Spending time with this collection's rich but melancholy modesty will enrich the reader's attention
Maitreyabandhu, as his name indicates, is a Buddhist, and his Way commends the value of mindfulness. In "Afterwards", Thomas Hardy, watching the moment when "the May month flaps its glad green hands like wings", hoped to be remembered as "a man who noticed such things". Maitreyabandhu is interesting for being one who notices, and for the care he brings to his observations of people, events, places and memories. But unlike Hardy and most other poets, he is inclined to be self-effacing, even when writing about himself.
He also differs from Hardy in finding that memory, while it haunts us, is necessarily an imperfect faculty. The recognition of this forbids him the consolation of the completed story. Instead he must content himself with being truthful about where certain recollection ends, and with avoiding the understandable temptation to shape and improve on its blanks and time-slips. Above all, there is to be no yearning after more than circumstances permit.
In its quiet way, this is an intimidating discipline, but there's humour in it, too. "The Coat Cupboard" stands open like a come-on to the poet, full of touch and scent and memory of the family, but "You don't push your way through to discover a landscape / where beavers can talk; you're not reunited with your lover / coming around the headland in a ship – your face / is pressed against lambswool and the smell of camphor, / ink and dogs."
This, though, is unavoidably in part a creation itself, an idea that recurs when, in "Burial", an altogether grimmer smell is encountered: "My father was digging below the lilac trees / when his spade broke the crown of a buried skull. // The stench, he told me, clambered through his chest, / then through his head, like a shirking ghost." It would be quite something to have a father so gifted in horrible evocation. The poet adds: "I've made it up or rather I've mistaken / my father's story for the thing itself: // the smell, the wormy skull, the policeman / tall, bright-buttoned, standing by the Aga." Untelling the story like this does nothing to cancel the stench, which transmits itself to the reader's imagination like a sort of sensory curse passed on in the telling: whatever "real" means, this is surely part of it.
The poet's father, devoted to bottle-digging and other unearthings, is a loved presence, seen in action rather than characterised. When he allows his son to be cheated out of an excavated cottage-shaped ink-bottle by a dealer, it's a shock, but it makes a stern kind of sense in the light of "Hammers", which deals with another of his father's interests – buying and refurbishing unwanted tools bought "at car boot sales and garage sales and farms: / claw hammer, tack hammer, the ornate / toffee hammer with the tiny pickaxe head". In some cases he seems, almost, to be replacing the actual tool with its original self, before leaving "each hammer to marinade for weeks / in linseed oil wrapped up in plastic bags". It's a craft, in some sense an art, work done out of reverence for craftsmanship, and finally a ritual preparation of a form of grave-goods.
"Stephen", which closes the collection, is a sequence of 21 poems about an adolescent love affair with a local boy. In a curious way, Maitreyabandhu's disposition to take himself out of the picture seems very suited to this intensely autobiographical work. He doesn't allow himself to get sentimentally in his own light or to pull focus from a sober, deeply felt effort of recollection and recreation. "Two boys once walked across an iron bridge, / one taller than the other. They didn't speak / or catch each other's eye. The brook they crossed // was finger-deep and running over pebbles, / it sounded like someone filling in a form, / writing all the answers with a pencil." The affair, conducted in the woods and fields of Warwickshire in the 1970s, remains unknown to anyone but the boys, who themselves remain largely unknown to each other, their relationship in a sense a secret even from themselves.
The remembered facts may be unreliable or simply incomplete, but these conditions are viewed not as problematic but the grounds of the poems themselves: "If I can't remember […], Stephen /…,/ then let me fold you in these white sheets." It seems that Stephen has drifted away and begun to mix more with girls, when a tragedy occurs: "It was around the start of autumn, the air / had that sudden softness, leaves were turning – / he'd been waiting to do something with his life / when someone screamed as a woman we both knew / turned right and knocked him off his bike."
This is not the final poem. Instead the sequence makes its way back to this point via lovemaking, an imagined future, a glimpse of "you, / climbing up the kitchen stairs, naked / on your hands and knees, and me following" until the fatal accident "between Beaudesert Lane and the High Street", while the poet walked past to take an art exam. Sorrow is allowed to be itself. The Crumb Road has a rich, melancholy modesty, and to spend time with it enriches our attention.
• Sean O'Brien's Collected Poems is published by Picador