There is a tone of quiet humanity in these poems and that comes as no surprise as I look back on the versions of Laozi’s Daodejing that Martyn Crucefix published last year with Enitharmon Press (Tears blog 4/12/16). There is a seriousness in the poetry, an awareness of the passing of time, which does not resolve itself into an easily achieved sense of regret. There is no bitter twist that allows a reader to sport a wry smile to accompany his awareness of the value of lived experience. I make no apology for repeating some lines from Peter Robinson’s interview with Jane Davies (Talk about Poetry, Shearsman Books, 2007) that I used in my book Contemporary Poetry: Poetry and Poets since 1990 (C.U.P. 2009). Robinson was talking about poems which address lived experience in recognisable forms of human expression and in the interview he expressed some bafflement about the contemporary poetry scene. He was puzzled by the way by the way jokes are given such importance and recounted how the Italian poet Franco Fortini had approached him at a poetry festival in Cambridge in the 1980s to ask “why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?” It seems almost as if an ironic tone is adopted to protect the poet from being seen as nakedly serious and wanting to refer to genuinely felt emotions. In contrast, the quiet tone of Crucefix’s poems reinforces Robinson’s assertion that poetry is a response to other lives and the otherness of those lives.
In ‘House sold’ the poet records those moments when he unearthed the plastic urn containing his mother-in-law’s ashes which had been buried in the garden. Now that the house has been sold, that house “your mother dressed // and warmed all those years”, the urn will accompany the family on the next move:
“now she’s a little mixed
with its beloved soil and each step confirms
possession is temporary
even a place of rest
you lean against the car as if out of breath”
The word “mixed” could be an introduction to a tone of ironic laughter: ash and soil are combined as a result of the plastic jar (“the size of a sweet jar”) being punctured by the fork used to uncover it. But any hint of embarrassment is swiftly discarded with the tread of “each step confirms” and the overwhelming simple seriousness of the statement “possession is temporary” lifts the commonplace to the universal. Thomas Hardy’s squabbling mothers in the ‘Satire of Circumstance’ poem ‘In the Cemetery’ have no place here. Hardy’s women fall out with each other concerning whose flowers are placed over whose dead children whilst the sexton comments that the babies were laid in the graves at different times “like sprats in a tin”. In fact the women are crying over what is no longer there since “we moved the lot some nights ago / And packed them away in the general foss / With hundreds more”:
“But their folks don’t know,
And as well cry over a new-laid drain
As anything else, to ease your pain!”
There are other English voices behind this careful and patient poetry and it is impossible to ignore the presence of Larkin. The title poem focuses on the ward in a home which appears to be either a resting place for those with dementia or a hospice for those about to die. If I have any doubts about tone here it rests with the Larkinesque adoption of resignation which comes a little too easily; a resignation accompanied by a seemingly all-knowing distance.
“…no brighter hope
any more for Linda where she’s settled still
in her pink dressing-gown beside her bed
neat as a serviette her eyes fixed on a man
from her V of hands while he stares at her
from his V of hands at the woman he moved
coterminous with for years who now prefers
distance and darkness and being dumb –”
My doubts are raised by the word “prefers” with its sense of choice and commitment; it takes away from the sadness of the inevitable and becomes a matter of the poet’s awareness of the choices he assumes the woman to have made. However, there is another voice behind these crafted poems and it is that of Donald Davie. It seems no accident that Crucefix has translated Pasternak’s poem ‘In Hospital’ and his awareness of the importance of rhyme and music in the Russian poet’s work is movingly transcribed with subtlety and respect:
“As if window-shopping
crowds block the way
stretcher swung aboard
paramedics in place
street shadows carved
by the ambulance’s beam
city thunders past
police and pavements dancing
as doors swing on faces
gawping the nurse’s grip
on the saline bottle
loosening as she tips
to and fro – snowfall
filling gutters quickly
paperwork in triplicate
the roar of A and E”
In a radio talk he gave for the BBC’s Third Programme in 1962 Davie spoke about the music of poetry and quoted from Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago:
“At such moments the correlation of the forces controlling the artist is, as it were, stood on its head. The ascendancy is no longer with the artist or the state of mind which he is trying to express, but with language, his instrument of expression. Language, the home and dwelling of beauty and meaning, itself begins to think and speak for man and turns wholly into music, not in the sense of outward, audible sounds, but by virtue of the power and momentum of its inward flow.”
Davie was a serious translator of Pasternak’s poetry and one of his finest poems, ‘A Winter Landscape Near Ely’ asks the sort of question that interested the Russian poet:
“What stirs us when a curtain
Of ice-hail dashes the window?”
Davie’s answer is in the sort of tone which I find in The Lovely Disciplines:
“It is the wasteness of space
That a man drives wagons into
Or plants his windbreak in.
Spaces stop time from hurting.
Over verst on verst of Russia
Are lime-tree avenues.”
Martyn Crucefix understands the central role language plays in our lives and in ‘Words and Things’ he places this awareness within the quiet context of an elderly individual who discovers “too late this absence of words” which now “builds a prison” – the poet recognises that “a man without language is no man” and that as the world of objects becomes too difficult to dominate he can only have knowledge of a world which “turns in your loosening grip”.
Ian Brinton 20th August 2017
I read this through as soon as I saw it on my mobile phone. I like the views it contains and the arguments in favour of a serious, humane art. Martin Crucefix must indeed be worth reading, to have stimulated such an essay.
Reblogged this on Martyn Crucefix.