craig’s images can be microscopic. In “The Salesman Had Two Bags,” we watch a salesman at lunch in the park as the plants around him “changed imperceptibly, were constantly morphing.” Then: “A tulip underwent / sugar-density changes, was flexing, was turning to face different sunlight.” In a later poem, toward the end of the collection, we again find the speaker alone, gazing out a window. They report back with what they can sense. It’s at once enticing and disorienting: 

Recalcitrant chickens drawl chickenspeak into the millet hour. 
I hear wine evaporating on the neighbor’s kitchen counter. 
Let’s face it, I’m sensitive.

There are countless more threads this review could consider. Ekphrasis, as mentioned up top, runs through the book. Craig, surprising as always, lingers outside of the paintings that spur his poems. See “Preparing to Paint the Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb,” which locks into Han Holbein the Younger’s artistry via a consideration of how the artist might shave his face. Similarly, this review could linger on Craig’s distinct dream-logic—(what might better be called “nightmare-logic” in some cases)—which informs much of the book’s second section.. Or else, it could work through Craig’s devotion to possibility. In so many poems, a tremendous potential energy governs. So much is about to happen, is liable to happen, is brewing. From “Underfoot”:

A toy dugout canoe . . . 
comes down the river. 
We watch it. It takes forever. 
Seems to be stalling.

Even further, Craig’s meta-poetics could be discussed at length. They are certainly earned here—Criag is a decorated poet with a durable style—but are offered sparingly and with a gentleness. Take the titular poem, among the sparsest of the bunch, which advises: “we shouldn’t call the sunlight dappled— / the time for that is over”; or take “Driving Home” which compares a swarm of finches to “sacred / soap-flake eunuch moths” (a phrase which returns virtually no results when googled) only to lament “the gaudiness / of poetry” (again, perfectly, both a joke and not). 

This is all to say that there is something refreshingly, deliciously un-spartan about these poems. They don’t abandon the coveted frankness of most contemporary poetry but entwine it in strands of perception, decorous and deep. The mundane mingles with the extra-sensory. The medicine of real honesty goes down with spoonfuls of personality.  The sense of place Craig cultivates is as outlandish as it is recognizable. In the end, lessons abound for readers and writers of poems. In its risky tonal, emotional, and visual eclecticism, the collection clears room for a poetics capable of sustaining multiple truths. It’s not exactly polyphony that’s at work here, the book’s logic isn’t so plain. Instead, readers will find an unlikely wholeness, a big, round representation of self, a carefully, wildly examined life. 

Michael Earl Craig is from Dayton, Ohio, home of the gas mask and the mood ring. He is the author of Iggy Horse (Wave Books, 2023) Woods and Clouds Interchangeable (Wave Books, 2019), Talkativeness (Wave Books, 2014), Thin Kimono (Wave Books, 2010), Yes, Master (Fence Books, 2006), Can You Relax in My House, (Fence Books, 2002), and the chapbook Jombang Jet (Factory Hollow Press, 2012). He lives in Montana, where he makes his living as a farrier. He was the 2015-2017 Poet Laureate of Montana.

Sam Robison is a farmer and poet based in Western Montana. His work is published in MossThe EcoTheo ReviewNimrod, and elsewhere. He is the 2022 recipient of the Francine Reingold Prize and will be the 2024 resident at the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency