Sunday, September 29, 2013

THE CRIMINAL INTENSITIES OF LOVE AS PARADISE (Robert Kroetsch) review by Tanja Cvetkovic


Author : Tanja Cvetkovic


“The Criminal Intensities of Love As Paradise” (1981) is Kroetsch’s long poem concluding Field Notes. His search for a new poetic form that he had been making during his long literary career came to its full light in this poem. The poem diverges from the conventions of the lyric tradition and, in typical Kroetschian style, distrusts the authority of  the author, foregrounds the poem as process rather than product, with the focus on the generative meaning resisting closure. Apart from the concern with voice and Kroetsch’s use of multiple voices, these are mainly the features of the long poem as defined by Cindy McMann in her article.1

McMann compares the features of long poem and Kroetsch’s “The Criminal Intensities” to the experimental jazz of the mid-twentieth century. She focuses on rhythm and voice as a point of divergence from the conventions of the lyric tradition which both “The Criminal Intensities” and the most influential jazz of the 1960s have in common. Jazz music uses the lyric form like the long poem, and by citing Heble that “jazz like language is a system of signs”2, McMann explains that in “The Criminal Intensities” the process of narrative is explored in the way that “language becomes its own narrative and its own end”.3 So, if “The Sketches of a Lemon” is a poem about words and words and words, then “The Criminal Intensities” is a poem about the way the words relate and how the poem builds upon its own language the way musical pieces in jazz build upon their own language. Both in the poetics of long poetry and in the jazz aesthetics, we deal with fractured subjectivity and disunified voice. In the interview to Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy, Kroetsch explains that in this poem there are even not pronouns at all because “[he] can’t handle pronouns anymore”.4 A focus on the beginning rather than on end and closure, the emphasis on process and activity are features characteristic of both streams of thought.

The structure of the poem is very specific. It consists of two lyric narratives. The narrative in the left-hand column is created through sound and visuals while the narrative in the right-hand column is more traditional and is undermined by indeterminacy and open-endedness of the left text. The left-hand column is  based on the imagery of two lovers with the narrative beginning in the morning when the lovers wake up and ending in the evening when the lovers go back to their tent in Jasper Park, Alberta.

The poem opens up with “Morning, Jasper Park” and the activity of the lovers which is immediately undermined by the left text and the first word: “etymologies”.


of sun or

stone of ear

and listening


the bent of

birth on edge

the chrysalis

and parting bone


old as old as

time as time


hand of hand5


The word “etymologies” refers to the history and the origin of a word and in combination with the rest of the words “of sun or/ stone of ear/ and listening” invokes timelessness. The words “listening” and “ear” suggest that the reader should be aware of what the words convey, should listen to how the words relate. The idea of birth and beginning that is introduced in the second stanza at the beginning of the poem is actually underlined at the end of the poem, where instead of closure and end, the author suggests new beginning by filling the closing lines with the imagery of birth:


the closed eye

listen &

O  nesting tongue

hatch the world6


The lovers’ activity, their going to the tent to sleep at night (“the closed eye”), is undercut by the imagery of birth (“nesting” and “hatch”). McMann suggests in her article that “the poem at this point offers a new genesis, and directs the reader in their readerly duties at the very point where traditionally those duties are about to cease”.7

The right-hand narrative is opposed to the verbal energy produced by the left-hand text and explores the lovers’ sojourn throughout the day. The narrative consists of actions that are near to completion, or that we can not be sure how they end. The lovers wake up, they quarrel, they don’t take the leap, they don’t go to the ice fields, they want to have a quickie,  they go for a swim, but we don’t know the results of their actions. McMann explains that the story is not the one that has happened, “but one that is continuous. It is not so much storytelling as a demonstration of how one would go about telling a story”.8 Kroetsch’s  interest is  “not story, but the act  of telling the story”.9

The left-hand text abounds in audio and visual imagery. The image of the bear scenting is a pontential threat for lovers:


forest & fain

& would lie down


rank as the rank

scenting of bear

bear baiting



catching & bruit



The bear, “baiting breath/ catching & bruit (noise)”, keeps the lovers awake. It is a symbol of instincts, the beginning, the unconscious, the sexual encounter that awaits the lovers.

The sexual act between the lovers is introduced by the orgasmic moment in the left text:


the darting of

& tongue & tongue

sheet or heat of



cry out & cry


as alabaster is

or dipping gull11


The scene ends by alabaster’s descent into water anticipating the orphic element. After that, the author goes on meditating on death:


& death as proud

as death

or  harping amphion

arouse a wall12


According to Walter A. Strauss, the descent into Hades is the second important moment of the Orpheus myth.13 Here the erotic merges with death instinct.

Shirley Neuman argues that the left text is written in the language of the unconscious, or as Lacan explains, a language whose structure is based on methaphor and metonymy. She claims that the left text “slides into metaphor only as the lovers themselves slide into dreams”.14 The left text is the quest for the origins of language, according to Neuman, and by locating the origins in the unconscious, which is plural, unstable, unreliable, so that the poem plays in “the difference between the name of the song, what the name is called, what the song is called, and what the song is”.15 In Lacanian sense, the meaning of the poem, as well as the name of the poem (“Love as Paradise”) is continually deferred. Neuman asks the crucial questions: “Where then is the poem to be found? What is the relationship of the rational language of the right hand text to this plurality of ‘meaning’ (ever glimpsed, ever deferred) in the left? Where does the fulfillment of the lovers, of the poem, lie?”16 The answer is in the gap between the conscious and the unconscious, in the space between two columns, between language as system and  language which undermines that system. Neuman concludes that fulfillment, in the Kroetschian vocabulary, is orgasm or death.17 Or fulfillment never happens and is deferred too.


1 Cindy McMann. “The Long Poem and the Jazz Aesthetic: Robert Kroetsch’s ‘The Criminal Intensities of Love As Paradise’”. Interdisciplinary Humanities. Vol. 23 Issue 2 (Fall 2006): 87-98.

2 Heble in Cindy McMann. 88.

3 Ibid., 95.

4Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy. Poets talk. (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2005): 16.

5 Robert Kroetsch.  Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).

6 Ibid.

7 Cindy McMann. “The Long Poem and the Jazz Aesthetic: Robert Kroetsch’s ‘The Criminal Intensities of Love As Paradise’”. Interdisciplinary Humanities. Vol. 23 Issue 2 (Fall 2006): 95.

8 Ibid.

9 Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson. Labyrinths of  Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch.(Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1982): 120.

10 Robert Kroetsch.  Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).

11 Ibid.


13 Walter A. Strauss. Descent and Return: The Orphic Theme in Modern Literature. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1971): 1-19. According to Strauss, the first major moment of the Orpheus myth is Orpheus as a singer and prophet who establishes harmony in the cosmos, the second is the descent into Hades and the loss of Eurydice and the third element is the dismemberment of Orpheus.

14 Shirley Neuman. “Figuring the Reader, Figuring the Self in Field Notes: ‘Double or Nothing’”. Open Letter 5: 8-9. (Summer-Fall 1984): 182.

15 Ibid., 183.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.






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