Shadows Waltz Haltingly, Alan Morrison, Lapwing Press, 2015, 84pp, £10 (paperback)
The Beautiful Librarians, Sean O’Brien, Picador, 2015, 64pp, £9.99 (paperback)
The Observances, Kate Miller, Carcanet, 2015, 88pp, £9.95 (paperback)
What is poetry but language searching for language, a circular motion that moves with a momentum of its own? A successful poem is a re-invention of the wheel because the possibilities are infinite, and every poetic voice is different. Under consideration here are poets whose intentions are to speak as they feel come what may, and always in search of the telling metaphor, the exact word. The approaches vary, but every mood is deeply felt. ‘How does a gentle soul go out in rage?’, Alan Morrison asks. The very first line of this collection tries to answer his question before it is asked, ‘Will we ever know our full authentic selves?’
The answer is another question. There are a lot of questions in this volume provoked by the death of the poet’s mother. The reality of her death is never far away from these poems. It is the thread binding the work into a coherence that delivers a response more satisfying than rage. Mourning is a reflective time and an anguished one, too. We are creatures of complex, contradictory emotions. We respond to the world with the raw feelings of the violent, or with the reasoned imagination of the artist. The wound is the same, but there are words that burn and words that heal.
Of course the wisest response is at a distance. The sequestered hint of the imaginative metaphor reaches where too direct a statement fails. The Scarecrow Abandons his Post is about departure and loss, but not of anything obvious or immediate. The poet remembers a childhood sickness that kept him from school. Strange thoughts and dreams invaded his mind. Imagining he was walking through fields, he is questioned by a farmer about his apparent truancy. Remembering those dreams, the poet is no longer a child but a scarecrow wandering aimlessly from his intended function:
Thoughts whispered past like absent butterflies as I
Daydreamed on a sun-parched verge
There are times when our inner lives are out of control. There are times when we are bereft of reasons for the things that happen. From the chaos of images the poet seeks a possible meaning. The poetry in this volume is haunted, not only by the evidence of death and its effects, but by positive influences. Dylan Thomas is one such, although Morrison avoids the pitfall of impersonation. But he does use the villanelle, as Thomas did. Morrison has absorbed such influences and worked them into his vision. A distinctive voice, a personal signature, is a necessity, although it is a challenge that looks easy, like so many difficult tasks. Morrison’s prolific output is testament to a passionate dedication manifested in the craftsman’s care invested in his poetry. A difficulty may be that there is too much of an outpouring. The poetry searches for its equilibrium that sometime proves elusive, but there is an urgency of spirit that is very promising. Alan Morrison is unafraid to lay his soul bare, and therein lies the interest. He deserves to be read sympathetically.
A more established and more public poet is Sean O’Brien, who has been publishing and collecting prizes for more than thirty years. There seems no reason for wishing to avoid him. This collection is also threaded with acknowledged influences. The echoes are akin to the whispers in a library:
No self-pity for her, never that, only prescriptions
For fillips, pills, pick-me-ups, sips, pitiless critiques
He is writing of Jean Rhys, crushed by life, saved by writing. He writes verse-essays on her, and on Kierkegaard and Robert Burton, the great anatomist of melancholy, the nervous condition that withers the spirit. The philosophers of anxiety strengthen the faint-hearted. It is only natural to wish to share what your reading has found, even if speaking out breaks the rules of silence. The silence is no more than the space between the lines of articulate energy, the poetry.
Sean O’Brien’s energy is not so much anxious as angry. His poetry also voices a rage. Unlike Alan Morrison, it is not a rage from within. The targets are many, all the things the poet cannot accept. He is not angry at the world but, rather, at the world’s injustices. At times the energy, as with Morrison, is so raw that it threatens to unbalance the poetry. It must be said in the poet’s defence that the challenge for the reader is to respond to the fire even as it scorches preconceptions of what a poem can do. A political imagination may invest our political life with some poetry. That is surely a positive contribution.
Rage is not the only way of feeling in O’Brien’s armoury. He pays tribute to past and present influences. The passion has not abated, but is tempered by a reflective voice that speaks of a summing up. It may be that he speaks not only for himself, but for a general feeling. It feels apposite now to consider where our remarkable flowering of poetry is going. If poetry is the national voice then of course this must be a defining time, ‘We were due here yesterday or never’. Thirteen O’Clocks indicates the theme of time running through this collection. An awareness of time for Sean O’Brien is a way of speaking to history that we cannot change and cannot escape:
To call to mind that where we are
Is only happenstance and not
The happy land that history forgot.
The honesty can sear the flesh of the fingers holding the page. Even in pastoral mode O’Brien’s tone rejects nostalgia and complacency. Landscape is a memorial to what is observable and real:
Picks up across low dunes, the sun
Goes down like clockwork, like maritime commerce,
Red-eyed and unfinished, into the salt.
A fate we may suppose is anyone’s.
Is there a hint of Auden’s influence here? Auden is acknowledged elsewhere by O’Brien. He has an Audenesque irony that he seeks to make in his own voice. Perhaps Auden is an inescapable influence if, as may be the case, the Age of Anxiety has yet to pass for anyone sensitive to the tribulations that afflict the world. As for us as individual beings, we go down unfinished. The end is too soon. Sean O’Brien is also given to mourning the waste of lives lost. His loss is not personal. It is the loss that the sight of war graves evokes. Infantry is a work of stature that no brief quotation could honour.
If rage at life dominates Alan Morrison and Sean O’Brien, Kate Miller is moved especially by a quest for meaning in a contemplative mode. It is a poetry no less incisive in its language. From a new voice, this first full collection strikes a note of confidence in its responses to the world. Kate Miller is extraordinarily accomplished. Her perceptions are fresh, clear and finished. The world is experienced for the first time, but with an insight that weds intelligence to sensibility. The Observances answers the unspoken question: is there a way forward? It is another way of asking Alan Morrison’s anguished cry.
Kate Miller’s recurring motif is the sea. She knows well how the sea rages. She confronts the potential violence beneath the apparent calm. To speak of this new poet voyaging out would be hackneyed were it not literally the case. An island culture can be insular and defensive, or it can reach out to whatever territories are, or seem to be, glimpsed on the horizon:
But every wave subsiding sighs a note of doubt,
an anxious yield, and drops it
on the beach as it repeats its pebble-count.
An observance differs from an observation. It is not a way of looking, but a way of defining a perception. The usage is often to do with faith. Believers attend ceremonies as an observance. It is a time set apart from the customary routines of life. It is a time to stop and think. That perhaps is a way of describing poetry. The arresting image, the telling phrase alert us to the particularities of the moment in question.
There are carefully nuanced evocations of the chosen scene. The sea, reflecting the tidal changes and treacheries of life, is not the calm water of the sunlit day, ‘The sea insists on rehearsing its peculiar score’.
I first misread that line as ‘rehearing’ rather than the actual ‘rehearsing’. Such a misreading is not so much an error as an interpretation, for everything has a history; nothing is heard for the first time. Kate Miller clearly indicates her sense of time ebbing and flowing, of the perpetual motion an artist tries to pin down. But time, like the sea, moves even as we consider the moment. It is in such moments, remembered in the essential metaphors, that the poetry is found. We do rehear the echoes, but these serve to sound something not yet spoken and alive to this moment now. Poetry as the national voice remains articulate and fresh, explorative and urgent.
By Geoffrey Heptonstall