Book review: Assurances, by JO Morgan

JO Morgan
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JO Morgan is indubitably one of the most interesting poets to have emerged in Scotland in recent years. His work is nothing like the kind of Creative Writing that often passes for poetry – what I have referred to before as the “While I was doing something, I saw something, which was like something else and that made me think of something” style. From his debut, Natural Mechanical, through to Interference Pattern from two years ago, he has honed a new take on that notoriously difficult genre, the long form poem.

Long form poetry poses particular and peculiar challenges. Since we no longer tend to write in hexameters, or terza rima, or rhyming couplets, the long poem has to be balanced between stylistic variation and narrative momentum. Despite its current “unfashionability”, it still occupies a central place in the canon of Modernism; from Eliot’s Four Quartets and Auden’s The Sea And The Mirror, to William Carlos William’s Paterson and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems. In more contemporary modes, we have had Christopher Logue’s reworking of Homer’s The Iliad and Alice Oswald’s meditative Dart.

Morgan’s Assurances begins with a kind of assurance to the reader. A very brief foreword informs us that the work is based on his father’s experiences as an RAF officer deployed in the Airborne Nuclear Deterrent programme during the Cold War. That little autobiographical note gives the reader a kind of tether as they enter into the maze of the poem. Assurances is, in some ways, a companion piece to Morgan’s On Maldon, his astonishing translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle Of Maldon (a work I dutifully studied as an undergraduate – so take it from me, his version is astonishing). On Maldon is an extended exercise in commemoration for those who fell in that battle. In The Battle Of Maldon we have the memorable lines (here in JH Alexander’s translation) “Thought shall be harder, heart the keener, / Mood the more, as our might lessens.” There is a similar stoicism in Assurances, but it is about the war that didn’t happen. The enemy may have been Soviet Russia, but the struggle is against the interminable waiting and wondering whether the battle is even going to begin.

Morgan’s poem opens with a flourish of Modernist technique. “Born from the need to counteract the threat. / Now that such a threat. / For threats have been made. // Now that the enemy has shown that they. / And in sailing so close. / In having simply sailed.” The fragmentary, disjointed nature of the syntax is clearly in the tradition of much experimental poetry; but at the same time it is a movingly realistic record of the kind of clipped diction of a 50s RAF officer.

That realism is also there in the sense that many of that generation did not want to talk about things. But there is a ghost of allusion in it too, in that one of the earliest of epics, The Iliad, is about those boats which have, disastrously, sailed to Troy. But you cannot fashion a whole poem from hiatuses, so as the reader progresses there are various gear-shifts of style.

The first is into prose, which allows for informative interludes, and then similes all put in brackets. For example, and this almost summarises the whole poem, “(as with the long-distance runner / who just keeps going and going / even when down to the dregs / the fumes of reserve energy…)”

I can’t help but feel that these sections are in some ways a homage to another great long poem, In Parentheses by David Jones – and how strange that so many long poems are about war in some form or another. Next we shift into the perspective of a female character, since such poems cannot be simply soliloquies. The verse forms move – two-line stanzas, four-line stanzas, five-line stanzas – which serves to alter the pace of the reading.

As the narrative progresses there is a pronounced use of Biblical diction – even a truly staggering sequence from the perspective of the Vulcan bomber itself, saying, “I must be borne / that I may then be born again / O my creator.” It also features in a remarkable, existentialist section which I wish I could quote in full. Again it is in those whispered parentheses: “(If what I am is made of memory / my stacked experiences, personal or pinched / and if I’ll never get to pass each grain of data on / and since I won’t be there to know them gone / what should I care that I’ll be going too?)”

This book manages to be both innovative and empathetic. I seriously doubt I will read a more significant book of poetry this year. The finale is truly affecting, a plangent and profound speck of light. Speck, by the way, is the book’s favourite word, and a gloriously ambiguous one – the pilots are specking out, there are specks in the eye, specks of cloud and so forth. Trapped between “dark cacophony” and “all heavenly spirals” it is absolutely about the human. “What need for slime to learn to swim? / to stand? what need to speak?” Every need, I think.

Assurances, by JO Morgan, Cape Poetry, £10