Wednesday, March 21, 2018

a judder slams sudden clouds

Martyn Crucefix (b. 1956)

Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990)  (nb his first collection)

On Whistler Mountain (1994)



The first thing I want to say about Martyn Crucefix is that he comes from Trowbridge, which makes him (so far as I’m concerned) the most famous modern Trowbridgian, with the sole exception of Stephen Lee, that comfortably upholstered snooker player with the cue-action. (Less recently, Isaac Pitman, inventor of Pitman shorthand system, was a famous son...and George Grabbe lived there in his latter years).  On my own side of the county boundary, in Frome, we can lay claim to the Shoe-bomber and Jenson Button (alas, does his name already require  the explanatory note "racing driver"?)  and Jemma-Anne Gunning, the topless Maenad rejected from Faliraki. Plus I think I'm right in claiming that Peter Redgrove first met Penelope Shuttle at the George Hotel. And perhaps Samuel Daniel, from nearby Beckington, can be chalked up to our credit in this imaginary competition between E. Somerset and W. Wiltshire.  






Rounded brown toe-caps

are the wet muzzles. . . of what?

They browse through puddles, mud

and grass. They’re at home with thistles,

nettle, thorn – the voice I imagine

is the leathery mooing of contented cattle.

You say, what do they talk about?

“Look around – there is plenty to love!”

And sure enough, every step

has left its token in the caterpillar track

of their soles: grit and dust,

a piece of grass, pale stones like pips

caught in teeth

at the end of a slap-up meal.


- - -


                 (...) the essence

of ‘bootness’ which is what I like.

Oh, with your padded leather backs,

grip, grip always my ankles high up.

Ride rough-shod under my human soles.


                                                            (“Shoe Pieces. 2. Boots”, OWM)



We want a more direct experience of nature, and take our boots out of the wardrobe. The boots enable us to get out onto Striding Edge; but in a way they enable us by insulating us. The knobbly rocks are soothed. We stand in a puddle and don’t get wet – it’s the boots that browse through the puddle. So we personify the boots, partly in envy of their total involvement with stuff, partly in a spirit of fantasy that lets us share the involvement but without the discomforts.


The miles go by, and this raw desire for nature subsides; the earth loses its colour, the ground loses its particularity and becomes vast. Now we appreciate the function of good boots; the grip, the ride, the walking they do for us. We no longer wish to cram our souls with stuff, but to make camp. I think, the next time I clatter down a stream-bed at dusk, I will find myself saying: Ride rough-shod under my human soles.


I have a distaste for these appropriations of cliché and groaning puns. (So it’s unfortunate that both mainstream and innovative poets are addicted to them.) But I’ll make an exception for this line. The “under” is nurturing, like a hull or a womb. “Ride”, once a stable-word, now suggests a car chewing up distance while the stereo thumps smoothly.





She leaves him, Johnson-powdered,

a dusty nude, squatting on her bed,

a little Buddha, pulling his toes.


The bathroom’s a fug where she kept

the gas-heater blasting because he

played for ages in inches of water.


Not vain (just the mirror’s well-placed),

she takes a look at herself in passing,

registers something remote and greyed


crossing beneath the condensation.

She pulls out the plug as a ripping

scream panics her back, expecting


bright blood, a disfiguring dive

to the floor, twisted limbs at least.

He still sits plumb on the bed,


reading his palms and wailing a high

continuous wound in the air

at his chubby fingers, their wrinkling.


                                                (“Accident”,  OWM)




She sees him as a little man; her own perception is adult, complicated by words and associations. She makes a judgment: fug. She gets into a tangle with noticing she’s not vain and maybe that’s vain and if I were vain would I feel what I really do feel, remote and greyed? At the sound of the scream she expects what she really doesn’t expect, exaggerating the images so that they seem less likely. In short, she’s altogether a normal person. The child sees the metamorphosis of his hands, and is horrorstruck by the enormous injury that he hasn’t even felt. He will learn to overcome his direct experience of nature, sensibly, but lose it in the process.    


Crucefix has written sound advice about giving readings: train your voice, slow down, mix the intense with the relaxed, make ‘em lauqh make ‘em cry. Some of this aesthetic has got into the composition-stage, too. This is a poet who is conscious of an audience, who is aware of how his poem will play.


I feel a resistance. Perhaps it is an absurd competitiveness, a reluctance to admire someone whose career feels too ironically close to mine. I question the contemporary ordinariness of his persona, the conversational ease with which he says



            I’d known him at school



            This seems so Gallic



            These days it’s turned by a tug on a rope



            They’d always out in the end



            All that’s irrefutable

            is the swift Mercedes coach



                        What is remaining

            of your atmosphere is lost as you

            adjust to ours



            By day, she sold the real thing

            from buckets on the quay



            Listen. I will explain –



            When it’s finished, he’ll gladly talk,

            how he treasures his privilege.



            as if her weeding of error has finally

            turned trumps



            I’d never have believed the way we’d come

            apart, all but lost what I’d trusted in:

            our common blood, brother’s understanding.



In the slangy ellisions, “I’d” and “They’d”, there’s a skating over the surface that makes these poems feel like addresses to the audience, not urgent meditations that tax the poet himself. And they rarely surprise. When Crucefix “does” El Caudillo, Shelley’s drowning, Wainwright (the fellwalker), a Redgrovian fantasy (“Wasps”), a demotic bit of Chaucer, elegies for the dead, semi-dramatic monologues, interlaced narratives such as “Rosetta” and “On Whistler Mountain”... the poem’s achievement is always a bit close to the expectation. Poems about paintings, about formative sexual experience, about family history, foreign trips. Yes, I reflect ungratefully, these are the kind of poems one does write.


Not that predictability precludes satisfaction. “Teacher” (in OWM) is an intensely lustful poem (the teacher for a female pupil) – the more clearly he sees her, the more his vision is distorted with desire, and the poem ends with (what he uprightly suppresses, so the poem maintains a certain jaunty comedy)



            that hot, unpatrolled dormitory of himself

            where she did nothing but sleep and please him.



Though at the outset the poem unnervingly recalls Don’t stand so close to me, not to mention Yes sir, I can boogie, the final effect is troublingly sad, and sexy, and funny. I should also do justice to “Wasps” (in OWM). There is no fear in Redgrove’s poems; but Crucefix makes you flinch:



            Jointed twiggy legs hold me down

            beneath a swivelling, oiled head

            as uncommunicative as stone.

            Its long abdomen is like a cob of maize

            I find velvety to the touch.    



I do find the poems sustaining. Re-reading “El Caudillo” (in BTR), for example, one locks on to the pines, the “thickening layers of needles”, and a curious contrast between two kinds of cleanness. The be-suited entourage return down the slope, “kicking up flares of pine needles before them”, and get into the black cars, with their antiseptic “click and cough of the doors”. One briefly imagines pine-needles on the floor of the car. The image comes alive with expression – of the abstraction in which a business decision is made, still influenced by the surroundings that are scarcely even observed, though they were chosen by someone. The kicking expresses discomfort as well as excitement, impatience; it is an adjustment to the decision now made, an adjustment that is necessary whatever one’s feelings might have been beforehand.  



But I forget what I’m here for.


(“Midsummer at High Laver”, BTR)


In this poem the poet makes a “self-conscious” visit to John Locke’s place of burial, but the poem takes an unexpected course, distracted by thoughts about ageing parents and by an irrigator. That’s often when the poems begin to strike marvellous insights – it’s those scatterings, rather than the poems as finished forms, that sustain me. 



            I watch the flailing mare’s-tail, the jet-stream

            spray of the irrigator beside the church.

            Its white angle above the potato fields

            seems to crumple to a vaporous nothing, yet

            a judder slams sudden clouds of fizzing spray.



(mare’s-tail, an aquatic plant with plumy foliage, swaying in slow streams – water-milfoil would have been an even better image, but mare’s-tail has a more suggestive name, precluding the need for botany). This spasmodic irrigator is an answer, of sorts, to talk of death and even to John Locke. It is both beautiful and insane, a nurturer and a destroyer too. (The water breaks up the soil, and of course its mannerisms are disconcertingly like a machine-gun too.) It marks time passing and it doesn’t care. This irrigator is a secular sermon. It’s because of the soothing contemplation of machines that we don’t now need an after-life, perhaps. Electric wheelchairs and TV schedules reassure the old. Soothing, and numbing too. We get stalled, in a marvellous realization of the irrigator that carries on “doing its thing” after the poet has walked back to his car and the poem has ended.


In this poem, technology plays a more important role than appears at first. The abstracted motorist comes to a place of rubber thongs supporting tree saplings and of florist’s creations around a fresh grave. It is centuries away from Gray’s Elegy, as it should be.


In the long poem “On Whistler Mountain” technology is everything. This is a brilliantly complex narrative. The poet hears the news of his brother’s suicide; they went skiing in Whistler; a brutal Amerindian tale of Blackbird; they were in Vancouver at New Year; flying home; his brother’s involvement in Gulf War technology; as boys, they disinter a stone angel in an old mason’s yard. Without warning the lines switch between narratives. Then the poet starts to dream of an encounter with his dead brother, and the narratives begin to inter-mix. Eventually we contemplate this:



                                                We stood beside

            its pocky tarmac. Sunlight. A grid-lock

            of luxury saloons, jeeps, trucks, stalled

            fire engines, a bulldozer. Any set

            of wheels seemed to have been rashly commandeered to


            drive into the red heart of a firestorm,

            fierce enough to scald the windshield glass to gobs

            of silicone. That there were survivals

            at all was a miracle: a new case

            of White Flake laundry soap, slightly burned.

            A black bird face-down, is Donald Duck turned up.


            A glossy calendar – some daffodils,

            thatch, white café tables, a tall skyline...



The poem lurches off into other narratives for a line or two, and returns:



            Closer. Each of the cabs sheltered black loads,

            shapeless at first, the colour of weathered

            coal, the texture of a sooty coral.

            Memory releasing, I recognized

            what had been teeth – these grinning because

            the lower jaw and face-bottom had been torn off.


            In the flat bed of a stalled Nissan truck,

            this coal-shape went head-down, hopeful ostrich,

            its buttocks arrested in mid-air, legs

            blasted at mid-thigh, ending abruptly

            in a flutter of charcoal like the film

            of carbon it must have watched in a childhood fire.


            In the Ford ahead, a creature’s body

            has been blown open, double-doors onto

            organs neatly packed, cooked to ebony.

            In a Renault van, a squat roughened log.

            A shell-wound like a knot-hole in its chest.



This reads like a too-close-up vision of the Gulf War on the ground. But (as in Golding’s Pincher Martin), the details are imagined out of scraps from elsewhere. As the White Flake soap and Donald Duck and the vehicles suggest, this is a North American gridlock. The jawless grin suggests Blackbird’s torn-off beak, and perhaps the way that Chris killed himself. The ostrich posture recalls the poet’s fears of wipe-out on the ski-slope; the image of watching a fire recalls Louise on the night they heard the news; the log is the totem-pole they saw in Vancouver, and the shell-wound is a knot-hole in a carved figure. The intensity in the writing, controlled by the quiet syntax, really comes out of the poet’s private grief. It is avowedly a non-combatant’s poem, concerned with a war that, as many felt and claimed, seemed peculiarly like a non-combatatant’s war – a viewer’s war. Subsequent events have wrought further changes in the poem’s meaning. 


“On Whistler Mountain” would like to implicate the innocent in war’s atrocities, but we easily see that as a spasm of grief. If everyone is guilty, the guilty are not named. The poem remains troubling, innocence leaching away from orange ski-clips, New Year kisses in Vancouver, the Seattle Seahawks, satellite phones, museums...





A post written back in 2003. I would write it differently today, and apologise for the cheap shots.

Martyn's blog, a very different view of poetry than mine, but crafted, thoughtful and informative: .

You can read a couple of poems from On Whistler Mountain here:

Interesting to see him using the word "pitch" to describe a moth landing on a surface. Fresh in my mind from the recent weather, I'm always struck by Laura saying "the snow's pitching" (meaning, starting to settle). Perhaps it's a south-western expression because I never heard it in Sussex.



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