In one of his love letters to Felice Bauer, Franz Kafka spends more than 3,000 words in a relentlessly detailed account of their first meeting. At the letter’s conclusion Kafka adds a postscript, the explosive humor of which is surely unintentional: “Still not the end, and what’s more, a question difficult to answer: How long can chocolate be kept before it goes bad?”
Kafka’s letters to Bauer, written without the faintest idea that they would be published, read like well-constructed combinations of whimsy and intensity—a combination rarely seen in literature today.
Rarely, maybe, but not never. With his first collection, Can You Relax In My House, published in 2002, and his second book coming out this spring (Yes, Master is the working title), the poetry of Michael Earl Craig, a farrier by trade who lives near Livingston, presents something reminiscent of Kafka’s oddly rewarding combination. His poetry perplexes as much as it warms. The long title of one reads:
Upon learning that he is to spend not a week but the rest of the month on his brother’s couch in a large Midwestern city, and upon thinking that he’s becoming involved with a woman he is very much not supposed to be involved with, he goes alone to a nearby bar to contemplate his situation”
And the opening line of the poem reads: “To be shagged with petunias, there you go.”
Seen from afar, the world of Craig’s poetry is one in which everything appears as it should be. People walk dogs, others fall in love and still others contemplate a mournful autumn day. But on closer inspection, this world has gone two steps south of absurd—and delightfully so. One prose poem begins with the line: “The bearded woman said to the young blond girl with two faces, ‘Somehow I always end up getting soup in my beard.’”
“I feel like my poems definitely have a lot of lightness, humor. Maybe some of the more sad or tragic things are hidden behind a mask of the absurd,” Craig says.
With his trade as a farrier, or horseshoer, Craig’s poetic world is one that doesn’t often see the light of day.
“The speaker is definitely not somebody I get to let out too much in my daily life,” he says. “As a farrier you get all these customers and…it’s a real straight-ahead guy who gets out of his truck and pulls up to your house. So with my poetry, the speaker is a sort of Rolodex or revolving door of inner personalities.”
In addition to studying at the Kentucky Horseshoeing School, Craig has also studied poetry at the University of Montana and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. It was during his first class in creative writing at UM that Craig first considered poetry.
“My teacher pulled me aside—I remember very well that she said, ‘You’re not really writing stories,’ you should try poetry,’” he says. “[At the time] I didn’t even know what that meant, but I think what she was saying was that rather than telling a good, long well-spun story, I was working more with images.”
The way he worked with images eventually culminated in Can You Relax In My House, which begins with lines from the poet Georg Trakl: “Along the way a small tavern appears to the traveler. / The young wine and nuts are delicious.”
Trakl was a contemporary of Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke, but died at 28 when he injected himself with a fatal dose of cocaine. Craig admits to hearing criticisms concerning the oddly uplifting Trakl quote:
“People who love his work love it because it’s so dark and full of pain and moodiness,” he says. “A person who knows his work might stop and wonder why I would pull this feeling out of Trakl when 99 times out of 100, the feeling would be totally different, something much darker. [The quote] has such a light, refreshing, almost whimsical feel to it.”
One of Craig’s poems, entitled “Cabin,” captures the fanciful tone tinged with something darker. It reads, in its entirety:
“Can I communicate with you? I think I can.
A dried moth brain blows across the long coutertop like a piece of ass.
I stop this.
I affix it to the end of my cigarette, and resume chopping the parsley.”
It’s not difficult to see why Craig’s poetry hearkens back to writers like Kafka or Trakl. There is an odd and alluring sense that tension is being alternately diffused and heightened. But Craig says his upcoming collection is inspired more by a time of isolation.
“I wasn’t sure if I had any poems left in me,” Craig admits. “I didn’t plan or have any sequential or thematic intentions. I just flicked on the switch and let the words come out.”
Michael Earl Craig will read with fellow poet Dave Thomas at Shakespeare & Co. on Saturday, July 16, at 2 PM.