2010, A Lit Circle, Carcanet, Circus, David Morley, Duns Scotus's Oxford, Enchantment, Gerard Manley Hopkins, poem, poems, Poetry, Port Meadow, Port Meadow Oxford 1983, review, Rom the Ringmaster, Saydimè the Strongman, verse
Gerard Manley Hopkins was snotty about Oxford’s outskirts. In Duns Scotus’s Oxford, he reserves his praise for the ivory towers and the river Cherwell as it coils around Magdalen College: ‘Towery city and branchy between towers; / Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded’. He describes the suburbs as ‘a base and brickish skirt’ which ‘sours / That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded / Best in’.
I couldn’t have felt more differently, walking up the towpath as The Eagle Ironworks‘s industrial decal of cold brick and steaming pipework floated on the canal’s surface. Banksyesque stencils transformed the steel railway bridge into an anarchist protest against the Criminal Justice Bill and the evils of capitalism but, lifting my eyes over the parapet, there was the meadow, spread to the skyline, its ragged bleak charm accentuated by the lonely ponies. If you visit when the Thames is swollen, then you’re staring at a surreal, landlocked seascape. There was nothing base and brickish about Oxford’s industrial frontier. It was a magical twilight. A no place. Utopia.
In Port Meadow, Oxford, 1983, David Morley’s language evokes the alliterative lines of the earliest English poetry, as the speaker is ‘Walking to Woodstock Road from Wytham Wood / where leaf-worlds welled from all the wood’s wands’. This evocation of English’s earliest heritage and a rejection of rhyme creates a timeless meeting of the old and the new as ‘leaf-worlds’ and ‘wands’ telescope our perspective into nature’s microscopic other-world of insects, or into something more magical, like Richard Dadd‘s crazed Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, where every leaf conceals the mad antics of the fairy folk. As Morley starts the sestet of his loose sonnet, Port Meadow is discovered anew: ‘Then a step within a fence nobody bothered with for years / or knew, except the sheep. So Nick stepped up / and through’. His exploitation of the form presents the fence as a hidden answer to the question of where they are, characterising nature as intelligent and benevolent.
Margins are again explored in the sequence, A Lit Circle, which explores the Romani circus. Morley’s use of Romani language renders the circus strange, as non-Romani readers are reminded of how little they really know about it and of the lives of its performers. In Rom the Ringmaster, the Romani circus is presented as a small affair and ‘you might chiv lis sore drey teero putsi’ (you might put it all into your pocket) yet, even though it’s a cottage industry, towns are defending their margins: ‘Now they’ve JCBs, migrant crews, gangmasters. / These fields we fetched our caravans to, they’re blocked off now’. The repetition of ‘now’ expresses shock at a sudden change and the poem allows a difficult and dirty question to lie unstated in the word ‘gangmasters’ with its undertone of Morcambe Bay and the criminal exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable people. Perhaps there’s even an implied link between our current attitude towards the Romani and access to cheaper, more convenient sources of labour and Morley draws another circle, as resentments perpetuate themselves. ‘What’s gone’s goodwill along with the work. Gypsies blame the migrants. / White work-shy folks blame both. Round it goes, this hate, hurtling around’.
The big top is in a magical, inverted relationship with the world as, ‘Outside, the sky’s firing rain as grape-shot, raking hedgerows, / knifing nests from branches, lopping leaves, exploding full flowers. // Inside, it’s raining fire-balls from the big top. The king and queen poles / blacken, primed to blow up or flash-flame’. Morley uses echoes in syntax to deepen this relationship between the tent and the world to a structural level; the tent is the world in this sense. However, the violence of the outside world towards this tent is calculated as ‘grape-shot’ was, like a shotgun cartridge, intended to maim people who were closely packed together and, ‘Inside, the horses are seizure and slaver. Scenting the rain maddens them’. The boundary between inside and outside is only a thin layer of canvas and affords little protection against an armed threat. In Saydimè the Strongman, Morley’s poem explodes on the page, a visual indication of the havoc wreaked by the gadjo assailants and the big top is shown to offer no protection but quite the opposite, as ‘The canvas is caved-in candle-mess, / locking the beasts in, gluing the flaps shut and whoever else’s trapped there’.
In Chorus, Morley’s litany of the birds producing the polyphony of the dawn chorus has the hypnotic quality of a psalm or a mantra: ‘The song-thrush slams down gauntlets on its snail-anvil. / The nightjar murmurs in nightmare. The dawn is the chorus’. The kenning ‘snail-anvil’ again links the here and now, in the form of the birth of Edward Daniel Keenan Morley, with the language of Beowulf. The poem also reminds us of Psalm 148‘s litany of praise, or perhaps even of Nick Cave’s Breathless, in which the whole of creation is exhorted to praise, even the ‘Mountains and all hills, / fruit trees and all cedars! / Wild animals and all cattle, / creeping things and flying birds’. This is a collection which celebrates nature’s beauty.
In Enchantment, Morley’s use of alliteration and repetition breathe life back into some of the nation’s earliest recorded forms of poetry. The effect is hypnotic. Morley’s vision of nature is lush and magical and, through the Romani people, we are reminded that although margins may be contested places, they are also places of great and strange beauty.
- No Gypsy Wedding – David Morley’s The Invisible Kings (Poor Rude Lines)
- You’ll never walk alone – David Morley’s The Crowd (Poor Rude Lines)
olivia byard said:
What makes your reviews so special is not just the thoughtfulness, depth and acuity of the comments, which are really welcome, but also your wonderful lead-ins with carefully chosen pictures – your settings for the tale you’re about to tell of each book. They draw the reader in and are like illustrated mini prose-poems themselves as they locate, describe, and express the starting point of your feeling and thinking response to each book.
I cherish these lead-ins which open up the books to your life, even when the work itself is may not be a personal favourite. They always teach me something and make this blog unique.
It is so valuable, because we write communicative as well as expressive art and to see how we’ve managed to get into the life and mind of a fine reader is a reward for the work in itself, and really helps us see how with effort, luck, and a fair wind, we can worm our work’s way into people’s hearts. The rigour of the review that follows is a blossoming out of that privilege.
Olivia, I read your comment at the start of my working day and I’ve had a spring in my step ever since. Thank you.
As a poet, I know you know how much it means to be read – and enjoyed. Thank you.
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