Dec 6 2017
D A Prince considers how best to appreciate the subtle poetry of Martyn Crucefix
Martyn Crucefix’s pamphlets and collections have been appearing regularly since 1990 along with such widely-praised translations as Rilke’s Duino Elegies. He is also, as the list of Acknowledgements in this collection shows, a supporter of a range of poetry magazines (including London Grip) both in print and online. It’s a list that shows commitment to the contemporary magazine scene and the editors, something I find cheering.
Crucefix has a naturally quiet poetic tone. If your taste leans to rap, performance or the loudly experimental, this collection is not for you. But if you are drawn to poems of detailed observation where language reflects shifting experience and subtle emotional changes then you will find this a rewarding collection. The experiments within The Lovely Disciplines are with language and how it can mirror relationships in the contemporary world, how it can constantly re-new itself. It asks a lot from the reader but repays both the time and the effort.
Let’s start with the final poem – not because readers start reading a collection from the back but because ‘Street View’ draws together many of the themes that emerge from the preceding poems. This collection is not ‘about’ a set of defined themes; that would be too strong a labelling of the lightness of Crucefix’s delicate approach and exploration of each individual’s place in the twenty-first century world, and our relationship with it and each other. These ideas come together in the concluding poem, whose title ‘Street View’ is then followed by this subtitle: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?hl=en&q=street+view+brent+street&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.&bpcl=3718945&biw=996&bih=921&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=wl
Why is that subtitle relevant? Because it’s the code, the web URL, for where the poet is captured by the street view camera touring his area, taking screen shots of reality.
Just a few clicks and there I am real and distant as I was on Brent Street dawdling along swinging my left arm
So words (the poem) and code (the precise street location) come together in the poet (the person) who, as he clicks on the screen, is simultaneously ‘real and distant’. Yet that’s not where he is, because where he is, now, is
where I sit at this untidy desk troubling these keys to describe the triumvirate of self and other and time
– so that where he was ‘… pixilated for my privacy’s sake’ is somehow unreal, a place where there is no comparison with the tangible world of ‘… maps or the topographical charms // and chants of the weather forecast’. It’s an in-between place, neither one thing or the other, but simultaneously – in that nervously accurate description of our relationship with the computer – ‘troubling’. Deeper into the poem he’s watching the real-time breakfast traffic news ‘in which I imagine one foggy morning / when I glimpse myself // driving to where I’ve yet to be’. This is the poet’s self suspended, both there and not there. The final lines pull all the times and places into one reality – ‘since it’s ourselves we like to cheer / for nothing or no more than just being here’ – that is as close to a positive assertion as Crucefix can get. The full rhyme supports the statement, although ‘just being here’ is a far more complex state than those words, taken out of context, suggest. But it’s the end of a long, discursive exploration of the individual’s place in time, which is why the final poem is a good way to enter this collection.
Although the collection is divided into three clearly defined sections, each with its own heading – “Scree We Ride”, “The Lovely Disciplines”, “Boy-racer” – it reads as one continuous and carefully-balanced collection, with the sections connecting easily. The central section, however, is the emotional heart of thebook where family relationships across the generations are considered within the more impersonal world of screens and Skype. For older users, the technical aspects of Skype can present problems – ‘though sometimes the laptop screen / is angled so I catch only the crowns/ of grey heads …’ – even when they have grasped the reality of connection.
even if the connection holds but if it wavers faces split to stained glass or cubist fragments or fairground mirrors still talking blithely asking me still if I can see these crocuses the lawn in sunshine their bird table where sparrows in pairs come for food and drink
While this is a description of the reality of the son-to-parents conversation, catching up on the shared minutiae of daily life, the effects of a weak connection are the same as the poet’s pixilated face in ‘Street View’ and are an effectively contemporary metaphor for the difficulties of connection. In ‘The house of your parents as a waterfall’ Crucefix explores the difficulties of a return visit to a childhood home – ‘where you find the way things are now // cannot be the way that things were then’. This leads on to the title poem in which ‘Ginny’s son and Ginny’s daughter-in-law’ are visitors in a care home/hospital, helpless in the face of reality
O no more those lovely disciplines we reassure ourselves it’s human to pursue and no more those sweet acts of will we briefly treasure or take for granted consoling ourselves that we will be spared the horror of long blue rooms like these the slack and supine and all this twaddle of decay …
To root this in our everyday negotiation between hope and reality, Crucefix balances the abstract with the visible, tactile detail of everyday routine. It’s what he calls the ‘ordinary real’ (in ‘Listening to Tippett twice’) and where the quiet strength of these poems lies. In ‘La Gioconda gone’ he examines the effect of empty space, again both as reality and as metaphor, in Brian Eccleshall’s oil painting of the space left after the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911. In ‘The boy from Wapakoneta’ he explores the difference between ‘man’ and ‘a man’ in Neil Armstrong’s words on the moon landing; that missing article is another instance of absence and the debate about what absence means. In ‘House sold’ he opens with an apparently unremarkable visit to the garden of a former home (his mother-in-law’s) and a damp exercise in digging up an unnamed object ‘the size of a sweet jar’ and wrapping it in a black bin liner. Only in the last two stanzas is the punctured object revealed to be a jar of ashes – ‘now she’s a little mixed / with its beloved soil and each step confirms // possession is temporary’. Every detail is right: the ‘sodden slippery grass’, and ‘…the earth / complicated by roots …’; it’s secretive, a private act of family connection that goes beyond death.
Crucefix writes in a consistent style without formal punctuation, a technique that can allow the shifting language to flow into the unexpected. Occasionally I was forced to stop and re-read, and choose between two valid readings, but these were rare, and an attentive ear will find a great of pleasure in the fluid and delicate balance of his poems. The Lovely Disciplines is a unified collection which reveals more with each reading – and you don’t have to start with the final poem.