Shadows Waltz Haltingly
Lapwing Press 2015, Belfast
Lapwing Press have been producing hand-bound and hand-printed books since 1988. Shadows Waltz Haltingly is a visually beautiful book on a tragic theme. Alan Morrison's collection is centred on his mother's last years living with Huntingdon's Chorea. Although the collection is personal the opening poem has a detached clarity and purity of vocabulary reminiscent of the movement poets or Auden or Larkin. The poem neatly uses the image of Staffordshire Flatback pottery figures to explore the difficulty of acquiring self knowledge:
Will we ever know our full authentic selves?
Can we even picture them, assemble their dimensions
From the flat packs of our half-assembled minds?
Or are we to remain for the rest of our natural lives
As Staffordshire Flatbacks pretending on shelves?
Pretending three dimensions through moulded frontages
Drip painted in naïve rainbow vibrancies
The poem has an emotional power that belies its grand existential theme and conveys, without directly speaking of, a sense of bereavement. The speaker of the following poem is compelled to confront individually that human “flatness” the inability to know not only ourselves but those who watch us as we fall ill:
Who observes? Who sits beyond that glass?
I stared back at my pale reflected face
Scarcely half-made but already made up
REFLECTIONS IN THE ONE WAY MIRROR
However Morrison's explorations of loss are strung throughout the book woven in with neatly worked poems on authors such as Thomas Chatterton and Emily Dickinson. Chatterton, the marvellous boy seems particularly germane to the opening poem's theme of existential fakery. He was only 18 when he committed suicide in 1770. He had forged a body of pseudo medieval poetry which would be recognised by the Romantic poets as the work of a writer of genius. Perhaps what drove him to suicide was the fear of discovery of having his own Flat Back revealed. Two Gloucestershire Mauves consists of detailed sketches of Ivor Bertie Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg two of England's finest war poets.
Dylan Thomas wrote one of his most personal poems on the death of his father as a villanelle raging against the dying of the light. Morrison follows him but reinvents the form creating an extended Villanelle. There is perhaps something fitting about what might seem an impersonal form as a vehicle for grief. The plangent repeated rhymes and lines of the tercets convey the incessant, repetitive overwhelming quality of bereavement:
How does a gentle soul go out in a rage?
Most enter in a tantrum, part in tears,
But some- again- rave as they disengage.
The poem is subtitled as “an extended villanelle on Huntingdon's disease” and it nods to Dylan Thomas's poem. Thomas's poem was more incantatory a spell, that was bound to fail, against the darkness. Morrison's villanelle painfully and brilliantly sketches the neurological effects of the illness within the restrictions of this admittedly deliberately extended form:
… her arms are plumbed to gauge
Depths and space, swaying trunks that steer
A trumping body - limbs bolt, disengage
However the poem Scorched Carpet: lepidoptera chorea has a more superficially artless and perhaps more touching observation of his mother:
I kiss her forehead, faintly scented with ammonia
Like a baby's milky scalp, stroke her moth-soft cheek
Scorched Carpet: lepidoptera chorea
The poem describing his mother after death is beautifully observed and I will not quote it here. Her eyes spring open briefly and offer an image of how observation and speech can at least conditionally overcome mortality. That perhaps sets up the penultimate poem describing Alan and his brother James running near Chanctonbury Ring as children fizzing with delight in life. The book ends with a life affirming poem about, well reading poetry and how we the reader make the poems live. Much as the poet has made his loss live for us. It is a gracious gesture from a rich and beautifully produced book.