Thursday 11 February 2016

On J. O Morgan

Today sees the publication (by Jonathan Cape) of Interference Pattern by the poet J. O. Morgan. This has been admiringly reviewed by Kate Kellaway in the Guardian so in this blog I'd like to look back to the earlier work of a contemporary poet I have come to admire above any other.

Morgan has previously published four book-length poems. The first two - Natural Mechanical (2009) and Long Cuts (2011) - were based on episodes in the life of his friend and fellow Hebridean, Iain Seoras Rockliffe ('Rocky'), a self-taught naturalist and gifted mechanic, equally at home foraging among the island's flora and fauna and mending a broken motor mower. Morgan adroitly fused a third person biographical narrative with Rocky's laddish perspective, and the result is a luminous, utterly beguiling study of an adolescent innocent negotiating the foothills of experience.. As the TLS reviewer put it, the results are at times 'a pleasing cross between the Beano comic and The Prelude' .The teenage Rocky's heart is set on owning a motor cycle. He visits a showroom where he sees:

Pristine machines, hard-angled skeletons
stretching their frames low between thin black wheels,
the small silver lumps of engine, flat-ribbed hives,
floated in the central gap, pipes leading down and back.

Has any other poet since Thom Gunn hymned the motor-cycle so eloquently? 'Flat-ribbed hives' might not be the words that young Rocky would use to describe a motorbike engine, but they chime with his sensibility as a nature-lover and are wonderfully evocative (not least in their suggestion of potential noise).

Long Cuts, subtitled 'further wanderings in the life of Iain Seoras Rockliffe', follows Rocky into adult life as he becomes an apprentice engineer and then travels the world as a merchant seaman. There is a brief scene in which the adult Rocky teaches a Filipino sailor the rudiments of his language:

Ouk ai dan
Orc hai tonoh
Och aye the noo

The lines are untypical of his poetry but the technique is unmistakably Morganesque. The words appear to develop on the page, slowly coming into sharp focus like a photographic print. He constructs scenes and episodes through allusion and nuance, leaving the reader to explore and understand what may at first be a baffling, or at least ambiguous, situation. This is not merely a ludic approach - Morgan has a deep understanding of the inconstancies and contingencies of language, the subjectivity of perception. He doesn't want to frustrate his readers, but beguile them.

His third volume At Maldon (2013) was a departure: an epic re-working of the thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon fragmentt recounting the bloody skirmish between Vikings and locals on the Blackwater estuary in Essex, in which Morgan did to Anglo-Saxon verse what Christopher Logue did to Homeric Greek, with equally impressive effect. At last year's Edinburgh Book Festival I joined a spellbound audience to hear the poet recite all 60 pages from memory, and flawlessly. I struggled then, and struggle now, to muster adequate superlatives to describe his delivery -  you simply had to be there. His polyphonic reading, interrupted by strategic sips of water, was an immersive experience for his listeners and offered  a direct link back to the aural poetic tradition of the Saxon period. I shan't forget his weary delivery, close to the end, of two blunt lines::

So one man hits another
and the other hits him back.

There's a history of human conflict in that. Late in the day a Saxon named Wistan (who features fleetingly in the original poem) appears on the battle field and is described thus:

         his graceful step, his mastery;
the fearlessness worn lightly on his face;
his body-buzz, his aura's lucid edge.

Morgan's writing has that lucid edge, and I like to think that the lines are a nod to the homophonous Wystan Auden. Although he tells me he hasn't read the poet, Morgan can at times be strikingly if casually Audenesque:

At the hottest part of the year there are no fish.
The calm lens of the sea collects the sun;
the skin of its surface boiling downward
to where the fish doze
in cool black hollows of rock.

This comes from Morgan's third book In Casting Off, published in 2015 by Edinburgh's HappenStance Press.  (See their website here). The publisher describes it as a 'poem-novella' and 'among other things, a love story.' The 24 linked poems are set in a remote fishing community on an unnamed island, somewhere in northern Europe. The main protagonists are a brother and sister and a young 'foreign' woman (apparently anglophone), a student of anthropology who arrives by ferry to undertake some unspecified research. The village has a fish factory, a jetty, a church and little else. Not even, it seems, a pub. 

Set over a few summer months the poems should be read consecutively but are, thanks to some deft temporal shifts by the author, remembered in a different order, part of a more general destabilising effect on the reader who is left in a state of increasing uncertainty as the narrative elements shift subtly to reveal deeper meanings. Which of the female protagonists works in the fish factory? Who is the girl with 'coffee-coloured skin'? What do the unnerving contents of the 'thin wooden case' signify? Who, at the end of the final poem, is knocking at the door? (I thought of the conclusion to W. W. Jacob's celebrated ghost story The Monkey's Paw, which subtly informs other parts of the narrative.)

There is a mythical undertow. The opening poem 'A New Suit' includes a startling and disturbing image of a young woman easing her greased body into the pelt of a freshly-gutted seal, perhaps a reference to the Scottish selkie legend. Selkies are seal-like creatures that shed their skin to assume a human identity. Traditionally male selkies seek out unhappy women (such as wives waiting for their fishermen husbands to return from the sea). Female selkies may lure human men, but yearn to return to the sea. Myth aside, there is an unsettling whiff of incest and zoophilia.

Morgan's evocation of the Isle of Skye in the first two volumes confirmed his acute powers of observation and description and his preference for clear and simple language:

When strong sunlight
strikes clear water
it penetrates in parallel columns
that blink out
and re-form
as the surface shifts,
altering the angle at which
the sun cuts through.

This is the opening to 'Staying Afloat', combining an intense realisation of the natural world with Morgan's horde of private references (in this case to columns, eyes, light and water). 'Blink' is a word that appears here and many times elsewhere, with a slightly different sense each time; 'cross-hatching' is a phrase that refers both to the impression left by fishing lines on sealskin and the appearance of rippling bathwater. Late in the collection a woman ill-advisedly swims out to commune with a group of seals, unaware of the danger:

Those long grey bodies, hung as columns,
slanted in plant-like stillness,
their lines converging
towards her.

Such internal parallels and adroit visual reconfigurings make Morgan's poems rewardingly complex and satisfyingly approachable. He has an optical virtuosity and, in each book to date, creates and inhabits a fully-realised world, whether in the past or the present. He has a formidable gift for judging the weight and pace and length of every line; you hear these poems as you read them to yourself.  

Morgan is the most epidermal of poets - he  sees the skin above the skull. There are multiple references to skin: a girl has 'coffee-coloured skin', as does a woman (presumably the same girl in her later years); in the fish factory  salmon are efficiently filleted and their grey skins removed; freshly-applied paint becomes "the tacky elastic of this semi-solid skin'. There is sealskin, sharkskin, bearskin - even the sea and a mountain lake have 'skins' of their own, permeable surfaces that both reflect and conceal. At one point a woman marvels at the pale pink baby-like flesh of her weatherbeaten fisherman husband:

as skin beneath a sticking plaster wrinkles
and whitens as it heals.

His images are all the more effective for being rooted in the domestic - they are hauntingly strange because they are familiar. Other motifs are borders, rims, edges, nets and meshes, eyes and a bestiary featuring not only seals but also bears, salmon and birds of all kinds. On occasion some rather quaint 'poetic' words creep in ('whereat', 'lest', 'whilst' which may have a greater currency in Scotland,), but Morgan is always confidently modern in his technique and sensibility, if not exactly modernist. In Casting Off  reminded me of W. S. Graham's masterpiece 'The Nightfishing' (1955), one of the best long poems of the 20th century. 

Graham and Morgan are both Scottish poets although the former lived much of his life in Cornwall, the latter lives on a small border farm. Both are, among many other things, great poets of the sea. While Graham increasingly tended towards abstraction (to the point that much of his writing was writing about writing). Morgan has a particular gift for evoking the movement of water, sunlight, heat and clouds.

The artist and writer David Henningham is a great admirer of Morgan's poetry and observed to me that the more ambitious the poetry becomes, the simpler the language. (This certainly seems to be the case the case, as Interference Pattern confirms - a very sophisticated polyphonic performance that (it seems to me) is a 21st century equivalent to The Waste Land..) There are a very few moments in his fourth book where his reach appears to exceed his grasp: a description of a camera doesn't quite come off, for instance, as too many ingenious images vie for his - and our - attention; elsewhere the action of a bear peeling back the roof of a car to abduct a child is compared with folding paper flowers (which I found resistible at first but am gradually coming around to what is, at least, a very memorable image). But these are rare lapses from a writer who brilliantly manipulates language and situations to a fresh aesthetic end. At his best J. O. Morgan has no contemporary equal.

J. O. Morgan's first three books are published by CB editions: 

At Maldon (CB editions have also issued a recording of the author reading the poem)

In Casting Off is published by Happenstance Press: 

Interference Pattern is published by Jonathan Cape:

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