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Knock–Off Monarch by Crystal Stone

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Poetry

By Lorcán Black

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A previous reviewer of Stone’s work said, and I quote:

There is nothing ‘knock-off’ about Crystal Stone’s debut poetry collection; these punchy pages of poems are the real dealNature is pain… biblical… all the deep, embarrassing feelings we don’t want to say aloud.”

Which I have to say, perfectly encapsulates my feelings about this book because the poet’s ability to both invoke not just a voice, but what feels like a chorus of voices, in a collection that is at once vulnerable in its ability for the speaker of each poem to open up and share, in a collection as a whole, to what amounts to an emotional blood–letting.

This is a fresh, unabashed and often celebratory honouring of self, of womanhood and of self–identity in the midst of hard and beautiful times but also an unshamed and often eagle–eyed view of the speaker’s emotions in each poem – and I do say ‘speaker’ to distinguish from ‘poet’ very deliberately.

It’s worth addressing that our generation of poets – and I think a good deal of my peers would agree –  have undoubtedly been influenced by confessionalist poets like Lowell, Merrill, Sexton, Akhmatova, Neruda or Plath, if only to mention a few, and to refer to most poets’ work these days as ‘confessional’ would be to reduce and undermine good work to nothing more than professional whining.

‘Confessionalism’ as a term is one I detest – it reduces all poems with an ‘I’ voice to almost nothing more than ‘poet as speaker’, which defeats the entire purpose of the affect or style. Obviously sometimes it is true, but why should the reader know what is true?

We can never, I think, assume the ‘I’ voice in a poem is the poet’s own autobiographical voice. It is a voice and nothing more.

Poetry is a lot like acting – the poet takes on characters, sits in their skins and becomes them for however long the act itself lasts. Each poem has its own life, persona and colour.

We try them on like clothes, by editing we sew them to ourselves and then when done, we take them off and hang them, either in a publication or book or just on our hard–drives.

We carry them, like clothes we take out for special occasions but these poems, like haute–couture are only ever looked at after and that memory of having worn them is remembered for what it is and then carefully put away.

Should you be lucky enough to be a poet who has a book of these little fragile things published, it’s like a museum where others are happily welcome to come and view and create their own fantasies upon these items in question. They can try them on – poems, much like clothes, fit differently on everyone. This is their exquisite beauty: one size fits all but very differently.

It involves an element of sharing, which is what suits this collection so well.

Each poem can be read on its own, as its own animal but together they provide a rich tapestry of a painting of a life – should one choose to read it and visualise it that way – because Stone is a visual writer. She paints a picture very precisely with words and phrases very carefully chosen and quite particularly placed.

There is a sense here that she has looked over every word, as each poet does, but I think sometimes you can tell, very particularly, that the phrasing is specific.

And this book isn’t about confessionalism or extremes – it sometimes is, but it’s often not– it’s about identity, both as a woman in the world and also just as a person in a world, like all of us. Where you’re from is simply where you’re from and the people you’re from and how you deal with that – the experience of growing up as a kid of the late eighties or nineties in a place where if you did good, then, well… you did good kid and if you didn’t, you just got on with yourself. In some ways, it’s about the last of the ‘latch–key’ kids.

It’s as much about the speaker’s own voice in these poems – or, to put it more accurately, the speakers’ own voices– as it is about the places or situations, physical or emotional, or even where these speakers find themselves.

This is the power from which this entire collection finds itself.

I’m one of those writers who connects what I write to music, I often write to music and so when I start reading any collection I begin reading in silence. Until I’m a few poems in.

Then I figure I’ll try out a few tunes.

I think it is a little bit of ‘Please Feel Free to Piss in the Garden’ by SQÜRL, from the soundtrack of the movie Only Lovers Left Alive, or a little of ‘This is How We Walk on the Moon’ by Arthur Russel, or ‘Too Rough’ by Samson Ashe, ‘3 Days’ by Rhye, or a hint of Tori Amos’ ‘Beauty Queen/Horses’. A good dose, though, of Bruce Springsteen – any Springsteen but make it the 1980’s or early 1990’s, we’re talking ‘Dancer in the Dark’ or ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ here.

There’s a lot of cold steel, a lot of heart–thinking at the core here that always underlies any melancholy.

This is all, of course, subjective – as all art is. But Crystal Stone is not a poet willing to give up. In her poem ‘Promise’, Stone says:

‘…My next poem will

be patriotic: there will be guns in it, because

how else will it defend itself? My next poem

will destroy, fire wrongly, and kill a child.’

With a Smithian (Maggie Smith, that is), almost Sexton-ish flair for the dramatic and sense of dark, wry humour, she ends that poem with the words:

‘…My next poem will be

a homewrecker: the worst kind ever seen.’

She is provoking, proud and daring – and utterly defiant. These are poems that sing to strength and power as a full-fledged woman. Stone does not apologise. She isn’t mincing phrases.

Her speakers in these poems do not change or apologise: they continue. You can love them or leave them, it’s your business, but really: it’s their business.

You’re just here because you happen to be here– the speakers in these poems aren’t asking you for anything. They aren’t asking you to stay or leave, these speakers simply want to be and they’re inviting you to do the same alongside and not ask any questions. The speakers in these poems are happy to give what they give, just give in return and don’t ask more than is asked for.

I highlight this poem ‘Promise’ in particular because there are moments in this collection where you realise every truly important phrase or sentence is almost always set on the off–set – what I mean is: these phrases sit in stanzas where they might be easily missed, they always sit on the off–back of another phrase or stanza, rarely given their own clear opening line.

They often run after a full–stop or a colon, as these two examples I’ve given do but therein lies the power.

The power of Stone’s work is in the dry, wry, bleak and quiet humour she gives to very serious subjects of self–identity and self–respect and as a speaker in the world, who is grappling with tough emotions like every other human person on this planet regardless of ridiculous constructs like ‘gender’.

Knock–Off Monarch puts a heart out there, bleeding but beating and it doesn’t apologise for it. This is a collection you will read, think of and then read again.

Or you can watch her read on Instagram.

She reads like a normal poet, like a real poet– none of that false, halted–breath ridiculousness you often find in younger poets of our generation which I can’t deal with.

What I like is that – much like the late, great Elizabeth Wurtzel – Stone just gets to the point and does it well. She dances but she doesn’t mess around, says it as it is.

She reads out–loud like Sexton, or Thomas – these little hints of charm and a deep chasm of seriousness, which at times ripples off her face for a moment and you see it, the real Stone: slightly under the surface but all there – sharp-eyed, like the poems themselves.

There’s this Instagram post where she’s outside, on her front lawn, maybe. It looks like a lawn but it’s hard to tell where she is. A car drives past. You can hear it, you can see her eyes flicker for a second – impatient. Stone lets it pass.

She glances at it briefly, she knows reading a poem on a lawn by a road maybe wasn’t the best idea ever but, fuck it, she’s doing it anyway. She smiles slightly to herself.

She does not falter.

She keeps reading but you can see this delicious moment of impatience she never quite allows to live, there’s a flicker of herself she holds back, always – and it is this same factor that is what makes this collection of poems serious, amusing but ultimately quite compelling.
The sound of the car fades, her mouth almost smirks. It doesn’t shake her.

Stone doesn’t miss a beat, she looks back at the camera, continues, voice unwavering, mouth still slightly smirking:

…My next poem will be
a homewrecker…

It is very difficult not to believe her.

(c) Lorcán Black

Order your copy online here.

 

Crystal Stone’s upcoming collection, All The Places I Wish I Died, from Clash Books is available for pre–order at https://www.clashbooks.com

Just search Crystal Stone.

You can watch her Ted X Talk on ‘The Transformative Power of Poetry’ here:

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