Actual Tigers Review by Constance Stadler

You trapped me, you caged me,
you raised me for pure slaughter value.
Stuffed me with moon mad metaphor
and red threadbare simile over easy.

With these words, William Crawford pulls the reader into the emotional epicenter of Kneeling Poem’s Plea, a delicate dance between Creator and Creation that teases into the recesses of an incandescent relationship between a poet and language. Immediately we are drawn into terrain of Actual Tigers, the second major opus of one of the most gifted wordsmiths writing today. 

In his debut volume, Fire in the Marrow, the reader was introduced to a body of work of supremely original beauty. In exploring the white hot spaces between soul-searing mirages, the languid yet tragic lure of Hollywood exotica and the achingly etched questions of vision and void, a triptych of the human condition took form. The cover photograph of Benjamin, the last Tasmanian Tiger, made a bold but entirely honest pronouncement as to the one-of-a-kind quality of the contents within. This incendiary baptism into the destitutions and partial resurrections of a cast worthy of a searing Cassavetes nouvelle instantly made Crawford one of the most recognized and respected artists on the indie scene.

Actual Tigers is a different beast. While moving ever deeper in the depiction of what one reviewer has described as “honest x-rays…of the states of actual souls, actual interiors of heartful consciousness”, there is a symmetry and a symbiosis that runs through the entire text, creating a unity of form that often reads as a single work. Retaining unique integrity in individual offerings, themes and lines often merge and echo one another in the vibrant music of soaring imagistic arpeggios and clean prosodic riffs. In Recognizing the Fragile Before it Needs Fixing, we are confronted by a brute sentience that borders at the edge of serrated conscience:

       what could they possibly say
       about this ripped dago red rhapsody
       tangled up in the depth of his gut?

This acute dissection continues in Uncut Rain, a wrenching tribute to the poet Hart Crane. Speaking to the moment of Crane's suicide, he writes:

       Shattering yourself in blue melody
       Against shimmering sheets of uncut rain
       With an unctuous tongue full of the gulf's sweat
       Climbing down through cerulean chambers
       While still facing the raging surface

       Where the sun’s truth
       Is just a broken yolk
       Or maybe only a golden eye
       With which to see yourself reflected
       In the cold fathomless water below
       Crossing another bridge as it burns.

Red ripped rhapsodies, shatters of blue melody, the cadences of young death –writ both large and small--pulsates in haunting almost sylvan rhythms. Primary hues imbue the moment before, the moment of self-annihilation, with a vividness that becomes symbolic of an entirety, a lived life. In the depths of the tortured gut, in the revelations of a broken sun, there is the liquid glimpse of shared humanity. Looking into the fathomless, within and without, we also stand on the precipice of that last burning bridge staring into the decimate eyes of loss, most intimate. Such timeless, sublimely honest portraiture of the raw, the fragile, the depiction of the lone but the authentic noble moment is the poet’s signature; emblematic of his, and, what ultimately becomes, our search.

But it would be a mistake to assume that every poem is a sad ballad, Crawford’s leitmotiv is vast, complex and encompassing. In Bottom Sustenance, we get a wry, brilliantly clinical commentary on the futility of self-deceptions:

       spleen as your own private black sea
       captain of seizure and shipwreck
       high on hubris and rum, sail on, sail on, sailor
       into the low sulphurous gut of the kraken

       or maybe just a turbid puddle
       distorting reflections that skim its skin
       a place for you to drown in the
       hallowed shallows of yourself

In Pantry Pride, we meet up with something of a legendary figure, but fashioned in the style of a ribald social farce, the story bears retelling through the wizened, acerbic humor of Crawford’s pen:

       Chick McLittle is a Humpty Dumpty manchild
       with a Holden Caulfield complex, and a big fat golden hen
       of a woman that he calls Mama Honey Cutlet.

       He's forever falling with that phony blue sky he can't stand.
       He's always cracking in the same shell shamelessly.

       Every time he hears that old red-eyed rooster
       murder another morning with its bloody scream
       he cries for his sweet mama, the first of many bottles
       he’ll need to make it through another day on the farm.

Regardless of tone or voice, at the core of every poem is a penetrating look at the nexus of the human story; rich, textured narratives that go to the crux of spiritual struggle. We are introduced to an array of soul mirrors, some as blithely familiar as our own childhood, others emerging out of the shadows as singular entities of radiant persona, and still others come to us as ephemeral glimmers, tossed about by the vicissitudes of will and circumstance, but all, to paraphrase one poet’s haunting observation, ‘burn[ing] bright with spirit in the existential dusk’. Crawford’s inordinate sensitivity to character is never more telling than in his depiction of women. And there are several: sweet, Southern ‘daguerreotypes captured in blood’, soft companions in the days of ‘slate sky and swallowing squall’, blonde bombshell ‘balms’ dangling cigarettes, courting
madness and first love prismatically realized in the gentle form of a disease-ravaged sylph:

      she told me
      that she first felt
      the cancer inside of her
      when she laughed

      she said the tumors
      looked like
      sunspots when x-rayed

      when I heard that
      I felt a breakage
      all the way down
      deep inside

      yet somehow
      her eyes
      still smiled... night
      I commented
      on her naked body
      while we were
      making love

      I said,
      "even your scars
      seem luminous
      to my eyes"

          she thought
          I said stars
               -Sunspots (for Katerina)

Taken as a whole, Actual Tigers is the next chapter in the body of work of a literary maestro at the top of his talents, talents which are never more evident than in the symphonic, The Stoker. In paying homage to Franz Kafka’s, Amerika, with ‘star staggered eyes’ Crawford scans the empyreal vista of a wounded nation where immigrant totems disintegrate and new mythologies are born:

      she’s the last actress standing
      on a stage covered in rotten fruit
      heart long gone before I landed

      she offers no pulse
      for a buzzing fly
      searching her slackened cavities
      for whatever meat is left

      her bed is flagstone unfurled
      it finds me weak with hunger
      collapsing in numb cataclysm

      I find my name as scar across the face
      I think of open fields waving goodbye

“The New Colossus” hovers over the rape of promise, the carrion of unanswered prayer, and through the miasma of our own misplaced hopes, quietly we are brought to our knees. This is not verse for the faint of heart or those that want their art served over easy. In the act of tearing past social veneers, comfortable truisms and glib self-rationalizations, in the genteel decimation of the blind logic of insensate existence, William Crawford creates a space of distilled discovery where the reader must bring their own vulnerability to bear. Yes, he asks much, but the rewards are many for immersion in such luminous exceptionalism.

Sincere gratitude to Constance Stadler for this insightful review.