Ken Head reviews Martyn Crucefix's 'Hurt'

Hurt  by Martyn Crucefix Enitharmon Press ISBN:  978-1-904634-97-3 £9.99 114pp

From first to last, Martyn Crucefix’s impressive fifth collection offers writing of quality and worth.  Arranged in three sections, its fifty-one thematically and stylistically varied poems nevertheless achieve a telling unity in both the seriousness of their subject matter and the poet’s exact and detailed observation of it.  In part one, pointedly sub-titled At the cross-hairs, there are, for example, nine poems whose focus is intricate, intimate and personal, together with a single poem in seven substantial parts entitled More than it comes to, as fine and moving a response to the tragically perennial human activity of warfare as I have read.  As the title of the collection suggests, the poems in this section focus less on the comfortable areas of human life, than on those into which, sometimes painfully, sometimes joyously, complex intensities of feeling and experience force their way.  Invocation, the opening poem, makes this challenge immediately clear by placing, … the blood-spill of hurt / that opens flesh and bone immediately alongside, … you wiping love from between your legs and … when old habits, uncertain eyes give out, / when it’s dark wherever they put the light, / … cover him, cover him, cover his face.  

Whereas these first poems are tightly wrought, short-lined, sometimes elliptical and metaphorically complex, the seven poems from the American War which follow (and which bring to mind Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass) are in the long-lined, conversational, vernacular style of a young man writing home from the war to his mother:  I pick’d up my pen & wrote my mother, / That I knew how she suffered with the passing of these days.  As the writer’s narration proceeds through descriptions of horror, … at the foot of the tree a heap of amputated legs & arms & hands, about which war has taught him more than he would choose to know, … Of the two officers, feet pinned to the ground by bayonets, / Of sharp blades stuck through them, they receiv’d twenty thrusts, we come to understand that the use of historical detail from the American Civil War serves as a running metaphor for the wider moral purpose of developing the poet’s indictment of the inhumanity of all war:  And all of those brave men, they also are all boys. / I saw their naked limbs through the scurf of well-worn clothes, / … Such flesh as they had, I thought it glowed through their clothes.  

Alongside the terrible inventory of slaughter in this poem, there is also much balancing witness to compassionate humanity, the superiority of individuals to the political and miltary machines that wreck their lives and of their care for each other in the darkest times:   I staid a long time at the bed-side of the young Baltimorean. / I staid certainly because death had mark’d him and he was quite alone.  The narrator’s voice is so clear, so present in the lines as to be at times overwhelming in its quiet acceptance.  In the poem’s final stanza, for example, with his own death imminent, he writes, for the last time, To his own mother: / It is true, of course, that I am not well these days. / It is most likely hospital poison has penetrated my system. / But do not think of me this way, do not see your boy this way, / Remember me as I was and must surely be again.  Memory, remembrance.  The words make it hard, for me impossible, not to be reminded of Remember, Christina Rossetti’s great sonnet:  Remember me when I am gone away, / Gone far away into the silent land.

Parts two and three of the collection are equally emotionally charged, equally serious both in subject matter and tone.  The introspective, even metaphysical, titles used throughout part two, Essays in island logic, titles such as, he considers the passage of time, he considers what the young have to teach and he considers the longevity of love, all suggest as much, despite their marked contrast with the direct, graphic, contemporary titles used in part three, Riders on the storm:  Tenby church acquarium, Emergency services, Scraps and Calling in the dark.  This last is a poem about the poet’s elderly parents and, by implication, therefore, about the inevitability for all of us of becoming old.  In some ways a simple description of the poet’s mother’s struggle with her mobile ’phone which, … buried in her bag, manages somehow to ring his number and so allows him to listen in on his mother’s irritable tone as she speaks to his father, it expresses also the universally understood sorrow of a son who, looking on as his parents edge towards death, hopes to be solicitous to the last, but recognizes his helplessness:  It’s painful to listen … Enough.  I end the call.  I cannot bear to pry / on what is coming closer / and will carry them away.  

Hurt investigates important questions, some merely difficult, others imponderable.  In part one of Wilderness, for example, the meditative poem which, in seven sections, closes the book, Crucefix suggests, perhaps puzzlingly, that the right and proper end / of all questioning is a cumulative sense of well-being, that coming to grips with life’s complexity rather than ignoring it, is, paradoxically, the means to being well.  A difficult idea for societies dedicated to pleasurable amnesia, a life spent floating.  Later, in part six, though, he uses the day-to-day changes in the appearance of the surface of a lake to enlarge the point.  Some days, he says, the murk / seems unfathomable, / a thing of gleams / and flashes / … of nothing that is clear at all, while at other times,  it seems so beautiful / it leads us to hope / that it might allow us / no reason to flinch, / nor bully, nor brawl / but shift in the wind, / with the flood:  try not / to hold on but let go.  And we begin to understand.

©2011:  Ken Head

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