Linda Black on J O Morgan and Ann Vaughan-Williams on Christopher Reid
J O Morgan
CB editions 2008
A couple of months ago a slim volume by a poet unknown to me, the cover the colour of brown wrapping paper, endorsed on the front by Simon Armitage ('Remarkable, a gem of a poem') arrived through the post for review.
I read it and loved it, only to discover a few weeks later that it had been shortlisted for the Aldeburgh First Collection Award and then, to my delight, that it had won (out of a record 92 entries). I hadn't heard of J.O. Morgan - he's never published before, nor has he tried to, though he has written a novel, short story, lyrics, a long poem and a children's story. How the book came to be is a serendipitous story.
Charles Boyle, the editor of CB Editions:
'In the summer of last year J.O. happened to be listening to a Radio 4 programme that happened to be reviewing a short novel of mine that Bloomsbury had just published. He sent me an email with, attached, the first 30 or 40 lines of Natural Mechanical, asking if I'd like to read more. Oh yes. And then we talked on the phone, and talked more, and when we'd agreed to publish it I sent copies of the poem to Christopher Reid & Simon Armitage & Andrew Motion - and (but this NEVER happens) all of them responded within 48 hours, and all with enthusiasm.'
I could tell you briefly what the book is about but, being an admirer of J.O. Morgan's turn of phrase, I prefer to quote the title in full: 'NATURAL MECHANICAL being a rendering of the true life stories of Ian Seoras Rockliffe.' Let us turn to the Apologia for a further taste: 'That the episodes presented here...'; 'That though the narrative is poetic in form and structure...' and so forth. I'm hooked. I am about to be taken on a journey and I know I'm in good hands.
Boyle went on to visit J.O. in Devon, then 'Rocky' in Inverness-shire: 'J.O. has known Rocky for some years; they've spent many hours over mugs of tea at the kitchen table in Rocky's croft, and though the idea for the book was J.O.'s they both saw it as a kind of collaborative project. I believe J.O. tape-recorded hours of Rocky talking, but when it came to writing the book he didn't refer to the tapes at all.
'See this boy - this Rocky' the poem assuredly begins. The use of the present tense continues. The language is direct and active, spare and emphatic - spare in its avoidance of excess, detailed but not embellished, compassionate but unsentimental, perceptive and non-judgemental. In the words of Mimi Khalvati, one of the three judges of the Aldeburgh competition, Natural Mechanical is 'Such an engaging, affecting book. It effortlessly combines different verse-forms: remarkable, particularly for a first collection, in deftly tackling a book-length narrative, and also refreshing in its sense of tradition.'
Here is a boy with a harsh upbringing, raised in the Inner Hebrides on Skye, a boy of few words. Words do not sit easily with Rocky - he has what would be termed today as a Specific Learning Difficulty.
As in a dream the letters stay as letters.
They are glue. Have no perspective depth.
Their shapes mean nothing other than their shapes.
have no relevance to sound, to throat. Un-word-like.
His language is Gaelic not the English of the classroom. From the onset he is a canny fellow, a free spirit wont to solving his problems with learning by absconding himself whenever possible: 'His teaching to be gathered from the earth/ From scrub and thicket: profit never dearth'. Rocky is resilient (and often hungry), finds his own solutions, snares rabbits and sells them to the butcher, teaches himself to mend bikes, fix cars.
In a scene reminiscent of Kes, Rocky is 'frogmarched to the schoolhouse', led on to the stage and in front of the assembled pupils, entreated by the principle to ' ... be so kind to tell us/ what it is you do get up to/when you choose to be elsewhere than here.'
...So he tells them about the fox.
He tells them everything. In detail.
From start to finish.
Whilst much of the language is pared down and succinct, the incident previously observed (and now summarised) by Rocky is filled with detailed observation. In a stanza nearly two pages long, with mostly end-stopped lines and several short phrases for sentences, we are treated to a deft and precise description of a fox ridding himself of fleas:
Shepherds are known to talk of such things.
Though few eyes have ever beheld it.
Rocky is different - is special, has earned the respect of his peers; from now on he is 'NATUREBOY'.
There are many lyrical passages in the text with subtle use of rhyme and repetition. Extended syntax contrasts with shorter more clipped sentences. The lack of a main verb or the dropping of an indefinite article adds to the sense of immediacy, the force running through the narrative.
Some nights Rocky doesn't make it home at all, but sleeps 'beneath the circling panoply of stars':
... And if a chill wind blows then fallen leaves
may serve as blanket, holding back the draught.
And if the warm airs lift and leave the wood
he huddles closer to his dog and both sleep on.
Whilst we are there with Rocky, empathising though never feeling sorry for him, drawn into the stark, uncompromising nature of his life, rooting for him, we are not allowed to forget that this is the past. Occasional glimpses into the future - the interjection of the facts laid bare - are all the more moving for their candid lack of emotion.
Witnesses speak of the past:
But would the extra tutelage have helped?
with him so strange and reticent a boy?
Apologies won't make amends - what could I do?
After a while we tired of calling,
unknowing of how many mountains
divided our lips from his ears.
These voices add poignancy to his story, reminding us that to all intents and purposes Rocky was on his own in the world, 'up and running', a survivor, driven to fend for himself.
Natural Mechanical is unique and highly recommended.
Review by Linda Black
The Song of Lunch
CB Editions 2009.
£7 50 from http://www.cbeditions.com or order from 146 Percy Road, London W12 9QL
This is a long poem, published in a handy buff volume. It looks light and lyrical on the page, until page 59 when it expands for the one page of pent rage in a woman's voice:
'... we need to go back to your poems.
It strikes me you don't understand them yourself.'
This is the voice of the 'flame' who has invited her old publisher admirer to meet her for lunch.
The poem is narrated from within this man of fifty, jaded by post-modernism, who deludes himself that he still cuts a dash as he goes out for a walk through Bloomsbury to find a restaurant with table to please her. It is peopled with the ghosts of his literary past. Like the classical past, the proprietor Massimo appears to have been displaced at Zanzotti's, former haunt of publishers in their powerhouse.
Soho, he believes, has sold itself to 'cultureless fly-by-nights'. Publication is determined by 'some idiot of the box'. 'Orange plastic barriers-/our century's major contribution/to the junk art of street furniture' assail his eye as he sets out from the office, and
'He leaves a message, a yellow sticky,
on the dead black
of his computer screen: ...'
This colour yellow: I find myself thinking of the 'yellow fog that rubs its back' in T.S. Eliot's The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock, who also went out 'through narrow streets' seeking the answer to a question. It reminds me even more of another poem of 1917, 'Portrait of a Lady.' At such a meeting a man must be 'prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid.'. 'Do I dare disturb the universe?' Prufrock asked. The voice of this poem seems unlikely to disturb any universe however.
But, he feels uplifted by a message from a lost love and walks at 'a skipping pace', like that ghost of literature who rolled his trousers up, to unwind, and found himself catching crabs. Why did she email suggesting this meeting? The Copy Editor narrator, who despises every manuscript he receives, is trapped in the necessity of passing trite work to the superficial media arena, where it receives accolades. He is powerless. His time has past, and with it, he believes, the Classical inheritance of western Civilization?
He finds the table that is reserved for him, he is not despised here; yet he is soon starting 'to kill a few bottles'. His old flame arrives, but: 'Somehow there is a sharper outline.' She is not upset by the pizza culture, is pleased that the restaurant 'doesn't make a fetish of 'pollo sorpreso'. In fact, she thinks things have improved. She is deft with waiters and menus and orders. He notices, with startlement: 'the faint, faint/ nimbus of the lens/ circling the gold-shot/ hazel of each iris'. 'Oracle' eyes/ he used to call them:/ the harder you looked,/ the more sublime/ and unreadable they became./But have they lost their old force?' 'Gaze meets gaze/revealing as ever/everything and nothing there.' He seems as terrified as any person dominated by a merciless un-giving regime.
A fast read, it is a spare precise evocation of the present day with its 'cultureless trashiness' and quick-serve restaurants orchestrated by 'woofs of laughter' from groups of city workers in their own brand of bonhomie. In contrast, the waiter and waitress are alive in their confined space, they are memorable in the way their bodies communicate non-verbal gestures of language. Are they subversive or natural? The proprietor who was Massimo, the owner who fuelled the literary publishing industry, gives, perhaps, the haunting answer, that life has simply moved on?
It is the grappa that loosens the tongue of the woman who was the Muse for his autobiographical poems. We find he has been stalking her. Fortified, she says:
'The Eurydice that you are trying to rescue
with your brave little song must be yourself:
your inner self, your soul. But you've not been in touch
with that in your entire life. Which puts you in a hole,
His mistake, she tells him, was to be kidnapped by the Lyric Muse. He has confused poetry with therapy. His poems are clever and nicely-written but 'misconceived, false, hollow, wrong.' He is not in touch with his soul?
In this poem I find scintillating dialogue, a restaurant I feel I know, exactness of detail of time and place, of past and present. Nuances of communication in a public, though intimate, setting that turns to theatre. Not the Mead Hall, not islands and oceans, but going to lunch in Zanzotti's we can feel the change from classical to post-modern, and the disaster is that of the man who despises the dullness and stupidity of others. It is his of his own making.
His former muse is wife to a novelist of international renown. The publisher stands accused, the male has dominated western culture for too long, he has left the women talking, as Eliot's Prufrock did when he went out to his tacky assignments. The Oracle speaks and shows him up. I think she has come to put an end to his self-delusion.
Review by Ann Vaughan-Williams