Long Cuts by J.O.Morgan (CB Editions 2011)
Reviewed by Linda Black
I knew I was going to like Long Cuts from the moment I spotted the familiar brown cover at the 2011 inaugural Free Verse Book Fair in London's Exmouth Market - a showcase for small poetry presses organised by Charles Boyle of CB Editions. I knew because J.O. Morgan, whose previous book Natural Mechanical, also from CB Editions, won the 2009 Aldeburgh First Collection Award, is a fine writer - I didn't expect to be disappointed.
Morgan employs the same skills of versification to even greater effect, as we catch up with 'the further wanderings' of Iain Seoras Rockliffe - Rocky as he is known - whilst he moves into adulthood, pushbike exchanged for motorbike, still fixing things ('Can you fix our mam's new dryer ...'), still somewhat of an outsider, still illiterate - a real-life character (see the photo of Rocky, seemingly in mid flow).
This is a book length poem, a discontinuous narrative jumping around from episode to episode, each divided by an asterisk. We are taken to unexpected places, never quite sure where we will end up next (nor I think is Rocky). This from the start of the fifth section:
Thick milk-misted ice, flat topped, close
beside the shallow curve of a grey steel wall.
The wall's steady vibration,
a deep reverberant hum.
The echoed whistles of ice
sped in all directions.
Though we may not be sure, wherever Rocky is, Morgan places him solidly there:
... sat in the back with the trackers...'
... trying to communicate with the Vietnamese ...'
... strolling up the walkway to the ship ...'
We are reminded of Rocky's harsh background - see the response to his question, politely beginning; 'Father, if it's ok, I'd like your advice' - and his resilience. Rocky 'Reacts by not reacting. Gets on. Does.' Morgan gives just the right amount of factual information to set the context, to exemplify Rocky's world and to drive the narrative on. We follow in his footsteps, be it 'closing up the workshop for the day', or 'lodged in a tree' after his parachute fails.
Rocky ('benchhand, sweeper-upper, monkey-boy' ) is skilled, resourceful and, at this point, untrained:
... he makes no notes, only watches
as the diamond tool-tip bites the spinning brass,
as filigreed spirals of swarf peel hot into the trough,
then goes to work on setting up the capstan lathe
to copy the process with callipered precision.
What is Rocky making you may wonder. I don't know. Some sort of joint./He asked for it to be made. So I made it, he tells the girl at the hospital reception.
'Good with numbers', though unable to write, charged with fetching the lunchtime orders, Rocky 'notes it all down in his pocket book':
No words on any pages, only symbols; basic shapes
to start off with, circles, triangles, squares, though
as the pages turn the symbols develop, their shapes
distort, break apart, marks are added, floating
embellishments, dotted denotations, of flavour, filling,
white bread or brown...
This is an adventure story, as varied in form and style as are Rocky's escapades. One of the delights of the book is Morgan's assured use of form and language; rhythms, internal rhymes, assonance, alliteration, enjambment, line-endings; finely judged repetition, descriptive detail; sentences fluid and lyrical, sometimes matter of fact, short and clipped with no main verb.
Rocky's story - or stories, are told dispassionately and it is this unsentimental approach which enables us to empathise, to admire Rocky. We aren't told how Rocky feels, we know him by his actions. We know little of his physical appearance from the text ('his knuckles' soft red hairs', 'his toughened hands'). We know he doesn't drink. Sometimes he wears a kilt.
Thus we follow Rocky's attempts to sate his wanderlust - ultimately a loner, a free spirit, Rocky makes ties but won't (as yet) be tied down. Though women are attracted to him and are certainly part of his escapades, 'the girl he will one day fall in love with' is as much as we get of romance.
Rocky is wise, a man of few words - 'It's not in his nature to make a fuss' - tough but kind-hearted, not to be messed with - see the third-in-command (a 'high-ranked, self-important/speck of seamanship' ) get his comeuppance in no uncertain way.
I can't wait to see Morgan's take on what he chooses to tackle next - whatever it is, it should be a treat!