Between a Drowning Man (Salt, 2023)

Forthcoming from Salt Publishing in Autumn 2023.

Martyn Crucefix’s new collection of poems trace the forensic unfolding of two landscapes – contemporary Britain post-2016 and the countryside of the Marche in central, eastern Italy. Both places are vividly evoked – the coffee shops, traffic tailbacks, shopping malls, tourist-dotted hillsides and valleys of modern Britain appear in stark contrast to the hilltop villages, church spires, deep gorges, natural history and Classical ruins of Italy. Both landscapes come to represent psychic journeys: closer to home there is division everywhere – depicted in both tragic and comic detail – that only a metaphorical death of the self seems able to counteract. Closer to the Mediterranean, the geographical and personal, or romantic, divisions are also shown ultimately to offer possibilities of transcendence.

The poems of the longer sequence, ‘Works and Days’, are startlingly free-wheeling, allusive – brilliantly deploying source materials and inspiration from Hesiod’s original and the 10/12th century Indian vacana poems – all bound together by the repeated refrain of bridges breaking down. The Italian poems, as a crown of sonnets, are more formally controlled but the repeating of first and last lines of the individual poems likewise serves to suggest the presence of an overarching unity.

In the end, both sequences travel towards death which – while not denying the reality of human mortality, the passage of time – is intended to represent a challenge to the powerful dividing walls between Thee and Me, the liberation of empathetic feeling, even the Daoist erasure of the assumed gulf between self and not-self: ‘these millions of us aspiring to the condition / of ubiquitous dust on the fiery water’.

PRAISE FOR THIS BOOK

‘An ‘Autumn Journal’ for our times.’ —Nancy Campbell

‘Each poem is a such a thoughtful space to enter, and as a sequence they’re stunning.’ —Heidi Williamson

‘[The poems] have the urgency and the hurt we perhaps require now, it is good for poetry to speak up when it is compelled to do so, at times like this and in this way’ —Stephen Romer

REVIEWS OF THIS BOOK

‘That repeated refrain, “All the bridges are down”, exactly captures the mood – no way of escape, and no reliable communication, even with a continent to which we belong, or always thought we belonged. And most of all, no apparent way to bridge the divide in the country. It is certainly a time when poets should be raising their voices, and playwrights too. I hope you may help to start a revival of conscience.’ —Ann Wroe

‘I looked at the Brexit poems and they are wonderful! … I was truly blown away.’ —Caroline Carver

‘These are very powerful poems.’ —Clarissa Aykroyd‏

‘A sort of phenomenological response to undergoing the experience of Brexit.’ —Bill Herbert

‘Air-Waves’: poem as audio soundscape

One of the joys of social media (and there are plenty of aspects of them that are less than joyful) is that occasionally a notification pops up from an unexpected source and when you check it out there is something really worthwhile to be found. This happened the other day – via Instagram. Someone called Matt McGettrick had tagged me. I don’t know Matt, but he is a student on the BA course in TV and Radio Production at the University of Salford.

Matt’s instapost said he had recently created a soundscape based on a poem I published in 1990, in my first book from Enitharmon Press, called Beneath Tremendous Rain. It’s unlikely that the poem was found in that book itself, but I remember it was selected more than 10 years later by Sean Street to appear in an anthology called Radio Waves: poems celebrating the wireless (Entharmon, 2004). There, I was happily rubbing shoulders with the likes of Auden, Brecht, MacNeice, Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. Sean – whose is a poet, broadcaster and recently retired Professor of Radio at Bournemouth University – had divided the anthology up into sections variously titled, Music Radio, Talk Radio, Weather, Listeners and Signals. My piece was in the section called ‘In the Car’.

Here’s that original poem. It’s voiced by a persona – I had no children at this point and had not moved out of the ‘dark’ streets of Manchester to the countryside.

Air-Waves

As I slowed up and shifted downgear,

a dance song thumping from the car radio

was stretched out and smashed to pieces.

x

But we barely noticed that first time –

all eager to see the house, where it stood

beneath the surfing crackle of the pylons.

x

The girls loved the sight of so much sky.

They slipped into new schools with ease

though Sue and I made it home more slowly.

x

And by then, there was Stephen, almost four,

suddenly ill, his rush of growing gone awry,

and the doctor’s face, closed up and dark

x

as the Manchester streets we had left behind.

He could tell me nothing. Inexplicable,

the pattern of disease. A year – maybe two.

x

Driving back across the hills, roadside wires

loop down, are yanked back to the blunted head

of each telegraph pole – and further off,

x

the pylons, hitching up skeins of darkness,

striding up country to a house where this car

and their sheaf of hot wires will converge,

x

where a young man’s voice on the radio

will melt down in a surge of boiling static

as I slow up, shift gear, and stop.

I remember a great deal of concern – this will have been in the late 1980s – about the possible harmful effects of living too close to the electrical fields generated by pylons. There was a particular study in 1979 that did conclude there might be a link between electromagnetic fields and childhood cancer (and this is the kind of scenario I am thinking of in the poem). However, other studies in the 2000s did not find an association or found an association only in homes with very high levels of magnetic forces, which is rare, according to the National Cancer Institute.

There was a personal connection, I remember, as my in-laws lived in a house which nestled in beneath a line of high voltage cables and pylons. But perhaps concerns about cancer-inducing lines of pylons have now gone the way of those early concerns about the dangers of mobile phones. Or has it even been consigned to the slightly cranky end of health concerns along with those people who sabotage 5G masts in the name of suspected links to the on-going pandemic? Even so, though it has dated a little, I’d like to think of the poem as one of my earliest expressions of environmental concern: if the electromagnetic fields do turn out to be perfectly safe, they are here acting as a metaphor for the kind of degradation of the lived-in environment caused by human action for which there is an indisputable and growing body of evidence.

Anyway – all this is simply by way of introducing Matt McGettrick’s excellent piece of work. The reader is Matthew Green. As the author of the original piece, it seems to me that both reading and soundscape engineering do a really fine job of responding sensitively to the text’s meaning, its structure and its rhythms. Have a listen – Matt suggests headphones are a good way to hear his work. It’s just over 5 minutes long.