R.D. Laing for the New Century

Captive Dragons / The Shadow Thorns, Alan Morrison   (Waterloo Press)

Alan Morrison is a young poet whose work I've been reading for three or four years now. His quietly impressive anti-establishment poetry has been growing on me, with its mix of often-traditional verse-forms, and his empathy for outsiders and those critical of the way our global capitalist society inflicts damage on the weakest and those least able to take care of themselves. He's a fine writer with a rich stock of literary source works and a wide cultural knowledge to draw upon. We've had our slight differences with regards to notions of the modern and the post-modern in contemporary poetry but this has proved to be a useful dialogue and one which I think has been a two-way street. What I wasn't prepared for was what he appears to have achieved in his new collection, a work inspired by his three year residency as a voluntary creative-writing tutor at Mill View psychiatric hospital in Hove.

This is a book in two parts, the first a series of Cantos, using the metaphor/image of the Dragon as a way of dealing with notions of creativity and mental health, a minefield of a subject but one which Morrison embraces with sensitivity and fantastic energy. He challenges that old notion, taken from early maps where the 'here be dragons' depiction suggest areas of danger or menace, and turns it completely on its head. The second, shorter section is composed in three-line stanzas with an entirely charming rhyme-scheme which is both relentless and energising and deals on a more day-to-day basis with the experience of working with groups of patients, although Morrison is careful to maintain that his comments are general rather than related to distinct individuals. This is a compassionate as well as a ferociously intelligent writer whose values, for my money, are all in the right place.

These Cantos are pretty much blank verse and are filled with wide erudition, splendid, tongue-twisting wordplay and alliteration, where the thinking is allied to pleasure in language and an increasing sense of angry reasoning which builds as a powerful response to notions of sanity and madness as a critique of our whole social order. This is R.D. Laing for the new century and its arguments are coherent as well as being emotionally responsive. In terms of Morrison's formal devices I can only say that this magnificent and beautifully designed work reads like a coming together of Milton and Joyce, a glorious anachronism (I mean that in a very positive sense) which in my view, blows away a lot of the tired arguments between modernists and post-modernists and the linguistically innovative, and at the same time throws out a challenge to all 'minority non-mainstream groupings' to see what common ground they might explore. This is quite simply a masterpiece and while I certainly don't want to induce any anxieties in its author, I can only say that he's going to have real trouble in providing a 'follow-up' to this magnificent and powerful work.

Who'll employ these drugged ghosts, these spectres of the living,
     These dampened shades, these phantom extrapolations;
     These light-wilted wraiths washed-up before their primes?
     Who's to shovel slush on their plates to
What's the Time
     Mr. Wolf?
Who's to cuff their wrists with bands when they
     Huff, puff and blow themselves down with scowling howls,
     Or are goaded like Billy Goats Gruff by phantom trolls
     Skulking under sighing bridges of their chinny chin chins?
            (from 'Canto V')

Although there's a serious aspect to this poem, Morrison includes many references (and snippets) from children's literature in his writing and achieves what I think must be a first when using both Chomsky and Lewis Carroll while musing on the nature of 'nonsense' - Chomsky in the sense that a sentence can be perfectly correct in terms of its grammar but completely 'barmy' in terms of its meaning. Chomsky is not a writer who usually gets quoted in relation to the 'creative' or 'fictional' aspects of writing and Morrison is superb at making these connections and weaving them into his overall polemic, for he is a polemicist of sorts but one fuelled by great imaginative flights and superbly controlled rants (I'm so envious of this facility!). His mixing of unexpected sources is evident from the preface where we are given a quotation from
Alvarez's eloquent and powerful book,
The Savage God (a study of suicide) followed by an unlikely piece from H.P. Lovecraft's The Tomb. which comments, in its roundabout way on the relation between madness and the imagination. Morrison's whole book is an argument in favour of an expanded consciousness (and I'm not talking about iffy new-age thinking here) as related to the harsh realities of the here and now, which certainly look like getting harsher. There are unexpected moments here where I actually burst out laughing, for instance when he includes the phrase 'Adam and Eve and Pinch Me' (from the playground trick) which was possibly something he overheard in a teaching session. I love the way this book is filled with stuff, which rattles along, connecting and disconnecting in almost manic clusters of images and thought-flows. Yet the formal control of the piece just about keeps the whole in check and avoids it toppling off the cliff altogether:

                                                 Time bends, becomes
     Irrelevant, surceases, the diatribes of
Exorcise cranial ghosts, scour poltergeists of the lobes;
     While the clock melts, hands vanish, numbers blur, nurses
     Scurry corridors, dozens of watch-chained rabbits haggard
     With compassion, fatigue always late for patients arriving
     Before their bodies, galumphing unpunctually after them
     Lumbering under rubbery weights out of time and place,
     Morbidly overdue as sub-contracted trains, dragging
     Their heels grudgingly by obligation's auto-pilot; ....
            (from 'Canto XI')

There's an impressive
Notes section at the end of the Cantos, which aids rather than gets in the way of understanding but read the poems first. As someone once said of Milton, you need to read him for the sense and then listen for the sound. These poems have a rhythmic, metrical beauty as well as being fuelled by a powerful and humane critique.

The Shadow Thorns has a more traditional feel yet is filled with jangling imagery and with compassion:

     But we're becoming squarer and squarer -
     We're on a collision course with nature
     Because we can't fit into the future...
(from 'Laura of the Tangets')

I've just finished listening to
The Moral Maze on Radio 4 and wonder what the shrill and acerbicly right-wing 'thinker', Melanie Phillips, would make of Morrison's work. What do I care - he's touched with genius whereas Phillips isn't even touched with compassion. This is a wonderful, wonderful book.

            Steve Spence 2011