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  EMPATHISING WITH A SEAGULL

Cathures by Edwin Morgan
(£6.95, Carcanet)

As one of Edwin Morgan’s chums, Liz Lochhead, wrote in The Guardian, ‘There’s nothing he couldn’t make a poem out of.’  Absolutely no doubt about that. The range of this collection covers: Glasgow worthies in various shapes and sizes; sperm; magic mushrooms; new uses for banks; knife-culture; homosexuality and the church; crustaceans in the Clyde; urban sand sculptures; sponsored ice-skating; a hearse being used for canoe transportation; the art of gasometer construction; the rain; the saving of a suicidal junkie; witch-hunting; Walt Whitman on the Brooklyn ferry; every type of demon imaginable; and then, of course, there’s the one where he passes the time of day empathising with a seagull!

      
A seagull stood on my window-ledge today,
      
said nothing, but had a good look inside…
      
Perhaps he was a mutation, a supergull.
      
Perhaps he was, instead, a visitation
      
which only used that tight firm forward body
      
to bring the waste and dread of open waters,
      
foundered voyages, matchless predators,
      
into a dry room. I knew nothing.
      
        (from ‘A Gull’)

What’s strange is that I seem to remember indisputably Scotland’s greatest living poet as being considerably more interesting than the poems here would suggest. I was confused, therefore, by the jacket notes’ claim that, ‘Over the last five years Edwin Morgan, now in his eighties… has written some of his most powerful poetry.’  What he has written, if this is the product of the past five years, is a good number of commissioned and laureate poems – poetry on demand – and this may be what lets him down.

      
A fine day brings him out to us,
      
He strides along the throbbing bus,
      
Stripped to the waist to light a fuse
      
Of glances at the rich tattoos
      
Crawling and swirling round his torso
      
Saying Read me! And even more so
      
The challenge on his lower back
      
That spells out just above the crack
      
CELTIC, as gallus as you go….
               (from ‘On the Bus’, a BBC R4 commission)

The laureate poems, incidentally, arise from the fact that, in 1999, he was appointed Poet Laureate of the City by Glasgow City Council – a fact made clear right from the outset. Indeed, such an honour would appear to have been more of a hindrance than a help to his creativity, locking him into a mind-set that, although denied in Morgan’s introduction – ‘…there are many poems outwith this [Glasgow] connection, since (as Lucretius pointed out) it does not matter in what part of the universe you live’ – has the effect of requiring a good seventy-five percent of the collection to be Glasgow poems.  As for Lucretius, it does matter and it matters all the more when the material contains so many alien references as to make it incestuous, if not universally irrelevant. 

      
What’s this, George Square with ants and anthills?
      
A giant mole has thrown up sand-hills,
       That’s all.
The shirtless sculptors sweat,
      
They climb, they crawl, they slither, they get
      
A pack of pats, a gorge of gouges, a thwack
      
Of thumbs to fashion each sand-stack
      
From the top down, no ladder or hod,
      
Into the likeness of a god…
      
        (from ‘Sand City’)

There again, perhaps it’s just Morgan being absurdist. After all, there are also the surrealist eroto-horticulturalism of ‘The Freshet’ and the unlikely up-beat dance-song of ‘Burke and Hare’ to contend with. And when that’s done…

      
…For we are merry dancers
      
through curtains of the dark
      
feel us hear us fear us
      
when the dark begins to spark!
               (from ‘The Demon Sings’)

By this stage, being astute, you’ll have surmised that many of the poems are in rhyme, mostly straight couplets, a lot of it heavy, cliché-ridden and obvious...

      
They never danced by day
      
but only in the darkest night
      
or sometimes by moonlight.
      
Their clothes were always white.
      
It was their way.
               (from ‘My Moriscos’)

To my mind, this does nothing to help reduce the sense of flippancy created by the other linguistic and poetic idiosyncracies Morgan over-invests in. Of these, the worst has to be the Parliamo Glasgow of the sperm-bank poem.

      
Ah thote Glasgow wiz that macho,
      
But here we’re doon tae wir last batch o
       Sperm, the bank’s near empty.
Gode,
      
Ur therr nae real men tae loosen their load?
       Whit’s wrang wi ye all?
Don’t tell me it’s cash.
      
Is fifteen pound no enough fur a splash?
      
…Think o yon near-impotent bank.
      
Grit yer teeth and gie it a wank.
      
        (from ‘A Plea’)

This kind of shallowness, in particular, throws up all sorts of questions. For example, why does Morgan even bother to attempt something another of his chums, Tom Leonard, did much, much better in terms of phonetic precision and quotidian humour? Similarly, if Morgan has a serious point to make about a taboo subject, why try to disguise it in a ‘funny’ Glaswegian voice? Does the voice and Morgan’s lavatorial approach to the subject make it more populist and, therefore, easier to forget as being a taboo? And even, by writing in this manner, does Morgan believe he is saving Glaswegian from becoming a lost language, as Stanley Baxter had before him, or is he simply continuing that tradition of cynical misrepresentation of Glaswegians through the piracy of their vernacular, which, as always, will lead nowhere but to a perpetuation of the stereotyping that helps no-one, no matter in what part of the universe they live.

      
A youth attached himself. “Radio 1?”
      
“Radio 3.” “Whit band’s that oan?”
      
“Ninety to ninety-two.” “Ur you a Sir?”
      
“No, I’m a poet.” “Great, see ye la’er!”
      
He gave a thumbs-up, darted away.
      
He would turn night into day…
               (from ‘Gallus’)

There were, however, high points – too few and far between – ‘The Tree House’ in which the experience of seeing the world from a different perspective brings joy to an adult heart – ‘Sunset’ where its simple parallels of old age and the day’s end are treated to a certain tenderness at Morgan’s usually brash hand – ‘John Tennant’ with all its social comment surrounding nineteenth century paternalistic industrialism and the no-nonsense attitudes of the rebel capitalist of the title – ‘The Salmon’s Tale’ which, despite a dreadful salmon/shaman pun, couples Glasgow’s religious origins with its industrial golden age through a conversation between St. Kentigern and a fish, both significant figures in Glaswegian iconography.

      
Chains rattle madly as the ship slides out,
      
riveters cheer, queens’ bottles crash on hulls,
      
shrieks fly westwards from the scattering gulls,
      
Mammon’s millions raise a golden shout –

      
Then, in that famous twinkling of an eye
      
(And Kentigern must know the phrase all right)
      
The dark metteur en scène switches the light
      
Off, leaves the gallus yards to dim and die.
              
(from ‘The Salmon’s Tale’)

Yet, at the end of the day, based on previous encounters, I’d expected something more, a good deal more from Edwin Morgan than these few crumbs and, so, was disappointed. But at least I, in being from the same neck of the woods as Morgan, know why. For you, I’m sure, it would be a different matter, wherever you might be in the universe.

               © John Mingay 2002