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Review of 'A Book of Lives'31 March 2007
Mark Ford, Financial TimesNext review of 'A Book of Lives'... To the 'A Book of Lives' page...
Rhymes of Passion
Edwin Morgan's latest poetry collection brims with joy, vitality - and love
Among Morgan's first tasks as the Scots Makar (the equivalent of the English poet laureate) was the composition of a poem to inaugurate the opening of the over-budget Scottish Parliament building. The stirring first line of 'Open the Doors!' catches much of the excitement of reading Morgan's poetry: 'Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!'
The poet is now 86, but shows no signs of sinking into a quiescent old age, even though he developed cancer some eight years ago. This book radiates vitality, even when confronting Morgan's own mortality. 'Gorgo and Beau', for example, is a superb verse dialogue between a cancer cell and a normal cell that develops into an almost allegorical debate between the forces of creativity and destruction, of love and death.
In poems such as 'Scan Day' and 'Skeleton Day' Morgan addresses his own hospital experiences. In the latter the image of his beleaguered body projected by the scanner on to the screen is defiantly figured as making for fresh woods and pastures new:
'Skull, ribs, hips emerge from the dark like a caravan /
Bound for who knows where /
Stepping through earth or air /
Still of a piece and still en route, beating out the music of tongs and bones while it can.'
This poem is part of a 20-page sequence called 'Love and a Life' that is quite extraordinarily moving. In long, loose, rhyming lines Morgan reflects on 'a life that disported itself in many wonders'.
Most of the wonders recalled here are sexual. They range from charged glances across the heaving dance floor of a gay disco to brief encounters, such as this with a married man in a short-sleeved safari jacket who sits next to him on a plane journey:
'We were friends, brothers, long before we reached the destination./
His wife on the other side was a mouse, never spoke; she was not part of the /
That in word and look, hand on sleeve, pressed knee proved an instant /
mutual one-hour-long revelation /
Of impossible desire /
Which could only expire /
As we took our separate ways on the tarmac, nursing elation, fighting /
Other, more fulfilled, encounters, take place in Morgan's native Glasgow. Ah canny say Ah love ye but,' a man referred to as 'G' tells him: 'Ah love ma wife and ma weans.' And yet, one day they kiss each other on the lips in Central Station 'in broad daylight':
'It will not be denied /
In this life. It is a flood-tide /
You may dam with all your language but it breaks and bullers through and /
blatters all platitudes and protestations before it, clean out of sight.'
Morgan is the most versatile of poets. This volume includes finely turned occasional poems for events - such as a conference of social workers and a gathering of library authorities - a set of songs for the rock band Idlewild, and a history of the world from 20 billion BC to 2300AD that was set to music by the jazz composer Tommy Smith. This dazzling sequence, 'Planet Wave', features an unnamed immortal present at a series of historical events. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the death of Rimbaud in a hospital in Marseille in 1891 and the collapse of the World Trade Center elicit particularly plangent meditations on death and destruction.
But Morgan's poetry is never gloomy or self-absorbed; he is too caught up in the textures of life to pose or pontificate. His work has always been powered by an insatiable curiosity about other people's lives. In this collection that curiosity burns as brightly and eloquently as ever.
We thank the Arts Council England for their support and assistance in this interactive Project.
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