Friday 20 March 2020

The Martian's Regress by J O Morgan (Jonathan Cape)

Jonathan Cape, part of Penguin Random House, is nobody's idea of a small independent press, but I'll break my own policy today because Cape have just published the poet J O Morgan's seventh book, The Martian's Regress.

Morgan is among my favourite poets and has his roots in the world of indie presses. His first three books were published by Charles Boyle's CB editions: Natural Mechanical (2009) Long Cuts (2011) and At Maldon (2013). Next came In Casting Off (2015) from the Scottish indie HappenStance Press, run by the wonderful Helena Nelson. I reviewed this and his next book Interference Pattern (2016, Jonathan Cape) for the Times Literary Supplement here.

Morgan sixth book Assurances (2018), his second with Cape, won the Costa Poetry Prize last year.

You can never second-guess what he'll do next; each book is a departure and he goes from strength to strength. I recommend of them as essential poetry for these dark days. The Martian's Progress, published earlier this month without any fanfare, immediately earns its place in the world. I've never read any poetry remotely like it.

J O Morgan and Assurances

As usual with Morgan it's a book-length poem but this time, in a break with his established practice, it's made up of 44 separately-titled poems. No extract or paraphrase will do The Martian's Regress justice, so I'll say no more than that it is set at remote point in the very distant future when a Martian, descended over many millennia from human colonists, visits earth to undertake a survey of the now-abandoned and moribund planet. It's a hell of a premise, and one which Morgan develops with startling originality.

I've been spellbound on each of three readings to date and look forward to future encounters. It's as if Morgan has both invented and perfected a new form, just as William Gibson did with Neuromancer (1984), the astonishing novel that launched the cyberpunk genre.

Dispel any thoughts of the so-called 'Martian school' poetry popularised by Craig Raine and others in the 1980s (which I always found quite resistible as it was essentially a series of 'hey wow - this thing looks like that  thing' moments, merely making the familiar temporarily strange). What Morgan does is make the strange even stranger. In The Martian's Regress he bundles myth and science together, deploys the most outrageously bizarre imagery and handles language with a serene virtuosity. His style is intelligent and crystal clear; he has a virtuosic way with the long line and is a master of the book-length poem.  It's all fantastically futuristic and paradoxically old-fashioned (with a deliberately 'retro' feel to much of the technology). It's confident, precise and profound, with lines that set the mind racing.

Order from a local independent bookseller, or direct from the publishers direct from the publishers.

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