“Sounds how the cutting of time might”: O. at the Edge of the Gorge by Martyn Crucefix

O, At the Edge of the Gorge. Martyn Crucefix (Guillemot Press, 2018)

Review by Alison Graham

Martyn Crucefix has a remarkable body of work behind him, ranging from the equal parts startling and warm A Madder Ghost, to a translation of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. In the latter, the beginnings of O. at the Edge of the Gorge can be glimpsed – a concern with approach to a beyond; the precipice at which you teeter; the ‘O’ that calls gone things; retracing.

The book’s illustrations – by Phyllida Bluemel – also offer retracings; the translucent paper enabling the blue mappings on either side of the page to be apprehended at once, and some illustrations only seen as a whole when both sides of the page are held and separated. There is no denying that the book is a beautiful object, the pinpoint attention paid to the pages’ and cover’s speckling evident.

Crucefix locates us with his epigraph: lines from Dante’s Paradiso that reference decaying Roman cities. With this, I feel well placed to begin reading; it is a trek on which the poet sends his reader, and the verge of the gorge appears early, which the speaker “is vanishing into…as if headed home”. Adherence to the expected progression of octave – volta – sestet gives each sonnet a feeling of stepping downwards. I read each volta as the start of a different ledge. The turn is handled with the crispness that I note throughout, neither hammered nor indiscernible.

The sonnet form of each poem further gestures towards Italian lyric tradition, and the structure of the sequence – fourteen poems of fourteen lines – is fractal, the geometry found in natural phenomena such as soil pores and animal colouration. These decisions of assembly are both apt for poems that look to the natural environment, the literary background of northern Italy, and the human settlements between. In The Light in Troy, Thomas Greene discusses Dante’s Paradiso, writing “[a]uthority from one perspective may be absolute, but from another it is built on the drifting sand of the perishable voce.”

Crucefix similarly turns to sand as manifestation of humans’ slippery grip on language, and language’s slippery hold of history:

in the breeze–if utterly changed–
a little spoonful of cold sand in his palm

Here is a strange, shaded fervour. I think of the cold sand as offering and relic. I would like to see this, as with several others, unfurled more; for each to be treated as landscape of its own, worth attention. I also feel that the image “small wings scattering where it cruises” would stand up to further scrutiny – without compromising the sequence’s thorough conviction to this history as scattered particulates.

The speaker seemingly refuses excavation and coyly evokes artefacts in sensuous detail:

drinking surely from roots thrust deep
into stores of royal Tyrian liquor
impossible now to recover – …

The poet leaves his reader suspenseful in blank space, then compels, then takes. The image is vivid; its sound rolling on the tongue as smoothly as the liquor does not. I find impressive the vividness achieved throughout with sparse use of colour. Most of the colours that appear by name are those that appear already on the pages – blue, black, white. Crucefix is concerned with light and shade; often it is the places that light does not reach, such as the “gorge side” in shade, but he also writes with yearning of “the deepest bright twist of the stream–”.

The sequence is also shaded through the perishability folded into it. Even stone is not immune to wounding; the speaker finds “gravel slashes” across a valley floor. A buzzard “drops / through his breast-bone”. Bloodless, discreet cuts; Crucefix allows his reader the rubble of these but no more. Likewise, there is an distance in “turning blue as a patient who lies beyond / the reach of any bells –”. How bruised this terrain is; brutalised black and blue. How turned from its exposure to wreckage. The vanishings and severances of time passing are far from peaceful.
Suspension is introduced here – where did these settlements go – and remains an ongoing theme. Throughout, line breaks are plummets, as in

with its shrill tripartite call
where it swoops…

Brief syllables as a flurry of wings beating. Gliding vowels as gliding motion; well-suited to the use of line in the illustrations, at times stippling and at others languid, unbroken.

And also in

alight on blooms stooped
with the weight of insect lives – watching

where the lines are quickened through patterning clusters of vowels, the e of where and weight interspersed with the i of with and insect. Not to mention the precision of word choice – the blooms do not bend or lower. Their spines were previously straight. In one word Crucefix gives us an instant and a trace of before. There is palimpsest elsewhere also; before and present suspended, for instance in “the bloody festival / of the bird”. Explicitly it is a raptor on the move towards soon-to-be food, but it may also be residue of some haruspex’s grim practice.

In “recalls the image of the poet / reclining above a gorge…” the suspension is doubled by doomy possibility; might the poet fall whilst leaning close to a sheer drop? It makes for curious framing; the speaker watches another like him, and the poet writes of a speaker watching another. A Matroyshka doll of men bidding to sing history, beginning on a precipice in the almost-Apennines. On the brink but never quite beginning; gorge does mean throat as well as a kind of valley.

Uncoiling happens not only in the movement of water but also in the passage of time:

how they must fall
in fact already fallen

The lyric is unable to suspend what it speaks; determination and chronology at its heart. Like the ‘o’ of the title, a moment that holds only briefly and in the unlettered event of the line break.

In this there is an aesthetic of starkness by which I mean crafted details set against expanses. What might be called “the measure [of] the rhythm of the body against the rhythm of the land”, a thing that can only be measured by walking according to Rebecca Solnit (A Beginner’s Guide to Getting Lost). The gorge of the title is not indicative of gluttony to come. Consider the attention in “a dozen averted oil-drop eyes / in which doves’ gazes glance off and away from their surroundings.” I am reminded that I am peering and my intentness is foreign to this corner of the world. It is here that I also note the scarceness of liquids in these poems. The landscape is almost entirely devoid of it, of blood as mentioned before and of water also, which is not mentioned at all.

If a gorge is formed by water steadily but gradually rearranging rock, then a gorge without a river is possible, but drained of its beginnings. If a gorge can also be a throat and there is an absence of liquid, speech is an effort. If speech is an effort, the speaker will pace himself; this might look like “he wants to call it but more stead perhaps”. I admire Crucefix’s thoroughness in this metaphor that overarches these poems; it is crisply rendered.

Sensitivity to relief, to topography, also underpins these poems. As in topographic surveying, the colour white is significant. It is white that Crucefix’s speaker faces once he has stepped away from “lure…over the edge” in all its steep danger, just as white on a relief map indicates a gentle slope . Stratification is also at work; the poet displays overpowering through height. Height as a thing “gain[ed]” and affording “a steadier balance”; height a place to “swoop[] and turn[]”, avoiding “the drop of the gorge”.

I have mentioned perishability; this also shows itself in these poems as brittleness. See “where broken ox-bones / lie beneath remains of elegant arches”, infrastructure as much subject to breaking as anatomy. Even time is figured brittle, or at least solid enough that it can be “dic[ed] into segments”. The unusual working of this image disarms; the screech of the i sounds how the cutting of time might. I notice that things never seem to end well for mutable, imperfect things in these poems; the edge of the gorge is not imagined as a threshold of renewal.

Inevitability is at work as geologically as the title would suggest. Crucefix has walked us to the place where “even founded cities roll towards the gorge”, time relentlessly surmounting presence. All that can be done with it is

dicing segments of counted time
they divide in hopes of making sense

And through form, the poet shows time to be disobedient even to this. Each poem begins with a refracted version of the previous poem’s closing line, so that “the hawk how soon the creature dies” becomes “All creatures die sooner blind to the hawk” the words carried alluvial onward and deposited; sensitivity to light as a measure of living. The monosyllabic words’ ominous thumping. In For Space, Doreen Massey notes “[b]ut in the end there is no ground, in the sense of a stable position…”. Crucefix’s formal looseness coheres. There is a sketch of recurrence in place, but he rifts words from one close to another opening, and always to the end of emergence. This, combined with the absence of pagination and titles, invites you to retrace your steps. The sequence is mapped by recollections; by repetition of fragments.

The poems themselves and their presentation together provide an immersive experience, setting the reader as detail amongst other quickening details and an unmerciful landscape. In place of the release that water might bring, the speaker carries doubt for the nature that has displaced these elegant arches, and even uncertainty of a mode to speak this loss. Under Crucefix’s eye, the inhabitants of the place are picked out in detail that resists intimacy, and even inanimate things are touched by death. The O falters and is emptied, of the actual presence of complete history, yet this singing is entirely and angularly beautiful. The knowledge gathered from this approach to the edge is troubling and keening.