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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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Acres of Light by Katherine Gallagher (Arc Publications)

Acres of Light by Katherine Gallagher (Arc Publications)

‘grass grows beneath us: minute blades stir,
flicker – something is happening – a season
emptying into the moment, rinsing clean.’

I was struck by these closing lines of ‘Elan’, the first poem in this publication of New Poems by Katherine Gallagher. I like the liquidity of movement, that use of ‘rinsing’ with its delicate nod towards Hopkins’s ‘Spring’ in which ‘echoing timber does so rinse and wring’. I like the urgent sense of the present and the way in which its immediacy follows on from the stanza before in which ‘Children’s voices / split the air’. I am left almost waiting for ‘the little / lame balloonman’ to whistle his way out of ee cummings

‘and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful’

On the back cover of this fine Arc volume Martyn Crucefix writes of the poet’s new collection being ‘bejewelled throughout with haiku-like moments of vivid observation’:

‘Her delighted responses – in particular to the natural world – serve to peel away the film of familiarity through which we usually gaze’.

Many of these poems evoke the world of journeying and the accumulations acquired along the way. As the epigraph to ‘Odyssey’ puts it, ‘The danger of travelling / is how it takes you over’. We move from Maldon (the poet’s birthplace in Victoria) to Chartres; a ring bought in Florence becomes a talisman in Welsh fog near Brecon; the gold-mining town of Daylesford in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range is haunted by the poet’s mother whilst a leisurely riverboat ride ‘through Shepperton to Hampton Court’ follows the Thames. The Homeric theme of nostos threads its way through the years as well as the miles and Gallagher remembers ‘the lights of a hundred cities’ to none of which does she quite belong:

‘arriving by motorway, train or plane,
sucked into streets of languages
controlling locales, time, the air.

Which way, a thrum of questions, adapting lines
pidgin speak, as each city revealed
its minarets and spires, the glasshouses
of a chameleon century…’

We are not in the world of vertigo and claustrophobia that squats heavily upon Todgers Guest House in the early pages of Martin Chuzzlewit:

‘You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and round about, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall or was stopped by an iron railing, and felt that the means of escape might possibly present themselves in their own good time, but that to anticipate them was hopeless.’

Katherine Gallagher’s memories of her mother pour themselves out, emptying the past into the present, rinsing clean so that

‘I imagine you here, being yourself, striding

beneath a theatre of stars.’

Ian Brinton 3rd January 2017

Laozi: Daodejing A new version in English by Martyn Crucefix Enitharmon Press

Laozi: Daodejing  A new version in English by  Martyn Crucefix Enitharmon Press

The introduction Martyn Crucefix provides to his remarkably engaging new version of Laozi’s Daodejing is not only an introduction to the 6th Century mystic but also to the world of poetry. The opening sentence presents us with a story:

‘It’s said the keeper of the western gate, whose name was perhaps Yin Xi, realised the old librarian from the royal archives of the state of Zhou did not intend to return.’

The dramatic immediacy of this opening draws the reader in: it has the quality of the story-teller of which Brecht (who wrote his own version of the story in 1938 in which the gatekeeper is presented as a Customs Officer) would have thoroughly approved.

‘He knew the old man as a quiet, wise character, never someone at the heart of activities, never excluded by others, an observer, seldom observed, always ready to offer advice, not eager to thrust himself forward, often ignored, never wisely. The gatekeeper called, “Old Master, Laozi! If you intend not to return, if you mean to renounce the world, then leave a record of your thoughts. Write me a book to remember you by.” The old man climbed down from his humble oxcart, borrowed pen and ink. A few hours later, he handed Yin Xi a script of some 5000 characters and then continued westwards, never to be seen again.’

I am reminded immediately of that marvellous opening to Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era where the American critic has given us a glimpse of a chance meeting in London between Henry James (clad in a red waistcoat) and a ‘quick jaunty’ Ezra Pound:

‘Which is all of the story, like a torn papyrus. That is how the past exists, phantasmagoric weskits, stray words, random things recorded. The imagination augments, metabolizes, feeding on all it has to feed on, such scraps.’

The poems Crucefix offers his readers are a gateway into a new experience and moving forward from the third century scholar, Wang Bi, he recreates what he refers to in Laozi as ‘a distinctive voice, a coherent poetic style – alluringly laconic, clipped, coolly enigmatic’. He also refers to ‘a kind of poetry which enthusiastically accepts that its profound and heartfelt messages are inevitably compromised by the need to express them in the form of language, hence demanding that it employ a variety of technical manoeuvres, that it stays light on its feet.
When Beckett was in close conversation with Georges Duhuit he contemplated the limitations of language for the literary artist in a manner that has become memorable. In reply to the artist’s question about what the dramatist would prefer to do as opposed to ‘going a little further along a dreary road’, Beckett replied:

‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’

Martyn Crucefix tells us of Laozi writing ‘a kind of poetry which ‘enthusiastically accepts that its profound and heartfelt messages are inevitably compromised by the need to express them in the form of language, hence demanding that it employ a variety of technical manoeuvres, that it stays light on its feet’. As the commonplaces of human experience become ‘realistic emblems of man’s spiritual nature’ (Andrew Crozier writing about the poetry of John Riley) one is reminded of Bishop Grosseteste in Lincoln whose short treatise De Luce (‘On Light’) merged an Aristotelian terminology with a concern for matter as substance. The light of which Grosseteste wrote was not the ordinary physical light of everyday experience, but was a simple substance, almost spiritual in its properties. For Grosseteste light multiplies itself by its very nature: a pinpoint of beginning radiates outwards an infinite number of times and, rather like Crucefix’s comment about Laozi’s sense of the Dao, ‘the one precedes the many’.

‘STILLNESS’
chapter 48

– the art of knowledge consists
in adding day by day to your store

the art of the way consists
in subtraction day after day

subtract then again subtract
till you reach a point of stillness

since it is only through stillness
that all things are activated

in far off days those great ones
who influenced men and women

did not interfere—if they had
who would have followed them

This is an attractively produced book from Enitharmon and Martyn Crucefix has brought a high level of seriousness to bear upon the relationship between these ancient poems and the poetry of the now.

Ian Brinton 4th December 2016

The Time We Turned by Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Chapbooks)

The Time We Turned by Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Chapbooks)

In Mary Lavin’s short story ‘The Widow’s Son’ a woman waits outside her gate for her son to come home from school. A passing neighbour stops and comments upon the steepness of the hill next to the farmhouse and suggests that it is a feature of such prominence that it will be found on the Ordnance Survey map:

“If that’s the case,” said the widow, “Patrick will be able to tell you all about it. When it isn’t a book he has in his hand it’s a map.”
“Is that so?” said the man. “That’s interesting. A map is a great thing. A map is not an ordinary thing. It isn’t everyone can make out a map.”

The conversation is central to the story because the widow is incapable of seeing ahead; she is incapable of recognising how her bullying manner in bringing up her son will lead to her losing him. Maps not only refer to the way places relate to each other; they also bring back memories and arouse expectations. They reveal a sense of how we relate to the world around us.

In his powerful poem ‘The map house’, the opening piece in the volume The Time We Turned (Shearsman Chapbook, 2014), Martyn Crucefix presents us with a delicate and moving understanding of how maps and memory intertwine.

‘When I knew him I knew him in the city
then in this northern town

there he was walking towards me
still balding aggressively though slate-grey tufts

and corkscrews the colour of the skies
on that morning above the fells

proliferated over and round his ears—
there beside him the son I’d never seen

though by then he was already six years old
and that morning already two Easters ago

The man recalled! The opening statement in the past tense, emphasised by the placing of ‘then’ as the first word of the second line, gives way to movement as ‘was’ is juxtaposed with the present participle, ‘walking’. The looming reconstruction has a cinematic effect with the phrase ‘towards me’ and the vista widens to include ‘the son I’d never seen’. An elegiac tone is introduced with the sense of a particular moment of the past being high-lighted with the distance of ‘then’ giving way to ‘that morning’ and the poet’s removedness from the picture, the map, is offered to us with the finality of ‘already two Easters ago.’
The second section of the poem gives us the context for the thoughts which have returned now although the poet lost touch with his friend. The owner of the temporary accommodation in which the poet sits has ‘decked’ (note the association with oceans of travel) the house ‘with maps of all kinds / both upstairs and down’. In looking at these maps Crucefix discovers what Philippe Jaccottet was to term an ‘ouverture’: a rent in the world, an opening through which the past becomes immediate once more:

‘One of those evenings we met in the city
he confessed his love of the thrill

of standing on the ground floor of Stanfords
on Long Acre of being surrounded

by maps and globes and charts in books’

The shop in Covent Garden, on Long Acre, merges the rural and the urban in its placing and the poet remembers that what really excited his friend about maps was not to do with dimensions (‘the length or breadth of a map’) but with its ‘other hidden dimension…something always there if you look for it’.
This is a serious elegy and its conclusion points to a dimension which goes far beyond the particular:

‘I’d want to tell it right—some obscurely-
inherited sense of debt or what promise is it
we make to those we hardly see for years—

I’d want to say it was past seven o’clock
or perhaps by then even seven-fifteen—

I’m sure of it now—a quarter past the hour
was the time we turned and part of what it meant’

The tone of voice is that of W.S. Graham’s ‘The Thermal Stair’. But as I re-read the poem for the third time what came most to my mind was a letter written in 1842 describing Matthew Arnold’s reaction to the death of his father, Thomas, the famous Headmaster of Rugby School:

‘Matthew spoke of one thing which seemed to me very natural and affecting: that the first thing which struck him when he saw the body was the thought that their sole source of information was gone, that all that they had ever known was contained in that lifeless head. They had consulted him so entirely on everything, and the strange feeling of their being cut off for ever one can well imagine.’

The Time We Turned
is a chapbook of ‘New Poems’ and it contains a sequence of sixteen sonnets inspired by the writing of the Galician Rosalia de Castro and, as the blurb on the back of this lovely little book states, these sonnets ‘explore the way in which we inhabit time’. I urge you to get hold of this little thirty-page volume: you will return to it time and time again.

Ian Brinton 2nd December 2015

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