It really isn’t my intention to turn this blog of mine into an on-going obituary column for dead poets (given that my last was about the late Tom Leonard), but it just so happens that I had an email from Bruges telling me of the death of my friend, the poet Marcus Cumberlege. Perhaps more for my sake than for anyone else, I want to write about some memories I have of him.
I moved to Belgium in summer 2015 and left the country in spirit in summer 2018 (although I came back for a few weeks at a time until December). On first arrival in Belgium in 2015, I set about trying to research whether or not any other self-exiled English poets lived in the country. One name I kept coming across was that of the self-proclaimed ‘Anglo-Brugean’ poet Marcus Cumberlege, who had called the quaint, step-gabled city his home since the early 1970s, when he settled there with his Belgian wife, Maria. I did my detective work before I wrote to him, rounding up some of his books and coming up with a potted history of the man. Born in Antibes, France, he moved to London in 1940. The son of a war hero, Lieutenant Commander Claude Michael Bulstrode Cumberlege (1905-1945) – a real life beau sabreur who had been a Special Operations Executive during WW2, captured by the Nazis after the failed ‘Operation Locksmith’ attack on the Corinth Canal, tortured and finally summarily executed by them. Marcus attributed his love of poetry to his father, who had been a dabbling versifier in his time:
You left me your poems and your books
And the excitement rising to my throat
When my adolescent fingers turned
The pages of Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat”.
(from ‘Memories of Mike’)
Marcus was raised in Ireland and educated at Sherborne and then Oxford where he read English Literature but cheekily admitted that what he was really studying was ‘drinking beer’. Winner of the 1967 Eric Gregory Award. Widely travelled, a citizen of the world, fluent in a number of languages. A recovering alcoholic, sober since 1984 and a practising Shin Buddhist.
He sounded fascinating, so I found his address and wrote to him, telling him of my plight – my desire to find other English language poets in Belgium. Back came an effusive letter and an invitation to Bruges – large looping script, almost engraved onto the paper with the pressure with which it had been written. One of the things I was soon to learn about Marcus was that he was the world’s most assiduous, nay voluminous correspondent. He would write rafts of letters each day and send them out across the world (the postal costs must have been dizzying!). On top of this, he was also without doubt the most prolific poet I’ve ever come across, in the last couple of years of his life he was self-publishing (with his ‘Paper Tiger’ imprint) books of poems on an almost monthly basis. His life is an excellent example of how, when you branch out as a poet and decide to plough your own furrow against the rules of the ‘poetry world’, be prepared to be neglected. Although Marcus was a well-loved and kenspeckle fixture in Bruges, I’ve yet to come across someone in the UK who remembers him or his work. However, back to Marcus’s hyper rate of writing, I had to agree with his wife Maria that it was hard to keep up with Marcus’s almost demoniacal rate of production. He made me feel like such a slouch – I still have the same poetry notebook I was using at the start of 2018, but Marcus could go through such a notebook in a week! Friends often found themselves written into his poems, and in his last book (in his own words his ‘masterpiece’), Marcus has a poem entitled ‘To Richie’. He was very concerned with the well-being and happiness of others and I had had a tough year, but nowhere near as bad as Marcus’s, and yet he writes:
Cast off care, my friend,
and be thankful for each moment
on this planet.
Scribbles of an old man
whose body has broken
into small pieces.
The poem is much longer than this, I have merely excerpted it to give you a sense of goodwill that floods Marcus’s later work. He disliked how people dismissed spiritual writing or self-help motivational writing as pat or glib, and all of his later work is about gratitude for his recovery, his wife, his faith. My Path to Bliss, his last collection was written in a fever after he had been given his terminal diagnosis – lung cancer that had spread to his brain (‘The doctor told me, there is no hope’). There was some gallows humour along the way, but I think that Marcus was unwilling to accept the inevitability of his condition – he was hopeful for a positive outcome at all times. He gifted this collection to me on my last meeting with him in Bruges on 17th November. He was particularly proud that he had at long last had a Buddhist name conferred on him: he was Zuishin Marcus Cumberlege, the ‘bumbling Bombu’ ready for the Pure Land after saying his nembutsu countless times each day to show his devotion to Amida. He’d not picked up a pen to write in weeks and this caused him much anguish – that he had poems in his head but not the strength or hand/eye coordination to write them down. Yet somehow he signed the book for me: ‘To Richie McCaffery / my very good friend / Bruges-Warkworth-Gent / Marcus C / written with own hand!’.
I’d last seen him at the end of September / early October when he broke the news of his illness to me and the transmogrification of his physical body and appearance in about a month and a half was truly shocking to see. He was always small and thin, but he was half the size he had been, his hair falling out, his skin all sallow and sunken. As I helped him move around, I could have easily lifted him up. But we had two last afternoons together and lunch where Marcus was persuaded to come to the table and eat a tiny portion of food (all he could manage). We also managed to go out in the wheelchair and take the air – a trip to ‘Delicious’ – the Moroccan snack bar that was, alongside the peaceful café ‘Kupje Troost’, essentially Marcus’s second office. The proprietors of Delicious had just had a baby, and I have the achingly poignant image in my memory of a visibly dying Marcus beaming as he greeted this new arrival.
I was reading one of his collections – Reflections in Water – the night he died, though I didn’t hear of his death until a few days later. So much of his work is about celebrating the here and now – the wondrous nowness of things, as Dennis Potter famously said in his heart-breaking final interview with Melvyn Bragg. A sense of unconditional love for all things pervades his work, and he is more than capable of moments of great beauty:
Gently I lift a stone from the depths of the pool,
turn it over in my hands, and see where the weeds
have rubbed into it their crimson, green & purple dyes.
Gently you are bringing out the colours of my heart.
Of course, a poet who writes non-stop and publishes almost weekly brings about the question of quality – surely he couldn’t have written good poems all the time at that rate? Well, I am of the school of thought that says you cannot simply cherry pick the best of a poet’s work and dismiss the rest, you are obliged to engage with the entire trajectory and course of their oeuvre. I can only compare him to one of my favourite Scottish poets, Hugh MacDiarmid. The two men were entirely different temperamentally, spiritually and intellectually, but they were also uncompromisingly individualists who gave over their entire lives to poetry. The development of their work is similar too. Like MacDiarmid, Marcus has two main distinctive waves in his writing life. He began, like us all, as a competitive young poet writing clipped little lyrical poems in a very much formally Modernist Eliot-ish fashion. He won an Eric Gregory, was published in the best journals of his time: Dublin Magazine, The Honest Ulsterman, New Measure etc. He was also published by the best poetry presses – Anvil and the early Carcanet presses. Although he didn’t like to hear me say it, I preferred the more troubled, angsty work of a young man contained in his first three collections Oases, Running Towards a New Life and Firelines. In his debut, Oases, he writes of meeting the grand old man of esoteric letters, ‘Lord Dunsany’:
When I was 13 years of age
In Lord Dunsany’s House
We sat down at the chessboard
And played at Cat & Mouse.
“You have some knowledge of the play
And move the pieces well,
But on the 13th move from now
I’ll have you in my spell.”
12 moves went by, that seemed like hours,
I doubted what he said.
But when the 13th move was played
I found my King was dead.
It’s a poem that has all the eeriness of Dunsany’s own writing, and I did ask Marcus once – he really did go and play chess with him, and had known T. S. Eliot as a teenager (whose letters he regretted burning in his early 20s when he left the UK). The poem could also be about a master addressing a novice in the art and magic of writing. Marcus was nothing like Dunsany to meet, not in the least bit aloof or forbidding. A very small bearded man, in terms of height and weight with a rather loud and high-pitched yet very genteel, public school voice. He was both very down to earth and in the clouds at the same time, both street-wise and somehow very faintly patrician. His energy was also an attribute that was hard to miss – I can only describe him as ‘indefatigable’ in his writing and living. Some of this could be attributed to his lifelong struggle with insomnia and manic depression, but a lot of it also came from his very real enjoyment of writing, having found his meaning in life. The comparison to MacDiarmid holds up insofar as MacDiarmid increasingly began to write longer, more arcane poems and Marcus, after his crises and breakdown in the mid-1980s began to embrace his Shin Buddhism and so his writing changed completely and in the 1990s the creative sluice gates well and truly opened (whereas poetry more or less deserted MacDiarmid in his later years, 1950 onwards). MacDiarmid wanted to challenge his readers, Marcus instead said he had practiced to be able to write in an accessible register of English that could be understood easily by his Flemish friends, who might not use English all that regularly. The poetry sluice gates only dried up in the final months when, as I say, he could no longer lift a pen or hold it steady. By this point he was unshakeable in his belief in another world to come. In 2006 he wrote his ‘Last Poem’ (though it was far from that):
A tree in autumn sunlight,
A plume of smoke in the sky.
All that’s left of the roses,
One poem before I die.
Life presses on without me,
The seasons come and go.
Bicycle rides in summer,
The wonder of falling snow.
What do they really matter,
The toys of a world outgrown?
My dream is nearly over,
I can see the glint of dawn.
The greatest pathos of the last months of Marcus’s life came from the fact that he was convinced that he would live to be 95. He kept talking about this as if it was a fact. In Leaves Painted Gold to Please a Child published a decade or so before his death, he has a poem entitled ‘At Eighty’:
I glimpse myself a dozen years from now,
Old vagrant of these tourist-trodden streets
I think I’ll get there one day at a time,
Losing some minor defects along the way,
Slowly but surely learning how to live
In realms of light beyond my wildest dreams.
As it turned out, Marcus was only to experience one week of being eighty years old, and by then was beyond walking Bruges’ cobbled, pullulating streets. I have the first book he signed for me and the last, and the dozens in between. From the first book I can see that our first meeting was at his house, a charming and ancient step-gabled townhouse in the historic centre of Bruges, on 18th of November 2015. From the last book he gave me, I can see our last meeting was 17th of November 2018 – more or less exactly three years. It might not sound like much, but Marcus gave away so much of himself openly and freely that I feel like I’ve known him much longer. I prefer to remember him the way he was in his prime in this wonderful short documentary (‘Candid Cumberlege’ by Didier Eeckhout) which offers us a day in the life of Marcus, flaneuring around Bruges, taking notes, cracking jokes, making friends and writing poems:
Marcus was also a prolific writer of haiku, with over 1500 in print and who knows how many others scribbled down and squirrelled away somewhere. Here are some of my favourites:
written on water.
makes her nest
in my poem.
A seagull dives
downwards – to sit
on its own shadow.