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November 12, 2011
‘As Clear as Water’: Ink, Sweat and Tears on “Enchantment”
Angela Topping reviews Enchantment in “Ink, Sweat and Tears”, 2nd November 2011
This book is aptly titled: it certainly does bring the reader under Morley’s spell. The first poem is an elegy for Nicholas Farrar Hughes (Plath’s son). Morley recounts a simple and beautiful memory of going for a walk with Nick, in which he befriends two horses. Morley’s reputation as an eco-poet is well deserved for this one line alone:
where leaf-worlds welled from all the wood’s wands.
This is such an elegant and visual line. The alliteration works really well with the imagery, such as ‘wands’ which is a perfect description of the young whippy branches but with the added resonance of magic which wants to conjure Nicholas up and relive the moment of his happiness. ‘Welled’ is a lovely word as the young branches are moist and full of sap, with the added resonance of tears filling the eyes, and ‘leaf-worlds’ recalls Blake’s ‘to see the world in a grain of sand’. The next poem, ‘Dragonflies’ contains dazzling language to match these insects, through skilled deployment of internal rhyme to the imagery of ‘sparking ornaments’. Each poem in this water sequence opens out into the next one. And these poems are as clear as water, so clear primary school children would enjoy them and be charmed by them. I am with Orwell on the notion that good writing is like a pane of glass, and like Keats in the pursuit of ‘negative capability’. Morley shows us beauty we can focus on, rather than us watching him seeing the beauty. That is a mark of the truly great poet.
‘The Lucy Poem’ is a remarkable imagining of the life and thoughts of a human ancestor, dubbed ‘Lucy’ for the light shed on our past , but more scientifically Australopithecus afarensis who lived 3.2 million years BC. Intellectually Morley’s research is admirable, but the poem connects with us on a deeper level. We see the planet as it was in the past through Lucy’s eyes, and its beauty is strange and startling:
when those mountains
bloomed from underworld lodes
springing geladas led their fat
appetites to the snow-caps
muscled like woolly gods;
The poem follows Lucy as she takes a walk through the terrain, and the poem’s short, springing lines and long stanzas perfectly suit this narrative, because each line makes a stride and each stanza break a change in landscape. Lucy is on a quest for water, and she finds it through the sense of hearing. This makes a satisfying close to the poem. Even if Morley had not taken an epigraph from Wordsworth for this collection, the link with that great Romantic poet is unavoidable through the name Lucy.
‘Chorus’ celebrates the birth of a son to the Morley family. The joyous tone is achieved by using Whitmanesque long lines of observation, focusing on bird song and bird behaviours. It is best described as a hymn to morning. As society becomes increasingly secular, poems like this and ‘The Lucy Poem’ reach out to everyone and provide spiritual sustenance without religious agenda, as does ‘Proserpina’. Morley does not seek to be obscure; everything we need to know is in the poem, such as the reference to Ruskin:
… to attend as Ruskin did
to Malham Cove when the stones of the brook were softer
with moss than any silken pillow;
And I love the assonance and consonance of the phrase ‘silken pillow’ which creates the tactile sense of the softness through the repetition of the l sounds.
Morley also draws on Romany heritage to remake traditional stories, for example ‘Hedgehurst’ in which he gives a voice to a half human half hedgehog youth from a traveller children’s story. This long poem holds the reader because of the freshness of the language, the aptness of the metaphor and the music of carefully orchestrated sounds:
Whose is this scorned skin?
What weather rouses me
to lag my limbs with lichen
to fold fresh thatch around me?
There are a number of Romany poems in this collection, forming a core section. All repay reading aloud and all are spellbinding. I can’t help thinking of John Clare and his fascination with the ‘Gypsies’ from whom he learned fiddle tunes. Morley gives the reader a powerful insight into a culture which is often secretive and closed. The circus sequence, ‘A Lit Circle’, gives voice to many of the circus entertainers such as Zhivakos the Horseman and Mashkar the Magician. Morley’s language glitters and delights, when he captures the excitement of the performances tempered by the sorrows of the travelling life and the inevitable changes which will threaten this world of magic and bravado. This language is enhanced by the inclusion of Romany words which lend their own music and exoticism to this gliding, gilded poetry.
Morley includes unobtrusive notes in the back of the collection, which acknowledge his source material and help the reader to access information. Although this is a complex book in many ways, and the third in a series, I find the poems have just the right amount of challenge for the reader. Morley is a quiet poet whose work is to be savoured and mulled over, by a fireside on a winter’s night or swinging in a hammock in the midst of the natural treasures which he interweaves throughout his work. Ever inventive, yet true to himself, Morley is a marvellous poet.
....reviewed by Angela Topping