Carl Tomlinson reviews Between A Drowning Man by Martyn Crucefix (Salt, 2023)
If it’s the reviewer’s job to help the reader decide whether to purchase a book, I may be about to get my P45. Should the editor decide to sack me, I’ll be sorry to go, because these reviews have given me the opportunity to read books I wouldn’t have reached for in bookshops. And reading things we wouldn’t choose for ourselves makes us better readers. It also brings insights into different approaches to our shared craft of writing, which can in turn provoke reflection on why we choose to write the way we do. Martyn Crucefix’s Between a Drowning Man is one of those books.
I want to begin by saying this is absolutely not a book you shouldn’t buy. Nor is it obviously “An Autumn Journal for our times” though I’m sure a writer as scholarly as Nancy Campbell had sound reasons for describing it thus on the front cover. Placing this book on par with Louis MacNeice’s famous autobiographical poem is a big claim, which Crucefix himself must surely have sanctioned, and which I’ll consider later. It’s certainly a book that has repaid repeated reading with pleasure and puzzlement in varying proportions.
… a book that has repaid repeated reading with pleasure and puzzlement in varying proportions
Much of the pleasure derives from what I can only call the ‘lilt’ of the poems that make up Part One. The choppy lineation, the use of first lines (or parts of them) as titles (or separators?), and the sheer pace of the writing keep the reader moving through the poems, turning the pages – and I think this is intentional – sometimes just a moment sooner than one would choose to. This pace isn’t relentless though. As the focus switches from the national to the personal, we find compact, and directly erotic, gems like ‘O how I envy’. Or the meditation on the fleeting nature of our physical life which is ‘six powder blue pebbles’.
There is deftness and playfulness at work here. I have never before read a poem which self-deprecatingly acknowledges both Fleetwood Mac and Robert Frost in the space of three lines:
you make a choice you go your own way—
this has been better said before of course—
you cannot take the other way
This poem, ‘fifteen miles of traffic’, is a brief meditation on the way satnavs offer shortcuts which “are nothing till they can be proved”. Something and nothing in some ways, but actually an elegant something made from not much more than nothing. Poems like this often hide the craft needed to keep them balanced.
In Part Two, the pleasure lies in the sustained gaze of the writer over a few key elements of a scene in the Italian Marche. Bees, a raptor, and a gorge hold our eye and our ear through this crown sonnet. For Dante scholars, or those who like to google around their reading, there are plenty of references to the Paradiso.
The most puzzling thing about this book is why Crucefix insists on tying all the poems in the first part together with the repeated assertion that “all the bridges are down” (or variations of this). The occasional omissions of this phrase serve to remind us that the avowal is otherwise constant. Broken bridges offer an arresting metaphor for disconnect and isolation, which are more and more the default setting of our increasingly partisan times. It’s an unrelenting memento mori which (for my money) gets in the way of some good poems, sometimes with the joyful exuberance of a photo-bomber, sometimes like a whiningly insistent toddler.
There were times reading this collection, when I felt I was the unwilling participant in a treasure hunt …
In poems such as ‘like crimes woven into the weft’ and ‘I watch millions of people’ broken bridges are clearly a social metaphor. In ‘along well marked ways’ and ‘his fingers catch fire’, the same metaphor operates at a personal level. Crucefix uses it to explore fractured family relationships in ‘at my mother’s high bleached bedside’ and ‘with hardly a sufficient reason’; and to explore failing health in ‘before the doctor asks to examine’ or ‘in his later illness’. It also serves as a literal description of the effects of climate change in poems about the 2015 Lake District floods, which cut off villages around Ullswater. And among all these fallen bridges there remains some hope that – as human creations – they might be repaired by humanity, by that “power of likeness” we find in ‘the potency of kinship’, or by the “steady and constant labouring / of the wounded spirit” that we see in ‘it is not despite its passing’.
The introduction to Part One of the collection tells us that these poems, “written over a period of years, are responses to a series of historical moments in a progressively more disunited kingdom”. Mat Riches’ recent review in The High Window considers this at some length and will be a helpful companion to my next re-reading of the book. I could see the Lake District floods clearly in the later poems. Brexit and the general polarization of politics and society loom over many others. And the poem ‘she was the all gifted’ was the perfect thing to read on the morning of Suella Braverman’s (second) exit from Cabinet. Whether it was written to celebrate her first, or for some other event, or whether Crucefix is a remarkable seer, I can’t say.
There were times reading this collection, when I felt I was the unwilling participant in a treasure hunt where the clues – and that repeated refrain “all the bridges are down” – detracted from my enjoyment of the fascinating landscape. That’s perhaps a handy metaphor for what Crucefix is attempting: here’s this beautiful country which is being messed about by some horrible events. Or perhaps it’s just me being dense. After all, a book title as incomplete as Between a Drowning Man is a warning that this isn’t going to be straightforward. Even when the line is completed in the title poem, we face the unsettling juxtaposition of an unknown stranger’s mortal struggle and the intimacy of the writer’s ‘child’s skinny dipping’.
The thing I like most is the way the book keeps resisting my attempts to decide what I think about it
I’m puzzled too by that bold cover assertion: “An Autumn Journal for our times”. This is quite a self-contained book. There are, for example, no acknowledgements beyond a list of where poems have previously appeared. So why choose to stand on this particular giant’s shoulders? In Autumn Journal, MacNeice writes about the period between September and December 1938, with very specific references to very specific events (Munich, the Oxford by-election, the war in Spain). Crucefix’s time span is far longer. We have seen that he goes back at least as far as 2015, and Rishi Sunak (who was hardly prominent before entering Cabinet in 2019) gets a namecheck in ‘this morning round noon’. And, as I’ve said, it’s hard to pin down specific events. Autumn Journal has a clear narrative arc. This book does not. We can, though, recognize in Between A Drowning Man a world where:
[…] some refusing harness and more who are refused it
Would pray that another and a better Kingdom come.
(Autumn Journal, iii ll 19-20)
Another puzzle is why the sonnet sequence that constitutes Part Two of the book at first takes such a restrictive form, and then subsequently picks and chooses its formal patterns. Going back through my notes as I type this, I come across these lines from ‘Knowing how quickly such beauty fades’:
he snaps them sketches then revises again
rehearses yet never achieves
his best intention perhaps because
he does not pursue it vigorously enough—
I’ve written in the margin “this could be an epigram for the collection” and I’m not sure now if I wrote that out of frustration, or admiration. One reading of that want of vigour is to see the poems themselves as symptoms of the tyranny of coherence. Dodging your own rules is bad if – say – you’re telling people how to protect their loved ones from Covid, but it’s not the end of the world if you’re a poet trying to illustrate how dangerous public – and personal – ideological purity can become. Here I do see an echo of Autumn Journal.
What does all this boil down to? The thing I like most is the way the book keeps resisting my attempts to decide what I think about it. I’ll leave you to work out if that’s the kind of book you want to buy.
Carl Tomlinson lives on a smallholding in Oxfordshire. He works as a business coach and virtual finance director. His work been published online, in anthologies, and in Orbis, South, The Hope Valley Journal and The Alchemy Spoon. His debut pamphlet Changing Places was published in 2021 by Fair Acre Press.