The Delicate Force: Two Selecteds
‘The Invisible Gift – Selected Poems’ by David Morley and ‘The Offhand Angel, New and Selected Poems’ by Jan Owen
Review by Sarah Hymas
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.
Jan Owen’s New and Selected has comedy sliced through it from the outset, which is down to the observations on how people interact or try to hide their interactions, such as this episode from ‘Swimming Instructor’:
The lesson done, they sigh and look away
from the bosom by Rubens under the shirt by Sportsgirl.
That smile by Leonardo’s half innocent of it all.
Only half, mind you. This humour is not restricted to only human interaction. In ‘The Arrival’, a poem describing a watercolour of guavas, the collective narrators ‘loll, / comatose as the thighs / of the lumpy old woman of Bukit Bintang’. Owen can as easily turn on herself. Her ‘leftover samovar’ which thinks itself an heirloom ‘has sussed me out’:
Life at the lid, time at the spout
non attachment with a tannin grip.
This is not to say the tone is dismissive or superficial. The poems are set in Owen’s native Australia and travel around Asia, with ‘dusty sun’, a ‘warm ceiling’ here and a ‘Carnivale pose’ there, and I think the book suffers from the symptom of the Selecteds I mentioned at the start of this review. There is no sectioning to the book, no dates, no break, which felt at times overwhelming.
In one poem ‘Lace’ seven women call lacemaking ‘soul-work, / this patient patterning of air with white.’ This is a beautiful image that haunted my reading of the book. There is much air, and colouring of light, patterns and shapes, hidden layers and groups of people interacting, but I felt there was not enough space, holes, in the presentation of the book as a whole to make the overall effect of the poems as delicate as this lacework. More space would have helped me as a reader to find it.
That delicacy is in poems such as ‘Crossing the Mekong’:
We took the narrowing path to the cave
heavy with incense, black with soot,
home to families of Buddhas squat as frogs
but not quiet perfectly still –
the corners of each half smile
cast shadow thoughts,
wavering up with the sandalwood and musk.
These faint notions are not revealed, but left to hang as the travellers leave the scene. Just as in another poem, ‘Shingle’, the pebbles are ‘too many to be touched or known / except by passing air’.
These are two of the less common poems that skit away from the left margin, but many of the poems delight in the haze and space that fills the natural world. There is a sequence on flowers that blends her humour with this particular focus, for example, ‘Honesty’ distinguishes between ‘translucent not transparent, / since honesty wouldn’t presume on absolute truth / and isn’t a fool.’
There are plenty of narrative poems, too, focusing on childhood, that draw on the expanse of the continent as well as the freedom of a child’s imagination. These dance between ‘strange winds’ of a ‘safe blue paradise’, the races where they ‘learned to back long shots’ and the collision of home with historic events, such as the death of Stalin, where ‘Someone was dead / and we were allowed to be glad.’
For me the standout poem, quite a declaration in such a varied, rich collection, is ‘This Marriage’. This is a short sequence of poems that draw down the ‘virgin birth’ to its most humane.
He was washing his hands
when the shepherds came,
two dumbstruck men and a boy with a lamb,
a gift, they said, for the newborn lord,
wiping away all doubt
with this odd hurt –
the heavenly hosts had not appeared to him.
By doing this, the moment and the man become more sacred. We all feel and experience what might be considered inappropriate emotions at times of great significance. The acknowledgement of this is what makes us both human and divine. Like in the ‘Blue Bowl’ that ‘shows a leftward tilt, / a yen toward some philosophy / other than fruit’, it is Owen’s upturning, or perhaps righting, of subject that cuts through so much of her poetry, making this New and Selected so vital.