Wanting to Make Common Cause

A Tapestry of Absent Sitters, Alan Morrison
(£9.00, Waterloo Press)

Alan Morrison is an intriguing young poet whose work I've only recently come across. His poetry combines an interest in non-conformist politics with an engagement in history and literary movements. The online magazine he edits - The Recusant - is likely to shed some light on such preoccupations, suggesting non-compliance with the prevailing order in its modern meaning, while also indicating its origins in Catholic heterodoxy, a lineage which explains the religious references and concerns in this collection. That his writing is largely 'traditional' in its formal qualities is perhaps to be expected, given such a background, and I'm entirely unsurprised that he should find common ground with the left-wing poet Andy Croft, whose defence of oppositional culture in the face of adversity and 'persecution' has been long-lived and exceptional.

There are sonnets and villanelles in this collection, alongside a variety of looser verse forms, where the energy of Morrison's epic struggle within his main themes of poverty, class, education and social exclusion is aided by a wide vocabulary and a passionate intensity. There are also intriguing ambiguities, such as his championing of an apparent genteel, shabby, down-at heel bohemianism (in 'Raging Grains', for example) and his understandably ambivalent commentary on the Bloomsbury Group ('Charlston Pharaohs'). You get the feeling that here is a gentle soul, chastened by some of life's hard lessons and wanting to make common cause with others in a similar predicament. In this sense, his work harks back to the pre-Thatcher social environment where some form of socialism or social transformation seemed possible and where the likes of E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams were given their due.

In 'Rainbow Road', the mix of colourful description and angry rant is rounded off by these telling lines:

             , Diggers with whorled dreadlocks
     uphold the tracts of Winstanley,
     and I, an unsocial socialist,
     thank God for their ragged crop.

It's that mix of revelling in the power of belonging, of being within a group, while at the same time feeling distanced and awkward with group feeling. There's an ambivalence within this writing which seems to surface at regular intervals but perhaps I'm simply projecting!

Sometimes, an inner-turmoil is conveyed with a vivid sweep of natural imagery, part-Romantic but also reminiscent of the nature poetry of John Clare:

Guests hurled blustery fists outside
        And threw, with sweeps, the rain
     That lashed against the draughty glass
        Of the sunken window pane;

     I heard them beckon me outside;
        Their morbid song, lifting in pitch,
     Led me from a restive mood
        To the turbid depths of a ditch;
               ('Where Banshees Brought Me'
The sequence entitled Swedish Suite
, combines travelogue and social commentary with an uplift which is unusual in this work and seems likely to be related to the early intoxication of a love affair. There are some lovely lines in this group of poems - 'Cathedrals of heady chardonnay light' , from 'Tall thoughts in Gamla Stan - for Matilda', for example, and there's a sense of philosophical lightness which is more Buddhist and for the 'here and now' than in the more prevailing, brooding writing elsewhere. Yet in 'Hare' Morrison reconnects with the natural world in a manner which is again reminiscent of John Clare and here the tone is both celebratory and hard-nosed in its realism:

     Spring-limbed sprinter of Lepus
     be born fur-coated, lozenges open -
     saccadic ebons trapped
     in stark-staring ambers;
     hind legs bucked, sprung catapults.

     No shelter from nature's laissez faire;
     no safety in numbers, only in pairs,
     or opt-out solitaire;
     no place to rest save an ill-hid nest
     or shallow hollow.  ...

This is a poetry which seems to be entirely devoid of the frenetic energies and increasingly empty ironies of much post-modern writing and there's a refreshing sense of engagement which is encouraging, especially in a young writer. There's a political anger, which comes to the fore in certain poems, 'The
Declarers', for example, and an empathy for artistic outsiders and the down-and-out, which is reflected in 'his social observation' poems and his common alliance with earlier radical groups - the Diggers, Levellers, William Morris' circle etc. There's also variety of subject and a cultural richness within his writing which is impressive in its sweep.  On the debit side, this could lead to a sort of stubborn naiveté which becomes a fixed position and leads to a cul-de-sac where repetition becomes the only option, the sort of fate that I fear has befallen Tony Harrison, for example. There's a depth and an energy to Morrison's writing though and there's a long way to go. The best could yet be to come.
           © Steve Spence 2009