The Croft craft – Review of ‘The Sailors of Ulm’

Andy Croft, The Sailors of Ulm, 90pp, 2019, Shoestring Press, Nottingham

The Sailors of Ulm is an unusual book in an age that drifts relentlessly towards conformity. Most strikingly, many of the poems are tightly rhymed. Is this helpful? You bet it is. Chaucer, Pope, Byron and Harrison (not to mention Cope and Ayres) all knew/know that a reader loves a pattern and just the simple – often subliminal – act of searching for the next rhyme keeps the cogs of cognition whirring and the pages turning. So readable this book certainly is. While the tight structure often serves to roll the ideas along, there are moments when the beautiful simplicity of words speaking to each other becomes deeply moving. Let me share one of Croft’s shorter poems in its entirety to show what I mean:

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL

The children are asleep inside the van
And we are sitting underneath the stars,
Too tired to drive, so happy we can’t speak.
If we’re asleep, this dream is ours.

Five minutes more before we hit the road;
We share a can of flat and lukewarm beer.
Five hundred miles before we reach the coast;
But time’s away, and we are here.

Your sleepy hand in mind, the speechless moon,
The warm French night, a last shared cigarette;
No matter what the miles ahead may bring,
This is as good as it can get.

We finish off the beer. Time we were off.
Your turn to get some kip, my turn to drive.
We’ve never felt so tired or so awake
As we are now, or so alive.

Here is a poet using few words, all of them unexceptional in themselves, but setting them in such a pattern – and quietly directing and extracting meaning – that they make this picture of ordinary happiness. I am moved, not just by his recollection of his moment but how it speaks for my own experiences. I could not say this in the way he has, so I am grateful that he has gone to the trouble. That’s the poet’s job: to speak for us. And straight into the commonplace book it goes, in my barely intelligible scrawl.

‘Asleep at the Wheel’ is perhaps atypical of Croft. A more typical poem is likely to spring from a desire to address the wider world, to set things down so they are known, to tell it like it is. A Croft poem is also very likely to be inspired by the writings of others. The title poem, ‘The Sailors of Ulm’ is inspired by MacNeice’s ‘Thalassa’ and Brecht’s poem ‘The Tailor of Ulm’ and to Lucio Magri’s history of the Italian Communist Party, ‘Il Sarto di Ulm’ (so the end notes tell me). I wish I could say I was familiar with all these texts – or even any of them, especially the last – but perhaps I don’t have to be as Croft has done the reading for me. The result is a tight little poem that sets the sardonic tone for much of the book, particularly with its last few lines:

                                    On the quay
The rats are cheering as we sink
Beneath the sands. We’re all at sea.  

The end notes are important as they remind us that Croft is not pretending to be some lonely genius looking into his heart (although he can do this) but a person of letters, concerned with the history that is being made now as well as the recent history that we are all encouraged to forget. His ‘Paul Robeson Sings in Mudfog Town Hall’ is a proper tub-thumper, skewering the great and the good’s lack of greatness and goodness and reminding us that sometimes a single man or woman can speak for us all. And it is witty and playful and memorable.

‘Don and Donna’ is this volume’s masterpiece – not necessarily the first poem to approach but the one that shows how much of a master Croft is of thought released by the constraint of form. Rather than taking swipes at hypocrisy it punches it cleanly on the snozzle. Here’s just one example, (and you should know these poems were written while Croft was a writer in residence – voluntarily – in one of Her Majesty’s prisons):  

We send them out to Helmand and Iraq
            Just like when half the globe was coloured red,
Then guiltily we fly the bodies back;
            Not quite a hero’s welcome, but instead
A coffin wrapped inside a Union Jack.
            We call them heroes when they’re safely dead,
But there’s now twice as many in the can
           As there are serving in Afghanistan.

Yep. Nailed it. So here is more unusual-ness from Croft, to write wittily and memorably about contemporary issues but all the time neatly side-stepping one’s own ego. We don’t get much of Croft (that first poem I quoted being an exception) but that’s ok, there’s plenty of other poets happy to bare their souls. What we do get – and this is going to sound distinctly unpoetic – is knowledge. I didn’t know about Chris Hani, the South African communist murdered in 1993, but thanks to the penultimate poem in this collection, ‘Doodgeskeit’, I now do and I shan’t be forgetting him in a hurry. Poetry is memory and Croft won’t let us forget it. 

Why this review was written & a declaration of connection

I know Andy Croft as a correspondent, once by letter in the mid-1980s and over the last two years by letters and e-mails. We are friendly because we have much in common, and perhaps because we like each others style – I certainly like his. In 2020 he gave me – prompted only by my sending him an early version – a very positive few words about my book A Commonplace which are now featured on its cover. My drafting of this review is to some extent tipping my cap back at him, but it is also wanting to go through the process of working out for myself why I liked his work so much. Readers should, obviously, use the above information to judge how reasonable my views are regarding his work. Everyone’s working an angle, and now you know mine.

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