The Crumb Road may be Maitreyabandhu’s first book-length poetry collection, but he is by no means new to poetry having, for instance, already won the Keats-Shelley Prize. Born Ian Johnson, he converted to Buddhism in 1990 and his affinity with spirituality shows in his verse. The Crumb Road is for the main part concerned with introspection and the retrospective spiritual journey of an adult into his experience of childhood.
While the main topics of The Crumb Road may be nostalgia and self-analysis, the collection also toys with the reader’s expectations by adding hints of tragic-comedy into poetry that is both metaphysical and naturalistic. Maitreyabandhu is constantly playing with contrasts: “Bottle-Digging” for example may be read as a pastiche of Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging”, but expands on a topic of its own in the last stanza:
Dad had put the tools inside the boot
when I got back. We drove in silence home.
And after that he made it known to anyone
who’d listen the I’d been duped by a collector
who would even stoop to cheat a kid
And I’m still ashamed of what I did.
If Heaney’s poem is about the son adapting to the working ethic of his father, albeit having changed from manual to intellectual labor, then “Bottle-Digging” questions whether it is wise to imitate the previous generation. While the boy’s mishap may seem funny to the adults and the reader, it is obviously a traumatic experience for the child, who continues to shoulder the shame, even though his youth at the time suggests there is no need to do so.
Heaney is not the only poet whose influence can be heard in the background of these poems. In “The Man”, the protagonist’s dull life is represented by aggrandized representations of cutlery which may remind the reader of “the taking of toast and tea” in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock”. John Keats’ theory of half-knowledge can be observed in poems such as “Something Happened”: neither the reader nor the narrator appears to know what that “something” is, but “half-dreams came and went”, hinting at further insight. However, perhaps the most important influence is that of Virginia Woolf’s poetic prose. Some of the texts, such as “Hill Town”, are not written in verse, but in poetic language, which raises the question where prose ends and poetry begins. Indeed, some of the poems that are versified also read more like poetic prose than prosaic poetry. “Copper Wire” for example emphasises the general, child-like excitement of discovery over traditional poetic form and meter. This does not, however, detract from the poetic value:
He’d catch us up and say Copper wire!
Then smile and rub the crumbling coating off
Until it shone like fraying hoops of gold
It might be of interest to note the smooth transition from “wire” to “smile”, or “rub” to “crumbling” and “coating” by means of assonance and alliteration respectively. In addition, the verse transfigures the gritty reality of the frayed copper hoops into the child’s “golden” fascination.
Children and childhood are assuredly the most important topic of The Crumb Road. The title is of course a reference to the fairy tale of Hänsel and Gretel, and stands as a warning of how easily memories and child-like enthusiasm are lost. Did my childhood make me happy? Am I wiser because of it? From the discovery of copper wire to the underlying homoeroticism of the third part of the collection “Stephen”, The Crumb Road provides incentive for any reader to ask themselves how their childhood affected them, before their personal crumb road is consumed and it is no longer possible to go back.