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The Lovely Disciplines by Martin Crucefix (Seren Books)

The Lovely Disciplines by Martin Crucefix (Seren Books)

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

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STANZE by Simon Marsh (Oystercatcher Press)

STANZE by Simon Marsh (Oystercatcher Press)

In an interview with Jane Davies, published by Shearsman in Talk about Poetry (2007), Peter Robinson focused upon one of the most damaging aspects of poetry-writing since the world of The Movement. The interviewer made a short and clear point when in suggesting that Robinson’s poems ‘seem to address lived experience in recognizable forms of human expression’ to which the reply came:

‘You’ve put your finger on something that absolutely baffles me about the contemporary poetry scene. I thought this was what poetry did or does, and it often doesn’t seem to, strangely enough, because most poetry now isn’t much like this’

Robinson went on to quote the Italian poet Franco Fortini who had addressed him at a Cambridge poetry festival with the disarming question ‘Why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?’ It is as though being scared to be seen as serious we have to adopt layers of thick-skinned irony.

When I read Simon Marsh’s sixteen sonnets, each placed in its own stanza, its little room of memory, clouds lifted: here was a deeply moving poetry of lyricism and grace. Shafts of light break through cloud as memories and hopes surface in such a manner as to remind us of a world of love that has been central to poetry since the earliest writing. This is an uplifting and wonderful book!

In a short essay about the poetry of Peter Hughes (‘Pulling on the Feathered Leggings’) Simon Marsh quoted Gene Tanta saying that ‘writers who use language as a fluid artefact of the commons help to dislodge static notions of selves’. He also referred to Peter Hughes’s ‘attentive crafting’ and ‘uncommonly complete freeing up of the powers of observation.’ This precision, an awareness of the moment, filters its light through the joint volume Hughes and Marsh did for Shearsman five years ago, The Pistol Tree Poems. The last section of that remarkable book was written the year before publication and after the death of Simon Marsh’s partner Manuela Selvatico to whose memory these Oystercatcher STANZE are dedicated. In number 86 of The Pistol Tree Poems we read

‘tiles of
primary brightness
cast in
muntin shadow
a tattered map
fallen
at my feet
whenever
we were lost
we held
each other’s breath’

That ‘tattered map’, with its seventeenth-century sense inherited from Donne, is a future fractured and in number 102 we are confronted with an Odyssean figure ‘tied to the mast’ who may ‘settle back alone’ but whose awareness of life is so strong that ‘kelp shadow stuns the air’. The muntin strips which divide up a pane of glass provide a frame, a structure, within which the glass can remain as filter for the light of prospects now dissolved. A map may be tattered but as with Donne’s experience on the shortest day of the year the poet can be ‘re-begot /Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.’ This sense of presence within absence is hauntingly caught on the cover of this compelling Oystercatcher: lines which could be empty musical staves, horizons, skylines are also the strings of a guitar which is there poised to play again. And so in the third of these little rooms, fourteen-lined STANZE, we hear a voice

‘you gave me back the poetry
the will to breathe in tunes
unravelled the strings of years
& tied light bows to my tail’

The escaping from past imprisonment, the unravelling of those netting strings woven by the years, brings to my mind Charles Olson’s urgent plea in his poem ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’, ‘disentangle the nets of being’. The opposite of the entanglement is graceful movement as a kite lifts in the air and streams its ‘light bows’ out behind it.
Serious Art allows the fleeting a place to rest; it also looks far forward as well as back; it is movement which does not just atrophy:

‘you promised me Dante after supper
the circumstances no longer exist
only changes in air scent
intensely captured light
page-bound radiance of individual days
when we last scooped vacant autumn oysters
from low tide silt at Minnis Bay’

Dante’s ‘lucerna del mondo’ is of such brightness and human reality is not easily put aside. As Simon Marsh puts it ‘sentiment as fluid / can cross oceans due to light’. This is not ending a poem with ‘a little laugh’; it is coming to terms with the individual ache of loss and the common grounds of human thought which we share.

I don’t think that I can make it much clearer: GET A COPY OF THIS BOOK NOW. Copies are available from Peter Hughes at Oystercatcher Press, 4 Coastguard Cottages, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk PE36 6EL.

Ian Brinton 7th March 2016

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