Alison Croggon, “Small Things”

Small Things (from Lost Poems)
Alison Croggon

I worry for the small things
– Raising Arizona

those with teeth and thick skulls
need no advocates.
their fists are dumb machines
smashing the earth,
clumsy with the insolence
of wounded giants.
everyone knows
when the sly world plots
and slides a flat blade
through their shouting skins

and those with flexible tongues
they can look after themselves.
they use words like dangerous toys
spinning a beam of colours
into a white shield.
pain stares in its blank slant
and goes away empty handed.

but small things can’t argue
their way into shelter
when the world explodes on them
implacably as stars.
they have only feathers
for the hurricanes
and thin leaves for the fires.
when bulldozers eat their houses
they squat on the edge of valleys
with nowhere to go.
The world is too mean for trust
but generous enough for murder.
It’s getting worse. I worry
for the small things.


I deal with a lot of fundamentalists as well as men and women in their 20’s with issues. Today I dealt with a young fundamentalist who thinks he has it all together. He opened by accosting me pretty mercilessly but I took it. Then a short time later I made one brief comment to be careful regarding the circles he was in (believe me, what he’s up to is more than likely a lot, lot, lot darker than joining a megachurch) – was just saying watch out, be a bit balanced. This got me more insults. For some reason, I was expected to be friendly. I left with the intention of never talking to him again.

The feeling is less anger and more an overwhelming sadness. I spent a considerable amount of time earlier thinking about how to be more useful to others. There’s a limit to this; sometimes you have to insist on your rights, as to allow yourself to be dehumanized is to let others dehumanize themselves and others. Of course, a number of others say most people who think there’s a limit to being useful are just whiners who have no intention of helping anyone or themselves.

I believe the poem above encapsulates that sadness well. The dumb, who are stubborn, stupidly strong, and insolent can hurt us if we’re out of position. If we’re looking not to harm, they’ll harm us.

What the poem does beautifully is give us cults from its “state of nature” imagery. I know, I’m twisting the meaning a bit here: Croggon does say “sly world,” which indicts political society generally. I want to narrow it now because I think I see a glimmer of something more. Cults are not really stubborn or greedy. They’re groups formed around a certain slyness, as they eliminate the simply pained and insolent. In doing so, they replace a primal call for justice with the idea that power over everything can be had. See what we did to what was a barbaric obstacle? All problems in life can be eliminated the same way; that’s the nature of all problems.

“The sly world plots,” then, is not the sum total of politics. It’s a will to control that complements the worst demagoguery all too well. Those with “flexible tongues” are not necessarily the heart of politics. In fact, they wreck lawful orders which work to be just from the inside out. I’ve been thinking about this poem describing cults primarily because of how the tongues use words to spin colors into a “white shield.” Flexible tongues take a diversity and oversimplify it; they hide behind purity. Some of the most powerful demagogues seem to have control over life, seem to be impervious to pain. They sell an extremist vision under a guise of happiness.

I guess that’s why young people getting more cultish disappoints me. Being young should generally mean being skeptical of “it’s too good to be true” promises. Granted, there’s always going to be some who overreact to an injustice and demonstrate how powerful credulity can be. But the poem’s setting before the third stanza captures my feeling about how the young I’m around are thinking. They’re not really concerned with justice. They know who’s wrong and they think they know the way to happiness. They have the answers people 60 years older think they have, except people 60 years older HAVE to think they have those answers. There’s no time for skepticism then, and even some of the most dogmatic elderly find ways of remembering they don’t know everything, that showing generosity, patience and tolerance are the true signs of inner strength.

“Small things,” on my reading, are children and valuables we can so easily pass over. They are attacked by both man and fortune; the worst fundamentalisms exist to annihilate them utterly. There’s no stopping and smelling roses, watching birds, or reading books that someone of a different race or creed wrote. All things incompatible with the Truth must be purified, including genuine innocence. Credulousness is made the virtue of obedience, of loyalty. That’s our world: throwing out pleas for open-mindedness, justifying wholesale slaughter as strength. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Madison’s “factions” can collapse into cults in any number of circumstances. What’s so stunning nowadays is how that can happen when we have everything, how we can decide that the most vulnerable and least accepted are somehow worthy to be burned.

1 Comment

  1. Striking! I appreciate your analysis–especially the insight about how innocence itself is not exempt from their attempt to ‘purify’ everything according to their perception of truth.

    In contrast, truth maintains that all things are pure to the pure. (I tend to accept this within the context that it is referring to all things which are not intrinsically impure–delineated within context).

    Skepticism is the best loyalty when it is protective. Sort of like the dog that won’t let it’s master go where he wants to because he knows a poisonous snake is there. Or, philosophically, like Balaam’s donkey. A careful look at various fundamentalisms usually reveals that many small steps took each one where it is.

    Power, rather than leadership, is the ingredient that identifies a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A good leader is a servant.

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