David Morley

Book Reviews

Published by Carcanet

Incarnations of the Wild

When I was a child one of my favourite poems was The Raggle Taggle Gypsies, a Scottish Border ballad written around 1720. It seemed to suggest a parallel, unregulated world that sat alongside my own, rather constrained, suburban existence. The words spoke of the unfettered pleasures of an alternative life close to nature; exotic, sensual, dangerous even. Something of this atmosphere is evoked in David Morley’s new collection, Enchantment. That it begins with an unconventional sonnet-sequence in memory of his friend Nicholas Hughes, a distinguished professor of fisheries and ocean sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes who tragically hanged himself at the age of 46, not only flags up Morley’s own role as an ecologist and naturalist but links him to the poetry and imagery of Ted Hughes, whose mythic relationship with the natural world hovers behind these poems.

The Wordsworthian epithet at the beginning of the book: “with rocks and stones and trees” also suggests a connection with the elemental. The close observation of a Water Measurer – that spindly insect which can be seen slowly walking around on the surface of ditches and ponds, apparently pacing out the distances between points – reveals a specialist knowledge of fauna that avoids the trap of much over romanticised nature poetry. Dragonflies, mayflies and Alaskan salmon are all, here, closely observed. In Proserpina Morley refuses the easy bien-pensants of environmentalism “I could write a cliché about conversation here / but I won’t and I won’t because I can’t”. For he understands that the mess of the external world, all too often, mirrors a deeper internal disquiet:

“It is true
that what we waste bends back to grind us. My rubbish
is also here in me, and I shove and shovel it around
everyday, sometimes alert to its weight and stench
but most of the time too busy or bored to see or scent
the wealth and ruin of evidence, its blowflies, the extended
families of vermin.”

But it is the second section of the book that takes me back to that childhood excitement of The Raggle Taggle Gypsies. It begins with Hedgehurst, a poem based on a traditional Romany story taken from Duncan Williamson’s Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children, about a creature that is half hedgehog and half human. Spoken in the voice of the Hedgehurst the tone is incantatory, ancient and pagan. “What weather rouses me / to lag my limbs with lichen, /to fold fresh thatch around me?” Like some John Barlycorn or Green Man from a medieval mystery play the Hedgehurst appears like the incarnation of the wild:

“I had kenned from my wrens
how to cave-mine my call,
to speak through soil, make
speech slither through a hill”

In the later, more obviously, narrative sequence A Lit Circle, Morley creates a series of monologues spoken by various circus folk, including the ringmaster, clown and strongman. Fizzing with Romany and Parlari (the unwritten language of fairgrounds and gay subculture) he conveys a sense of what it means to live on the margins of mainstream society. As Demelza-Do-It-All, who has an act as a barrel-walker says, “down in the industrial estate with my sister for small animal food, /the vet for the dogs”, she saw “swastikas scratched on every circus poster.” Romany traditions and superstitions, along with a fierce pride in their itinerant way of life, are graphically drawn in Songs of Papusza:

The straw on which a Romany gives birth is burnt. A gipsy dies;
the caravan with all goods and clothes is flashed into flames.

They’re unclean.

In these strangely evocative poems where a blacksmith creates a girl from fire and a mother slides her fairy baby into a waterfall, David Morley taps into myths and folklore to weave a series of spells reinventing the oral tradition of poetry and returning it to fireside and hearth.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright


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