David Cooke reviews Maitreyabandhu ‘The Crumb Road’ and Terry Cree ‘Fruit’

The Crumb Road is a debut collection from Maitreyabandhu, a Buddhist priest who was born Ian Johnson in 1961. The contemplative tone of his prefatory lyric, ‘This’, hints at the journey he has made:

There’s no law against my listening

to this thrush behind the barn,

the song so loud it echoes like a bell,

then it’s further off beyond the lawn.

Whatever there is, there’s this as well.

 

It’s a poem which, in its more modest way,  might usefully be compared with the opening movement of Eliot’s Burnt Norton and one in which Maitreyabandhu seems to be reaching towards transcendence, ‘even though we build a common hell’. The collection proper is then divided into three sections. In the first of which he evokes family memories and, in particular, creates a memorable portrait of his father.  ‘Burial’ is the first of several poems in which we find the poet’s father digging objects out of the earth. Elsewhere we see him digging up old bottles or copper wire, but here he accidentally turns up some human remains. Written in couplets, the poem is concise and effective, but finds room for some humour:’ He brought / the second skull indoors with clods of earth // still hanging from its jowl and stood it on / the Stratford Herald while my mother protested.’ The father’s obsession with digging becomes, as in Heaney’s signature poem, emblematic of the son’s later, and more complex, attempt to unearth the past:

 

But that isn’t right,

 

I’ve made it up or rather I’ve mistaken

my father’s story for the thing itself:

 

the smell, the wormy skull, the policeman

tall, bright-buttoned, standing by the Aga.

 

This is then followed by a dozen poems that focus on various childhood memories. The accumulation of detail in ‘The Coat Cupboard’ re-invents and goes beyond a small child’s perspective on a place that seemed strange, if not quite magical: ‘You don’t push your way through to discover a landscape  / where beavers can talk.’  As in ‘Burial’, this is a poem about a specific memory, but then comes to symbolize the actual process of trying to remember: ‘You find a set of keys / without their brightness or warmth of handling.’ The poem concludes on a note of Proustian recognition, when the poet discovers that his grandmother’s pink lipstick ‘is still shaped to the curve of her lip.’ ’Bottle Digging’ and ‘Shark Fishing’ are further character studies of the poet’s father. In the former one senses the adult’s wisdom as he stands back to let his son to learn from experience. In the latter, appalled by a fisherman’s cruelty, ‘my father paid the thirty pounds / we owed but wouldn’t shake the skipper’s hand’. In ‘Hammers’ he conveys the obsessiveness of a man forever on the lookout for bargain tools and the subsequent grief of those tasked with having to dispose of them.

The work collected in the second section is less circumstantially autobiographical and more stylistically varied. With its twenty eight poems it might well have been advisable to hold some of them back for a subsequent collection and thus give more prominence to this volume’s two autobiographical sections. ‘Still Life with Geranium’ is the first of several poems that strive to create an abstract space: ‘The quiet / inside myself / is of a room inside a room.’ In ‘Place’ the poet’s goal seems just beyond him: ‘You’re in a room / with one high window // your step ladder doesn’t reach.’ Throughout these poems the images tend to be more elemental and the landscapes more visionary than in those that precede them.  In ‘Pine Branch’ the poet evokes Cezanne and suggests that the painter and the contemplative share a common approach

 

Cezanne would have understood the problem

of a pine branch, its relation to the sky

in the early morning with just a sickle moon

and the sun not yet up among the rocks.

 

This section has four effective prose poems and a mesmerizing narrative poem, ‘Rangiatea’, which, somewhat in the manner of a classical epyllion, describes a voyage between dream and reality. Further highlights are ‘Visitation’, ‘The Man’, in which contemplation is undermined by a longing for community, and ’At the Station’, a description of two gay men:

 

One wraps his arms around the other

from behind. He can feel his belly’s breath

against his back. They stay like this

for quite some time, like figures made of clay

still warm from the hand that fashioned them.

 

Finally, the collection is brought to a close with STEPHEN, a sequence of twenty one  poems exploring the troubled relationship between two adolescent boys and its tragic conclusion. The candour, tact and poignancy of this sequence are quite remarkable. Shot through with moments of guilt, awkwardness and lyrical intensity, its fragmentary, non-linear, handling of events creates a brooding sense of obsession, as the two boys try to make sense of their feelings. Set in the 1970s, Maitreyabandhu’s re-creation of that less than tolerant era is utterly convincing, as is the mythologized landscape of Crockett’s Lane, Fletcher’s Hole and Lodder’s Field. From the outset there is an atmosphere of secrecy and denial: ‘Two boys once walked across an iron bridge… / They didn’t speak / or catch each other’s eye.’ There is also an authentic sense of the mundane, as the two boys explore their feeling towards each other, and how they feel about themselves, across a landscape of allotments, dens, and railway tracks. It’s an ordinariness that helps to bring into sharp focus their drama of gaucheness and desire. The tension is well conveyed in ‘The Cutting’ where, after some twenty lines of leisurely description, there is a sudden change of key:

I managed to lift his shirt and touch his side,

but he was scared and so was I. And anyway

the train didn’t stop; we just stood there

on the platform while she thundered past.

 

In ‘The Brook’ water becomes a symbol for repressed sexuality: ‘I was looking // to where the silted leaves might show / a trout or stickleback, a sluggish / weight of water.’ In ‘The Garden’, racked by guilt, the poet creates a poisoned paradise in which he finds room for potato drills, piles of scrap and a wrecked Austin Princess; while ‘The Mop’ is a brilliant evocation of a travelling fair as detailed as any of Larkin’s set pieces. It finishes on a note of matter of fact tragedy:

He’d been waiting to do something with his life

when someone screamed as a woman we both knew

turned right and knocked him off his bike.

 

Taking his title from the tale of Hansel and Gretel, Maitreyabandhu uses the image of ‘the crumb road’ to symbolize the vulnerable trail he has followed back in time. ‘It didn’t matter now. It was long ago’, the poet says in ‘Two Boys. The reader, however, will be inclined to disagree as he travels back with the poet to share each shimmering ‘spot of time’.

 

Terry Cree is a writer and artist based in Hampshire. Fruit, his first collection of poetry, contains a sixteen page ‘triptych’ inspired by the work of the American photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard alongside another dozen poems that vary in length from brief lyrics to lengthier meditations. Cree has supplied the artwork for the cover and a sequence of pencil drawings to accompany his poems. At a time when poetry collections are frequently too long and seem careless of their overall structure, it is a relief to fine a volume that is so meticulously assembled. A similar concern with ‘composition’ also informs the individual poems. In ‘The Consolation of Walls’ Cree works through existential uncertainties with the elegance of a geometrical paradigm and with an ironic nod, perhaps, toward the imprisoned philosopher Boethius:

 

There is a wall inside me against which

I have been kicking a small rubber ball

For years

 

Sometimes it rolls back along the ground.

Sometimes it bounces back like feelings plotted

On a graph,

 

That old oscillation of up and down…

 

That ball can rest inside me like a stone,

As hard and rubbery as death, unkicked,

Unknown.

 

However, to start at the beginning with ‘Josephine Jones’, Cree’s enigmatic opening poem, we will see that the metaphysical obsessions that shape Cree’s work do not lead to predictability of approach or any narrowing of range. In this poem we seem at first to be on familiar territory: ‘In a tent of clouds / I am six years old / in Mercer’s Field…’ Soon, however, as the opening sentence slowly unwinds, details merge and the narrative becomes dreamlike. Swept along by the poem’s riddling and incantatory rhythms, we learn little beyond the fact that Jennifer Jones was five years old and may have died: ‘Josephine had flowers on her heart.’  More certain, is the fact that the poem’s protagonist is haunted by his memory of her: ‘She was the dark cleft / I will carry with me/ till the raging sun / falls out of the sky.’ What is so impressive about this piece is that it manages to achieve both depth and resonance from what, on the face of it, is very simple language.

Absorbing too are ‘Weir Gate’ and ‘Sea Song’. The former is an unflinching narrative about an act of childhood violence: ‘There were three kids / and two were friends / and one was no friend / to either but, abject in / his hope, just tagged along;’ while the latter is a study of isolation in which a protagonist stares out to sea and contemplates the nature of waves: ‘he wonders / if a wave can have identity // whether one wave is entity / unto itself or whether waves // are merely gestures of the sea.’ Observation, however, does not make sense of the world, so that the waves can only reinforce our sense of the man’s emptiness: ‘their sighing / signals nothing to our lonely / man except the limits of love, //  his own heartfelt perimeter.’

Transience, separation, and the limits of what is knowable: these are also themes explored in Cree’s meditation up the ‘family albums’ of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. In this poem, Cree’s technical skill is again much in evidence, as he adapts a form put to brilliant use by Thom Gunn in the 1960s. ‘Meatyard Triptych’ is composed in rhyming quatrains, each line of which is based on a count of eight syllables, rather than four metrical feet. It’s a form that gives both backbone and flexibility. In the first panel of his ‘triptych’ Cree concentrates upon the photographer’s studies of his own children. Attempting to get some kind of purchase upon the mind of a child, he explores the distance between the artist and his subject: ‘What does it mean / When a child by its yawn or lean / into another seems to know // More than we imagine they do?’ In the second panel the photographer’s wife, Madelyn comes to the fore and the poet homes in on the concept of ‘the couple’ with side glances toward The Arnolfini Portrait and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. In the final section poet and subject seem to merge:

 

Meatyard looks down on us,

And, in doing so, looks by chance

Like me. Only the circumstance

Of death, it seems to me, sets us

 

Apart. He has that doubtful look

I cast upon my own image

Whenever I’m stopped on a ridge

On my own, knowing what it took

 

To get there.

 

Cree’s ‘Meatyard Triptych’ is beautifully sustained but challenging. It is the most interesting consideration of the nature of ‘art and reality’ that I have read since the early work of Charles Tomlinson.

Alongside poems that highlight Cree’s ability to write at length, Fruit  also contains a selection of shorter poems, each of which seems sui generis, as if the poet were determined to constantly renew his practice. In ‘Flat Calm’ he reinvents the traditional ‘ubi sunt’ theme: ‘The haberdashers, milliners and mercers / are vanished like the nap beneath their hands’. ‘Wardrobes’ captures the actuality of an object and illustrates the proposition that sometimes we have to adapt our lives to our furniture. ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ is a short but moving poem about some young people who are ‘attractive, bright, and utterly broken’. Terry Cree’s Fruit is a stunning debut from a poet who knows that, ultimately, there are no answers to the big questions and that words are all we have: ‘Words that meant nothing / Then and nothing much / now.‘ However, in this poet’s hands they have a music of their own and point towards depths beyond their burnished clarity.

 

 

 

Order your copy of Maitreyabandhu: The Crumb Road from Bloodaxe Books here

Order your copy of Terry Cree: Fruit: Two Rivers here

 

 

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