DANIEL CROCKER – Like a Fish

[The following sentences are words from the wickedest wit to come out of Warsaw, IN since Ambrose Bierce: Steve Henn]

Near the end of the summer of 2005 my buddy Oren Wagner and I drove 4 hours into Michigan to ask Nathan Graziano to submit work to the new small press literary magazine, Fight These Bastards, that we were starting with the outstanding poet Don Winter. The drive was not memorable. It was hot. I may have been in the habit of smoking at the time. I probably griped about my wife (at the time).  Graziano was doing a reading at a Barnes and Noble in, I think, Ann Arbor, with his good buddy, Daniel Crocker. Despite reading to an audience of mostly blue-haired old ladies and one black guy wearing headphones who made crappy abstract art with markers, raising his head to look about like a cornered rodent and clap over the reluctant applause of the bluehairs, only to return to his pointless doodling and whatever he was listening to, Graziano delivered. I had already read some of his work and I expected it to be so.

Crocker tried a few poems, then said, “I probably shouldn’t, but . . .” and proceeded to read, with passion, a short story about the family dog’s beautiful balls. The story didn’t impress me much, but, looking back, giving the finger to so many Grandmas, many of whom might’ve bought a book for a grandson claiming to be working on some writing while he actually sold pot from his parents’ basement, took courage. That gesture was ballsier than the short story – which was all dog balls.  I’m sure Crocker would’ve taken care to pander to his audience more effectively if he was sitting on 17 poems about doilies and prunes.

Graziano sent poems, some of which found their way into FTB, and a story that we published as well. It was about a 20something guy who goes to the doctor to have genital warts removed. There are doctor and patient, in the examining room, freezing off the warts, a solidarity-inducing experience in which those “little bastards” implicitly stand in for whatever outside forces might be conspiring to keep both men down.  It was funny and moving. Really. That story was a winner.

Crocker sent in a story, too. The one about dog testes. After not very much deliberation, Oren, Don and I decided dog testicles were inferior literary material to a minor human sexually transmitted affliction. We ended up publishing Graziano in more than one issue, over our 8-issue, 3-and-a-half year run. As far as I can recollect, Crocker never sent in any other work after dogballs was rejected. Which is a shame, because his book of poems, Like a Fish, really kicks ass, and you should buy it and read it.

FTB is a ghost now. We were always proud of the quality of work we published, but it never quite made the splash on the small press landscape we were hoping for, regardless of any claim it has as part of “Indiana underground art history” (the words of Andrew Morris, ladies and gentlemen).  Editing a small magazine can be a pretty thankless task, when you hear so much from shitty writers questioning your editorial tastes, or trumping up their own “talent” without the work to back up their claims.  But like the poems we did publish in FTB, Crocker’s poems in Like a Fish deserve to be read. Even if one poem is entitled “Never Got That Dog Fixed.”

I am contrite. That’s what I’m getting at. I’m contrite to the point that Graziano’s blurb on the back of Crocker’s book, presenting Crocker as “a hidden gem in American letters,” contains, to me, only the faintest touch of overstatement.  Like a Fish contains poems that Don Winter would’ve included under the umbrella of what he called “Press of the Real.” Crocker will not get the recognition he deserves for such a fine book. He doesn’t have a prominent teaching position (although he’s taught at the college level, as far as I know he currently substitute teaches in his hometown), he’s not solidly middle class, he’s not middle of the road in any way. He’s a working class southerner who dares to write about lived experience, whose language is often not lyrical, whose subject matter cuts closer to the bone than the academically vetted McPoems of the workshop culture. His poems read like lost aphorisms pronounced by a regular at the bar to a barkeep half listening to her usual patron, half wondering what the night will bring when work is done. If you’ve got the image in your head of the white working class male obsessed with football, unattainable sex, and mundane obsessions that are neither lively nor creative, read Crocker’s poems. There are no sports in them. Sex, sometimes mentioned elliptically, is with real people, or expressed in Skeletor’s homoerotic desire for He-man. His obsessions give voice to the everyman but present an insightful, creative everyman – one who claims, as one section is entitled “Everything is falling apart but the McRib.”

I am not going to exhaustively deconstruct Crocker’s poems. Well, maybe at some point, but not here. But I do want to point out what he does especially well. There are two types of poems that hit the mark best in the book. The first is the poem that makes use of pop cultural material. “He-man, You Smarmy Bastard,” as I’ve mentioned, reveals Skeletor’s longing for He-man’s body and for inclusion into the brotherhood of Castle Grayskull. “Sestina McRib” is concerned with eating a leftover McDonald’s sandwich, imagining it taken from the rib of Ronald as the rib was taken from Adam. “What Spider Man Dreams of” is a list poem confessing, among other unrealized deliberate faux pas, the superhero’s desire to drop “one, just one, old lady.” Oscar the Grouch begins with this quote from Dave Chappelle: “Bitch, I live in a fuckin’ trashcan.”  The unreserved use of expletive in the last example is deliberate and necessary. Crocker is writing in the language we use, not in the language we’d hope to use if we were given a teleprompter and a cadre of speechwriters.

That is not to say that the poems aren’t carefully revised. You can’t reach the clarity and flow and stripped-to-essentials feel of so many of these poems without cutting out the unnecessary. This achievement is especially noticeable in the poems that don’t take pop culture as inspiration, but rather Crocker’s background and experience. The two pinnacles of this other type of poem are “Where We Come From (ver. 2.0)” and “Ashley’s Poem,” for Crocker’s daughter. The first is an inspired treatment of Crocker’s hometown: Leadwood, Missouri. I wrote my own where-I-come-from poem a few years ago to break a long writing drought. The poem, which took Ginsberg’s Howl as a model, purported to catalogue the experiences of my generation of Warsaw kids-turned-adults. I think every good poet has some kind of where-I-come from poem in them – some mishmash of the psychology and geography and ideology of the place or places that formed their identity. Crocker’s is as powerful as any. The poem about his daughter denotes both his love for her, distress at his own mortality, and a benediction for a baby boy who was in the hospital when she was born, who would never have a father hold him, like Ashley’s mother never had a father to hold her. Over the course of the book we learn Crocker is no orthodox saint – he has his faults and his demons.  But when he claims in “Cathedral: The Poem” that “it knocks me on my ass, the beauty / I’ve missed,” I believe he’s capable of both the guilt and failure the statement implies, as well as the transcendent ability to find the beauty in simple, real, flawed, lived experience.

Get a copy of Like a Fish here

Steve Henn

February 12th, 2012

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