Blaze: a Vanishing, Alan Morrison, Waterloo Press, 144pp, £10 (paperback)
Dear Boy, Emily Berry, Faber, 57pp, £9.99 (paperback)
Airmail, Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, Bloodaxe, 476pp, £15 (paperback)
The Norse influence on these islands is something of ourselves we are slow to acknowledge. The cold savagery of Viking marauders is an embedded fear in the collective psyche. Beyond that we may think of a depressive starkness, of the silent scream and a game of chess with Death. It is a very Northern culture. North is elsewhere, the unknown and fearful that surely lie the other side of the wall whose stones are real enough. (An interest declared: I am named from a Viking settlement, though the connection is tenuous.)
Engagement with the Scandinavian is a powerful, though often ignored, tradition of poets from these islands. William Morris set the trail with his journey to Iceland. Auden and MacNeice followed. George Mackay Brown, an Orcadian, was inclined to think of England as foreign, but of Norway as a neighbour.
Now Alan Morrison has taken the flight north:
Now seashell hisses whispering away to fainter distances,
Ground out in grim nostalgic groynes; fortresses
Of brittle cliffs; those cussed, traumatic coastlines,
Now cast away for ten days of tall shades and
Lengthening light …
Morrison’s first impressions of Sweden are of a distant, half-legendary place rendered yet stranger by the observed reality of a landscape and people not wholly surrendered to a material world. It is the bright, brash modernity of shopping malls that seems to have no place in these Northern lands of a plain, perpendicular character in outer architecture and inner feeling. Here the constant enemy is the cold.
A sense of national identity is formed by the tension between social history and cultural myth. Memory is tempered by a dream. The Scandinavian dream is born of its climate and terrain. It is painted in winter light under a boreal sky as motionless as a frozen sea.
But where there is ice there is also fire. The long history of endurance is evident at a glance in the mill towns of Östergötland. The folk-memory is
of harsh living. A sense of fellowship preserves the humanity of people in adversity:
this land of vast
Distances extends its hand of samförstånd – mutual
The glow is not of nostalgia, but of a social reality that was seen to bring out something of the best in people. ‘Nature and urbanity are both to share,’ says Morrison in his lucid, yet exceptionally rich and vibrant, language. A respect for nature, including human nature, manifests in the disciplined energies of a sustained choriambic vitality. Alan Morrison has a lot to say, and he says it with intelligence and an assured feeling for language.
What distinguishes Morrison is the aptness of the metaphor for each moment. Every phrase is integral to the harmony of the whole. There is nothing superfluous. This tightness of form has something in common with the distinctly Norse tradition of the saga. The intensity of rhythm is urgent and compelling. The imagery is so compacted that the meaning of the words is dependent on close attention to the image. It is language honed until it is exact for its purpose.
It is a measure of our spiritual poverty that mutual understanding has become a recherché dream for wild-eyed and marginalized idealists. It is in
part the aim of poetry. It ought to be the aim of society. It falls to poetry now to map the territory of our common awareness, or what remains of it.
For Emily Berry in her first full collection the journey is through a personal landscape with all the treacheries and possibilities that must entail. The poet herself is firmly in that place. This is where she builds her personal samförstånd. Her discoveries are no less interesting than Morrison’s, but they are of another kind:
I have discovered the meaning of life and it is curatorial
The title of that particular poem is telling: Nothing Sets My Heart Aflame. That is rather misleading. It turns out not to be the confession of a cold
heart, but a sense of conflict with the modern world. Everything we see is designed. Everything we do is calculated. Curatorial is surely an ambiguous choice of word. It may be that a life is something to be preserved and cared for. Or it may be that a life is something that has to be displayed in public, something other people see with passing curiosity.
Emily Berry is urban and urbane, wise enough to avoid the pitfalls of cynicism or naivety, those snares for the unwary in the savage city. She neither thirsts nor drinks too well. She seeks, in whatever guise is necessary, her own voice in contrast to the bland conformity that is so conspicuously a part of the modern city. The personal voice necessarily contains its silent scream along with its defiance of Death.
I am writing my first political poem which is also (always)
about my love for you
The personal and the political may dwell in distinct realms, but they seem to share an agreed goal to raise our common humanity to a higher awareness, the samförstånd so dear to Alan Morrison.
It is not easy, however, to place Berry’s A Short Guide to Corseting on the scale of awareness raising. Restraint may be a diminution of freedom, or
it may be the discipline needed to think clearly and write coherently. The erotic element in corsetry has not passed her by. She feels a sense of control over her body, her energies channeled to a narrow frame. It is harder to breathe, but:
I’ve realized how little we need
The language is plainer. Such simplicity is deceptive. The concentration in its discourse makes this a poetry of subtle complexities. A less certain hand would quake with confusion.
In writing we are bound to reveal ourselves. The biographical facts may be omitted, but the writer’s inner compulsions will be as evident as the outer intentions. There is, of course, always the problem of how much should be openly stated. A reader is also a translator because we have to interpret the possible meanings.
Or, as the Swedish poet asked his American translator: ‘Is Boston a good landing-place for the Swedish Nightingale?’ Tomas Tranströmer and Robert Bly formed not only a good working relationship but a long friendship that was about poetry and language as they work through life’s contingencies,ngiving meaning to things that too often seem happenstance.
Tranströmer ‘saw’ Bly in the street, even as he knew the American Bly was far away. This may have influenced the poem Preludes, included in the record of their friendship:
Two truths approach each other. One comes from inside, the
other from outside,
and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves.
I am reminded of Whitman. So was Bly, reading other poems. It is the strong will and the oracular utterance, a hint of the sacred perhaps.
Sacred is not the obvious word to use in relation to Emily Berry, but sacrificial is closer. She is aware of the presence of pain, calling it ‘the spine of
life’. Spice is a cliché, but spine is arrestingly different. All her words are strange, even though they are familiar, for the meanings are peculiar to her, and are often wayward:
My bird since you have left I have loved strangely …
Love was no bird
If the poetry is dream-like we must remember how disturbing dreams can be. The quirkiness, at once shy and assertive, is engaging. A personality is visible behind the ink on the page. That is one sign of true poetry. Another is a sense of direction. Finding the truth, Tranströmer remarked, means shedding prejudice and evasion and pretence. That is easier to announce than it is to accomplish. The poetry is in the bridging of intention on the way to achievement.