Selected Poems by Mairtín Crawford

Review of the Belfast poet's Selected Poems

Mairtín Crawford was one of a generation of poets who came into their force in the 1980s. It included John Hughes, Damian Gorman, Andrew Elliott, Martin Mooney, Kevin Smith, Blanaid McKinney, Bernadette Ross, John Kelly and Patrick Ramsey. Some published and dropped off the radar, some are still writing and publishing, some published individual poems but no volume, one still writes but now publishes the work of others.

Poems appeared in this very journal (Fortnight) and in outlets no longer with us – Gown Literary Supplement, Belfast Review, North and – much less often than one might think – in the Honest Ulsterman.

Heaney and Montague, surprisingly, had little impact on those imaginations, because they were not present, but also because the political appetite in their work was either too jaded for a younger generation or just too risky career-wise when the upper tier of poets in Belfast viewed the ‘troubles’ as not a suitable theme for poetry … er, unless it was their own.

But the influences on the work of those young writers were many. Some were of their time, like Craig Raine and Hugo Williams. Some illustrious dead, like MacNeice, were attractive because they seemed to offer an aesthetic route out of the nasty folk world of ‘Ulster’ and in to a brand of urban sophistication – like having at least one good suit for going to London. Mahon provided something of the same strategy.

Some, like McGuckian, Muldoon, Carson and Longley were potent influences because they were flashy, well-regarded in England, published there, senior and, well, simply here.

Many of them appeared in Gerald Dawe’s New Younger Irish Poets from Blackstaff and in Map-Makers’ Colours, edited by Mooney and published by a Canadian house. A few appeared in Blackstaff’s ‘introductions’ series, Trio.

By and large, however, it was a blasted generation. Though students at Queen’s and gathering at various official writing groups there as years went by, many struggled to effect careers as poets, even locally, with the associated respect and support from the older generations.

Only Hughes and Mooney have published more than two volumes. Mooney benefited from the support of James Simmons, though he himself was withering somewhat in the stern poetic environment of late 80s Belfast. Hughes, with three collections from Gallery, was scandalously omitted from the recent Bloodaxe’s New Irish Poetry.

Why so many were frustrated in this manner is a complex issue and one perhaps best left for another day. But it certainly wasn’t lack of quality. As is clear from Mairtín Crawford’s sadly posthumous Selected Poems.

Crawford did succeed in making a career in poetry against the odds, pioneering creative writing work among the least advantaged in society while, in some ways, numbering himself among them. In the year of his untimely death, he had secured a position in charge of the Between the Lines Festival, Belfast’s premier literary event.

The poems in this selection have been ambushed by his death, taken by surprise from various places of concealment in cyberspace and notebooks, or identified while hiding in plain sight in small magazines and other fora.

It would be easy, because of his fondness for and advocacy of the work of Padraic Fiacc, to categorise them as written under the rigorous influence of that octogenarian pre- and post-punk. Easy, but only partly not wholly true.

Fiacc – sole dweller of the exclusion zone in Northern Ireland poetry for most of his career – is indeed a powerful presence in many of the poems and not only in the syntactically fragmentary style or in the occasionally disturbing imagery accompanying it.

Dark Birds shows how Crawford picked up an even older strain in Fiacc’s work:

When Oisin first sailed out in the west
his dreams and waking visions were haunted.
Porpoises, dolphins, giant whales followed.
Sirens and mermaids sang to him.
It was the cries of strange gulls he woke to.
Finding land and slowly facing the shore
and guiding his boat he watched the birds.
Dreams, waking visions and hauntings recur in the poems. Coupled with the tragic ghosts of NASA and Soviet space travel, they evoke a souped-up Padraic Colum, a high-tech, amphetamine-stuffed Crock of Gold.
Bad hill anyway to see starships. Plus
the big steep from downtown to up to
a centre. The very grey shutdowns and
shops that selled more than Belfast.
Augher, Clogher, Fivemiletown.
Clubland. Where was it? We see mortars
lined up on the roads outside like, tubes,
(‘Thomas Street’)

But the bleakness of Crawford’s world (‘Nothing enters the equation anymore./It’s creepy to think that ghosts like you/can recklessly outside close like a car door’) cannot be understood without reference to the United States of America.

It’s not just the Beat Poets who stalk through the fog of the collection, but other and earlier poets of the downbeat and the deadbeat. Remarkably, if there is a second spirit guide to the poetry, it’s less Ginsberg – whom Crawford memorably brought to Belfast – and more Weldon Kees:

What do we leave behind then? A stain
on the sheets? More likely it is the pain
of knowing you are gone, the emptiness
of attics hung with nothing, the less
easy denial of loss that looms,
the silences of newly-painted rooms.
(‘Going Away’)

The lure of ‘America’ and, beyond it, the reaches of space became the dominant theme in Crawford’s life. The originality of this theme and treatment in his work is striking. But also of note is his re-working of more conventional themes.

‘Tree’ blends the words ‘earth’, ‘heart’ and ‘hearth’ and ‘Subway’ ponders the ‘thought of home, the meaning of home and where exactly that home was’. Crawford has much less confidence in the existence of a ‘home place’ than is common in Irish verse or indeed out of it.

Poems here relive a mood of confusion and bewilderment in contact with the co-ordinates of the everyday – ‘Later you ask me where the kettle is/and I am saying: "I don’t know/where the kettle is …"/I plead ignorance and alien landmarks/repeating "I don’t know where the kettle/is, I don’t know where I am."’).
When he does know where he is, the signs of belonging are themselves fragmentary and temporary, and not even an echo of Kavanagh can repair the senses of desertion and loneliness:

By looking down you create
a difference, the day’s remnants
making their own importance:
the half-eaten souvlaki
squashed under the wheels of
a taxi, the stare of a hungry
bum, the spaceman in the village
and the image of your cigarette
lighter hanging on the precipice
of this girl’s bed like a skyscraper.
(‘Under the Bridge’)

In Going Places, again, where ‘the uneasy/map gave nothing away’, the poet has travelled far but without definition, finding himself ‘uncomfortable with the location’, sitting up half the night ‘to find out where I was,/where I belonged, what I was doing there’ and even the thistles, bracken, flowers, hawthorn – the flora round the half-door of cosy Irish belonging – are ‘invaders’, belonging ‘in a landscape made out of words’.

It may be that the renewed virulence of sectarian violence after the hunger strikes finally burned off the old organic nostalgias of place and ‘oul decency’ which operated so effectively in endearing the older generation of ‘Ulster’ poet to the frightened audience at home and abroad. For Crawford, certainly, ‘the fields are blank until/we put our ignorant stare on them’.

Listen. The ethical punch of that line would never be found in Heaney, Hewitt, Montague or Longley. Perhaps only Muldoon would chance it. In those contexts, it’s almost rude.

Similarly, there is no clean identification with any ‘side’, just exhaustion, boredom, frustration - ‘After he’d been shot dead/for the 17th time/he lifted up his head/crying, ‘Enough, no more.’ (‘Freeform’)

If Crawford has a nostalgia for a ‘home place’, it is quite literally on another planet – hence the extraordinary sequence of poems which ends the volume. The ‘naming of places’ is here transformed into pigeon Latin and Greek –‘I’d recite the names of the oceans, hills and valleys of Mars/Ortygia, Moab, Oxus, Arabia, Cerberus, Memnonia, Hellas/Electris, Cyclopia, Amazonis, Thoth, Utopia, Elysium.’

The poet seeks to generate within the reader a powerful affection for places so remote, so unvisited, so much beyond the boundaries of sense and experience that the effort of emotional connection is draining and, ultimately, baffling. However, it is also successful and thereby Crawford does actually manage, in some of these particular poems (‘Baikonur’, MIR, ‘Challenger’) to offer a cold critique of the lazy, stylised rituals of belonging rehearsed in poetry and society ‘back on earth’, back in Ulster:

Compasses have bent
out of control. Our north
does not exist. West is worse.

(‘The Alpha Child’)

It’s a short collection of poems – 50 in all – but it’s a rich one and it should not be ignored, especially by other poets. There is a good introduction from the poet’s friend and now editor, Naomi Foyle, which describes the collation of the work and indicates how some aspects of Crawford’s poetry may be most fruitfully read.

It is a sad fact that Crawford’s is the first of his generation whose work can, by default of an early grave, now be called ‘complete’. That is a bracing fact, but the severity of the context in which these poems are gathered does not degrade the coherence of the world-view they articulate.

It survives.
This is war my love and I’m a soldier,
cross me and you’re a fool.
Finding the equation can be a chore:
like I don’t want to be here anymore.
(‘Attempt at Sestina’)

Damian Smyth

This article first appeared in Fortnight Magazine.