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June 13, 2016
Sarah Hymas reviews “The Invisible Gift: Selected Poems” in The Compass
There is something overwhelming about years’ worth of work bound into one book: the chatter of all those poems, all those preoccupations and the slow growth of the poet being compressed into something dangerously close to white noise. I share the reservations expressed by Jane Routh in Issue 1 of The Compass around the concept of a Selected.
This is not, however, true for David Morley’s ‘The Invisible Gift’. Morley’s focus, while elastic, comes back again and again to a tight realm: the natural world, folklore, traveller and domestic scenes. This allows the poems to layer up and build a deep resonant world and the book to open, as if it is a door, shedding light onto what is as familiar and unknown as my neighbour’s house.
The poems are taken from his four Carcanet collections, Scientific Papers (2002), Invisible Kings (2007), Enchantment (2010) and The Gypsy and the Poet (2013), covering just over ten years, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that this Selected has such cohesion. The book is sectioned, gathering poems from each collection into constituent parcels, but apart from The Gypsy and the Poet, neither books nor dates are referenced in the contents or section titles. This encourages the flow in presentation and reading of the work.
There is also a prologue and an epilogue (both taken from Enchantment). The first is ‘Hedgehurst’ which I read as a manifesto, of a kind, for the book. The latter ‘Spinning’ is a reflection on the power and fabulous nature of storytelling, a summing up, I suppose, although that does not give the poem its full due. I like how it is separate from the body of the Selected, how this gives it space and an identity that may have been lost if it were alongside companion pieces from the original book.
So, as manifesto:
my name into the night. The trees
shushed me, then answered
with caterpillars baited on threads.
I called again. Moths moored
in bark-fissures flickered out,
fluttered towards me as I spoke
Naming and connecting is one of the spines of the collection as a whole: how definition brings us closer to the world we occupy. The importance of language is its ability to shape and open our understanding. This notion is explored further in a poem like ‘Kings’ where English and Romany interweave throughout the poem. There is a slight layout issue which means translations of the Romany (in footnotes) do not always sit on the same pages as the original word. I gave up flipping pages and simply read the Romany as sounds within the English ‘sense’ which was a far more satisfactory reading. That way the poem occupied itself in me as an aural, physical entity rather than the intellectual relating of a distant event.
‘Hedgehurst’ is introduced as a character from Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children. As such it makes issues of violence seem safe by setting them in this fabulous context: ‘My father flared and fumed as / I fumbled with gravities’. These issues of violence are echoed in a more familiar setting in a later poem, ‘Three’ set in kitchen and bedrooms, where another father ‘has a fist crammed with kitchen knives’ and ‘One of us is guilty of the crime of two biscuits.’ And here they hold a direct potency and pain, stripped bare in the stark electric light of the home.
But, thankfully, there is the redemptive power of love. Back to ‘Hedgehurst’: ‘I whispered my wife’s name …’
I called her again.
Moths stirred in bark-fissures.
They flickered out, flutter
towards us as I spoke her name,
as though my voice was a light.
This love is not confined to humans, as displayed in the consecutive poems ‘Osip Mandelshtam on the Nature of Ice’ and ‘Two Temperatures for Snow’. The delicate force that binds both narrators to the paradoxical abundant temporality of ice and snow is likened to a ‘force-field’, yet exposing and liberating. Such is the concentration of connection to other, the desire to understand and the rewards that come from this. Then there is the playfulness of ‘Chorus’ where the dawn chorus and birds’ activities are seen in the light of new beginnings, in this case the birth of a son.
The rook roots into roadkill for the heart and the hardware.
The tawny owl wakes us to our widowhood. The dawn is the chorus.
The repetitious litany of this poem is hypnotic, delicious, soporific. It’s probably no coincidence that images of repetition, of circular motion and circles, are found throughout the book, from creatures making circles to blacksmiths’ iron circles and the circle of the circus.
‘A Lit Circle’ is a short sequence detailing circus performers: ‘Rom the Ringmaster’, ‘Demelza Do-it-All’, ‘Kasheskoro the Carpenter’ and other high energy, breathless characters describing their skills, relationships and the prejudices against them, the factions and ‘Round it goes, this hate, hurtling around, / The question is where’s that hate going to hurtle when it’s without home,’. Coming as this sequence does after another sequence, about Papusza, Romany name for the poet Bronis ława Wajs, traveller and performer who suffered terrible injustice and persecution through her life, preempts the epilogue’s declaration of the importance of creative expression in people’s spiritual strength and salvation.
The sonnet sequence from The Gypsy and the Poet explores how this creative expression may come about. Again there is a connection with nature, a listening that enables the entrance to a deeper understanding. Where at first, the gypsy Wisdom Smith
… leans against an ash tree, shouldering his violin,
slipping the bow to stroke the strings that stay silent
at distance. All John Clare hears is a heron’s cranking
Wisdom watches the poet’s continued writing, frustration and ‘scribbling pen’ and draws him to his world of tobacco and music, his way of seeing what is ‘Deepest of the Deep’ what is surface, what is love and who and what he is writing for. It is an almost comic sequence, playing formality off instinct, class and society off natural law that ultimately presses its beliefs and ethics into and between lines. ‘I call out to my child, and he is everywhere, and she is everyone.’
The Invisible Gift is a fitting testament to a poet whose work over the last decade or so shows a tracing of origins and deep connections.