Martyn Crucefix

Martyn Crucefix in Conversation

Poet Martyn Crucefix chats to Wales Arts Review’s Carl Griffin about his craft and inspirations, including Rilke, Paul Éluard and poetry translation.

This may seem a strange question to begin with but is Martyn Crucefix your real name?

Martyn Crucefix: Not strange at all – this comes up more often than you might imagine. It is not a bizarre pseudonym but my real patrilineal name – rare indeed in the UK. Years back I got fed up with the sceptical questions about it and did some genealogical research to discover that its origins are Huguenot. I can trace an unbroken line back to Pierre and Elizabeth Crucefix, fleeing religious persecution in France, embarking from Dieppe and settling (as so many Protestant refugees did in the later 1600s) in Spitalfields, London. One of the fruits of that discovery appears in the central sequence of my 1997 collection A Madder Ghost. One of several voices in that piece is that of a young man who recounts his experiences of persecution, flight and the angry response of English locals who were convinced these foreigners were taking their jobs.

I was also fascinated – if not rather spooked –when I realised the family trade back then was clock-making. I’d long recognised that time was a major preoccupation of my own writing and I sometimes start public readings with this little piece:


These things have now grown obscure in me:

the Register of Aliens, French Christian names,

their sheep’s head brass, red lacquer bracket,

their church buildings, bright apprentice boys.

But for their sake and for my own what I seek

is time enough to allow me to recover

whatever pieces I can: aligned, unwinding

words to tell hours, how they crowd upon us,

how my blood beats down this line of clockmakers.


What is the link between clockmakers and the theme of time in your poetry?

Martyn Crucefix: I’ve long felt that time is one of my most powerful emotional triggers – not merely as a poet but as a person. That what happened then cannot happen again induces a whirlwind of emotion in me and I recognise that this is to do with a need for control.

Time is the rather terrifying river we swim in. All things come and go uniquely, startlingly. This is the reality that, as T.S. Eliot famously concluded, we can bear very little of. Years ago, I remember reading Sartre’s idea that ‘existence precedes essence’ and recognising something familiar. But for utilitarian reasons we need to create stability and coherence around us in order to function – to get up in the morning, make the tea and get to work. We create a variety of ‘dreams’ of order for ourselves through language and ideology and these powerful forces allow us to cope with the flow of time more easily, offering stability at the expense of falsehood. Language systematises and promises some degree of control over this overwhelming presence and poetry is a way of fighting back – a particular use of language that paradoxically tries to return us to the original, fluid, lucid vividness of perception, unclouded by our need for order and stability.

Poetry opens a necessarily brief window on this real existence (what the French poet, Yves Bonnefoy, calls ‘presence’) but must also be willing to let it go before it is petrified – in its real meaning of turned into stone. In Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke sees the figure of Orpheus in these terms:


Erect no memorial stone. But let the rose

come into bloom each year on his behalf.

That is Orpheus – each metamorphosis

to this, to that. We need not be troubled with

other names. Once and for all, Orpheus

is where there is singing. He comes and goes.


Somewhat under the influence of these ideas my own poems have become more and more fluid in recent years, to the extent of abandoning punctuation. Some of the early French Surrealist poets did the same thing for similar reasons and I have been translating some of Paul Eluard’s poems recently as a welcome change from Rilke.

As many of your poems are dedicated to, or about, family and friends, reminding me of Rilke and Vera, how important to you is the connection between poetry and real people?

Martyn Crucefix: Well I do hope that other people have a powerful and independent presence in my poems, even if many are evoking the nature and influence of their relationships with me. As for poor Vera Oukama Knoop, the young woman whose brief life and early death acted as a catalyst for Rilke’s sonnet sequence, she represented for him the irresistible transience of human life and the battle of the artist in the face of it. She was a budding dancer, musician and artist who persisted with artistic creation even as her illness progressed. In sonnet 1, 25 he describes her:


Sickness was close. Already shadows taking possession,

your blood pulsed in its brief anticipation –

it darkened, yet drove back towards its natural Spring.

Again and again, dogged by stumbling and darkness

it glowed earthly until – after the terrible pounding –

it stepped through the door that stood open, comfortless.


Having said that, she is not a steady or strong presence in the whole sequence; like the mirrors in several of the poems, she is an opportunity for the author’s more characteristic exploration of the self and its place in the world.

Writers inevitably make use of the lives and experiences of others in this way and most of us feel guilty about it. But I’m happy, for example, that people seem to respond well to the poem ‘Calling in the dark’ (from the 2012 collection Hurt) in which I describe my parents’ own battle with the way ‘the hours and minutes run’. Though the poem relates a specific incident involving a mistaken mobile phone call, I’m delighted that readers feel the universality of the love and anguished distance that the events evoke.

In another poem from the same book, I describe my young daughter diving and swimming in a lake. This time it is a father’s anxiety and pleasure in his daughter’s existence and youthful exuberance that drives the poem and I certainly hope people are moved by it:


. . . the smash of water,

the great churning

of foam and white limbs

yellowing as they spread

to carve out stroke

after buoyant stroke

into the swims of joy

and grief she’ll tread.

(Wilderness, #2)


Why translate Rilke and not do your own version of Orpheus? Why translate Rilke twice (your translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies appeared from Enitharmon in 2006). Are there not other poets you would like to translate on a similar level?

Martyn Crucefix: As I’ve mentioned, I have been working sporadically on some of Eluard’s poems. I’ve also been attempting versions (this time) of the great Daoist poems in the Tao Te Ching. Both these projects seems logical progressions from Rilke to me though perhaps there’s no time now to say why. But happily, the translation work has been coming in parallel with my own original poems so it has not been a case of either/or.

One of the joys of translation is that you can venture your voice into areas you might not if left alone: Simon Armitage likens the experience to singing along to a favourite song on the radio. Left to my own devices, I’d be unlikely to write so explicitly about mythical figures. My original poems owe more to someone like Edward Thomas. I like poems that focus on small things and, in effect, make arguments for the ways in which they communicate the bigger issues that concern us all. I’m with Thomas Hardy in believing that ‘he used to notice such things’ is one of the greatest of compliments.

Paul Celan, the Romanian-born poet, would often quote an observation by the French philosopher, Nicolas Malebranche: ‘Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the Soul’. It is this attentiveness to small things that sparks a new poem for me, rather than the more dramatic events of myth or sweeping historical perspectives. There is a little sequence of poems in Hurt that draws on details from the life of Stalin who originally hoped to become a poet or a priest. But even here I tried to keep close to the ‘minute particulars’ of the real individual:


The seventeen-year-old

with the burning eyes, the swept-back

slick of black hair . . .

he takes

a sheaf of close-written papers

to Chavchavadze’s office,

its chaos of scripts and books,

something unfinished

rolled through the typewriter

(‘Growth of a Poet’s Mind’)


Are the poems in your new book by you or by Rilke? How much of yourself is in them?

Martyn Crucefix: The book is presented as a translation of Rilke’s sequence with a parallel text on facing pages so anybody can see what I have done with the original. It is not a version in which I have reacted or responded to Rilke’s work and departed from it deliberately in the mode of Robert Lowell’s Imitations.

Though perhaps an impossible task, I think the translator’s self has to withdraw from the process. What is required is a well-informed version of Keats’ negative capability. We need to have an empathetic knowledge of the author and his/her work to do a good job. We try to see what motivates the original poem – try to re-live the act which gave rise to it and remains embedded in it. In translating, we try to release it from the fixed form of the source language and try to make it anew in the target language.

I sometimes think of it like a dancer learning a specific choreographed sequence of movements. I cannot deny the limits of my own abilities, strength, physiology – but I don’t see the purpose of flaunting those limits or playing to them. I am in the service of the original poem. On those occasions when I do embark on a ‘version’ of a poem, I feel the weight of responsibility lift from me and while that may be a sweet feeling for me that is unlikely to give rise to a sufficiently faithful representation of the original poem. Versions and translations differ. 

Did Rilke try and see the man in Orpheus, the human? If Rilke sees himself as Orpheus, who do you see yourself as?

Martyn Crucefix: Rilke sees Orpheus as that mode of human living to which we ought to aspire, an ideal of perception, of the relationship between self and other and self and death. Orpheus travels to the Underworld to recover the dead Eurydice and he returns to the land of the living (though he loses her a second time) and it is this ability to transcend the conventional boundaries that Rilke wishes us to emulate. Only then do we become aware of the truthfulness of Bonnefoy’s real ‘presence’.

In those fleeting moments when we encounter it fully, we are inspired to praise as Rilke calls it and this is the orphic song. Orpheus is the acme of right human perception and Rilke certainly sees himself as Orpheus in moments of the sequence. As for me, I have enjoyed the intimacy of these years collaborating with a mind like Rilke’s and have derived immense pleasure from his work and from bringing it before people in these new English words. He inspires a reverence and awe that can be potentially distancing; I feel lucky having been able to gaze over his shoulder as the poems reveal themselves all over again:


Breath – you invisible poem!

For ever at your pure trade

with the world’s space. Counterweight. In the rhythm

I find my place.

(Sonnets to Orpheus, 2, 1)