Martyn Crucefix, Cargo of Limbs – review

Describing the attempts of refugees from war to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, Martyn Crucefix’s Cargo of Limbs is about borders in the most concrete, desperate and morally challenging way. He makes the current crisis resonate with Virgil’s epic story of the refugees from Troy by shaping it as a revision of part of Book 6 of the Aeneid, describing Aeneas’s journey to the underworld. You don’t need to know this background to understand the poem, but it adds a dimension if you do.

The poem itself consists of 60 unrhymed quatrains, many broken mid line by the asterisks that divide  sections. There’s virtually no punctuation except for line breaks, so multiple syntactical possibilities coexist. Impressions arise like a series of unmediated revelations. Crucefix himself stands back. The ‘I’ of the poem is a photojournalist whose job is just to see, and to show. If we read the poem aloud, the format seems to direct us to do so in a series of staccato gasps. In terms of visual impressions, it’s like a hail of glimpses from a hand-held video camera, sometimes shooting at night, registering snatches of imagery by dazzling stabs of torchlight, though images cohere more clearly from half way through, when we meet the people smuggler, a reimagining of Virgil’s Charon, who ferries souls across the Styx:

whichever way they come
the guardian of the crossing
he confronts them
his eyes illegible

and fearful as the waves
that ramp and cream beyond him
standing rich in rags

So honed is the style, so vividly do the images speak, so rapid are the changes of perspective, that my only difficulty is resisting the temptation to quote the whole 240 lines:

like a run-over dog
the black dinghy squeals
the leaking boat groans

at the lucky hundreds
clambering aboard
a great cargo of limbs
all eyeing the waters

Those last two lines distil an appalling image from multiple news pictures, infuse it with moral reflections prompted by the word ‘cargo’ and then jolt us with the jump from horrified but external seeing to empathic identification – from looking at a crowd so crammed together that they look like one many-limbed body to looking through their eyes. And of course it doesn’t stand alone. The phrase ‘cargo of limbs’ quivers with the memory of earlier images of mutilation and dismemberment.

Introduced by Choman Hardi, Cargo of Limbs combines Martyn Crucefix’s poem and his comments on how he wrote it with haunting stills from Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed’s documentary film Purple Sea, about Mediterranean refugees.

Cargo of Limbs by Martyn Crucefix. Hercules Editions, . 40pp.; £10

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 98.

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