Clangings by Steven Cramer
(Sarabande Books, 2012)
reviewed by Dylan Mace
More than ten years ago, I worked in an emergency room as a clerk. With the flow of heart attacks and car crashes, strokes and lacerations, came the crisis patients. Mostly, they were suicidal. Ambulances rushed them in, brought them to the locked rooms where nurses fed them a slurry of charcoal to counteract whatever poison they had ingested. By the time I saw them, their eyes were red and swollen, their mouths stained black from vomiting charcoal. They were pitiable; and easily understood. Sometimes it seems better to end it. More rarely, the patients were psychotic.
One of the many symptoms sometimes displayed by people experiencing psychosis is clanging, which is typified by compulsive rhyming and alliteration, the use of words based on how their sounds relate to other words, rather than their meaning, and disorganized speech. In his book Clangings, Steven Cramer has taken this symptom as the basis for a collection of poems.
My first experience of clanging was in one of the crisis rooms, while attempting to get personal information from a schizophrenic patient. His eyes glanced around the room, and he incorporated the things that he saw into a rush of alliteration and rhyme. Even though I could see his sources, his speaking made little sense. I asked his name and he answered with a singsong rhyme, which, so far as I could tell, bore no information that I needed. Another patient was paranoid and psychotic, but was deemed by the doctor and social worker to not need inpatient care. So, in the middle of the night, during a rare downtime in the emergency room, he sat waiting in the lobby and talked to me until his cab arrived. He told me a little about his life, but he kept veering into concerns about aliens. There were moments of lucidity, then he’d plunge back into his rhythmic concerns about the aliens’ plans. The cab took terribly long to arrive. Reading Clangings, I had another experience of the rhythm, rhyme and alliteration
feral sheikhs, in the sheets, amigo
Wrecked rexes, they preach shrieks,
refluxes inbred, steppe-tundra freeze reflex.
A good sniff, out snorts an inner wooly rhino.
Clangings feels like a book-length poem rather than a collection. The entire collection is tightly rhythmed in more or less rhyming quatrains. This structure allows the reader a way through the chaos of the poetry, though it is not easy going (reading a few pages left me exhausted as those long-ago conversations). Cramer is acrobatic in his wordplay, and the reader is quickly caught up in this. The simple structure of the quatrains belies the difficult syntax and slang and creates the reading equivalent of running down a steep hill, when momentum is the way that the runner keeps their footing. Thrown into this, are moments of lucidity. After being battered by lines like:
If an elf owl’s about to kill, he’ll nick
its greedies in time, strafe my mouth,
take a summer pump and cool off…
Dickey’s what a tear in the eye’ll reflect
the reader suddenly comes across something like
I’m speaking with my mother’s voice
because she always told me what to say.
Because he always told me what to say,
I’m speaking with my father’s voice.
It may seem a welcome break, but in the rush of clangings that the reader is accustomed to, such clarity becomes alien. They trip the reader as much as they provide a point of relief, and are quickly followed by the difficult and perhaps nonsensical words that follow.
Throughout Clangings, in spite of the tumult of the narrator, Cramer manages to convey portions of the life of the character, though it is usually difficult to put a finger on specifics. The reader grasps at scraps and tries to cohere them into a narrative. Sometimes a relatively obvious meaning hides, easily, within a poem. Multiple readings bring clarity. I had to read passages such as
Stashed my secret name in its haven.
Think I mean dick when I say Dickey?—
I do and I don’t; or did, but won’t say
anyway. Makes a greener chameleon […]
at least twice before it struck how simple the meanings can be. The book contains a biography of casual abuse from parents, lost homosexual love and inability to maintain normal human relations because of mental illness. The themes of this biography are not particularly unusual. It is the clangings and confusion Cramer uses that give the reader a deeper understanding of the narrator, that give us some insight into his suffering and his inability to hold onto reality.
Cramer has done his research while writing this collection. Numerous lines come from books and articles about the disorganized thinking that manifests during psychotic mental illness. He has taken these phrases, modified and repurposed them for the poems. These lines, however, are inconspicuous within the poems. It was only when I finished reading that I noticed the citations at the end and knew that they were not Cramer’s. That the whole sounds so similar to these legitimately psychotic phrases shows that his research allowed him the ability to mimic the sounds and rhythm of speech of psychotic individuals. Cramer’s method also suggests that the human experience of any person, be they mentally ill or not, is relatively similar to that of the rest of the species. Even when their communication is garbled and disjointed, we are able to glean meaning and understanding, and to empathize with their suffering.
I had not thought much of the time when I worked in the emergency room, until reading Clangings. Only a few pages into the collection, I remembered those experiences clearly, as if they had just happened, propelled by stanzas, such as:
the outlets, swipe the prints
off DVDs, weep up the tea
stains where once were coffee.
Not one seep from him since.
These moments pile up and overwhelm. I had this reaction initially, eager to get through the experience. This in itself would have made me declare Steven Cramer’s book a success—he hit close to the mark and was able to vividly recreate such disorienting, and often impossible, conversations. However, as I made my way through this collection, I realized that there were bits that I could connect together to find meaning and understanding in the confusion. Clangings made me remember the humanity of those people, to think again about the frustration and fear experienced when confronted by mental illness, no doubt to the greatest extent by those who are ill; to empathize with those patients who so confused and frightened me over a decade ago.