Guest Review: Loveday on Crucefix

Mike Loveday reviews
by Martyn Crucefix

The first time I was going to a Martyn Crucefix reading a few years back, I asked a poetry tutor of mine what he was like as a poet. She said (I’m paraphrasing) “Same generation as Simon Armitage. Never quite had the same publicity but his poems are just as good. In fact his poems are sexier.”

I think it was the first time I had heard poetry described as “sexy”. It reminded me of Ruud Gullit’s coining of the phrase “sexy football” at Euro ‘96, and the words stuck in my mind, perhaps because most of the poetry I seemed to be reading at the time was decidedly unsexy.

So I have to tell you now that Martyn Crucefix’s new book Hurt is not really “sexy” in the traditional sense. I don’t know if you find this disappointing, but you shouldn’t. This is a wonderful book of poems – charged with a quiet intensity, with a sense of drama filtered by intelligence. The poems speak with a voice of battle-weary, passionate celebration. It seems to me it is concerned with meditating upon both the spiritual and physical worlds (both of mankind and nature), upon the conflict between life and death, youth and age, change and lack of change.

Crucefix is a poet who fuses the sensual and cerebral, and the poem Water-Lily is a perfect example, combining intense close-up scrutiny of objects with an instinct for retreat. It opens with marvellous, musical description:

“Mysterious – priapic – in her slow ascent
through olive-green, cloudy particulate water…
her dark bomb rising, an old balancing act
on a turgid stalk…
[a] series of pan-flat, broadening leaves
that wince red to racing green at the strain
of powering out of the pond’s darkest places.”

By the end of the poem the speaker is seemingly trapped in weariness:

“You see the crud, skeletal leaves, the sink back,
say you’ve no reply to what she just said
since you carry such freight, so much baggage,
the worst and best of it your love of language.”

The poet-speaker stands as witness waiting “at the cross-hairs | of words and things” hoping for them to align, which is as good an evocation as any of what a poet battles with.   

Crucefix doesn’t flinch from painful or dark material. So we are offered poems like Beyond the Bee Farm where a bee frets around two children and then stings the speaker, and the bee is described in both instances with the clinical fascination of a mortician:

“…a blur
of bee-malice, razor-edged
now buried in her hair.
I watch this from above…

You streak past my eye
to floppy folds of hair,
a choleric head-noise,
a thrill in my ear –
tiny reflex stinger
finds my scalp, goes in.

…I saw the cap and spike
the tiny black thorn
like a kaiser’s helmet
as it was withdrawn

delicately from my head”

The speaker seems slow in responding to the bee’s threat that he appears almost heartless (“no longer certain | who needs to be rescued”), and yet there is such deep concern in this poem – both for the human world of sensory experience, and also for the natural world of the bee.

The relationship between parent and child repeatedly surfaces in this book, alongside poems about the chaos of modern life and ideas of withdrawal, loss and hard-won insight. Time after time the poems search for consolation, but the speakers in them are often consoled not by faith, or human relationships, but by the details absorbed by the eye or ear. Scraps describes how a father longs for his son to be ‘anchored’ by some kind of faith – “this is what I hope for him: | a stronger belief than I knew”, but the speaker begins and ends the poem enthralled by the smallest of observations inside a cathedral: “…terracotta tiles. | Or the dusty glimmer of brass”, even risking frivolously “[a] cherub’s backside”. Details are what sustain the speaker; as in Larkin’s Church Going, the use of observation is entwined with a faith in its most secular guise, and the speaker senses belief being transmitted to his son: “something remains – | a single thread slipped the shears | passing on from me to him”.

The middle section of the book (‘Essays in Island Logic’) is a sequence poised between narrative and meditation, in free verse stanzas functioning like a painterly series of feathered brush strokes. The poems alternate between the points of view of a husband, wife and son on an island overseas (tellingly, one with a dormant volcano). The moods shift and ebb, mixing a sense of adventure with domestic security, and feelings of alienation and risk.

There is something more elusive and opaque about this part of the book – I felt I was walking along a road that I couldn’t quite see for it shimmering with the rising heat. And yet the balancing of three different perspectives, and the mingling of ideas of travel, home and exile is appealing. A quotation from another island poem elsewhere in the book (Wilderness) seems to capture the combination of qualities in this second part of the book:

“a thing of gleams
and flashes, clock-slow
movement or the rapid
approach of danger,
of escape”.

The stand-out poems in the collection (beyond those already mentioned) for me include a delicate, restless poem Keats about the Romantic poet in Charles Brown’s house Wentworth Place, and the heart-breaking Calling in the Dark, where the speaker overhears his parents as their mobile phone calls his by accident “I cannot bear to pry | on what is coming closer | and will carry them away”. But one of the most remarkable poems here is the intense Stag Beetle. We begin the poem assuming we’re listening to a human speaker, self-consciously using second-person narrative: “More than an hour ago | you gave up the task…Now disentangling again | these extraordinary legs” but in fact the poem is written from the point-of-view of the beetle addressing the human observer (the voice is deliberately ambiguous, the revelation not confirmed until line fifteen’s “my six feet like clamps”). The poem gradually deepens its observation:

“You try
to imagine how it must be
to live within edges
toothed and raw, a pack
of saws ripped from some
black hole in creation.”

The voice of the beetle becomes increasingly dark, emphatic and threatening, yet still in the end fused with the identity of the human observer:

“Oh yes I am the stag
of your age and occlusion.
You must fight me now.
I am not yet dead.”

Time, craft and the fires of experience fuel this collection of poems. This is a book which gradually fascinates. You don’t notice each poem falling in step with you and then you suddenly find it has grabbed you by the collar and is leading you somewhere important, somewhere that matters. The pattern and shape of these poems is noticeable – the collection combines a series of longer poems; a scattering of poems in couplets; the sequence of free verse poems echoing each other. Yet rhyme is sparing, the language never overly-dense. This gentle impression of craft suggests a deep care for human patterning in the midst of the fury and loss described.

Despite the Hurt, the book ends hopefully to suggest that – after shedding the trappings of daily life (“Begin by abandoning | sandals, summer clothes”) there might be an arrival and a sense of belonging negotiated with this difficult world – the image of a boat mooring, having cut through the turbulent waves:

“till its gentle bass
booms securely home
in this delicate love
that allows the world
to wear us, a brooch,
allows us our wearing
of this wilderness.” 

Mike Loveday is a widely-published British poet, and editor of 14 magazine.  He is currently completing an MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University.  He has a debut pamphlet forthcoming shortly.