Carcanet, 2010, £9.95
Recent years have seen David Morley mining a rich seam of inspiration from his Romany background – the results, in terms of both quality and quantity, have been enough to make any poet envious. This latest volume shows no sign of a drop-off in either department.
Enchantment does exactly what it says on the cover, fully living up to every sense of that word. In the modern sense, it draws the reader in immediately, delights and intrigues, and doesn’t stop doing so until you put it down.
To do so it draws heavily on worlds of myth and magic (as in the Latin incantare), and most importantly, it sings (cantare). The straightforward simplicity of the title is reflected in poetry that’s serious, ambitious and challenging, but never wilfully obscure.
Its early poems celebrate both friendship and the natural world, and as you’d expect from an ecologist, Morley has a sharp eye and a knack for exact, economical phrasing to conjure it up for the reader.
He also has a gift for evoking nature in a far more impressionistic way, though. In Chorus, a favourite at recent readings, there’s a sparrow sorting “spare parts on a pavement” for every turnstone doing “precisely what is asked of them by name”.
Enjoyable as they are, though, these poems are merely the warm-up before the main event, the “lit circle” in which Romany myths and circus stories are unfolded in sparkling, shimmering language.
This section contains the highlights of the collection, for me. There’s Hedgehurst, telling the story of a half-human, half-hedgehog creator-king, The Circling Game, in which a blacksmith creates a girl from fire, and Spinning, which considers the whole process of story-telling and translation of experience into words, bristling with lines such as:
What’s fabulous might be a hedgehog spiny with rhyme
or a bride born from gnarled nouns. What’s fabulous might be
darkness drowsing over a woman of words beside a waterfall
of words. What’s fabulous might be an anvil hammered white-hot
with hurt, or Lippizans held or hurtling on the harness of a verb.
Now while the Romany background is much in evidence, for me these pieces also recalled Anglo-Saxon poetry and (appropriately enough for the Midlands-based Morley) the Gawain poet in their heavy use of alliteration and their physicality. That’s a difficult knack to pull off – however much I like it, I’ll admit that in some Anglo-Saxon poetry, the metre makes it very difficult for the language to really take flight – so all the more credit to Morley for keeping his lines so supple. Passages such as this, from The Circling Game, beg to be read aloud for the sheer pleasure of the sound:
The masters stank of rancid bank-notes. Their palms were plumy.
Their palms were planed purple with done deals and sure things.
John played a circling game with the horse masters, sending
himself off when wanted most, shying on the end of a lunge line
of their flattery, letting himself be talked back to the fair with a drink
before coming back and laying out the tackle and terms of his trade.
It adds up to an intoxicating brew, and I’ll go back to that word ‘fabulous’ that’s so crucial to the passage quoted from Spinning. As with his collection’s title, Morley’s good at getting you to consider a word’s whole lineage – he takes you back to an older meaning while keeping all its current connotations alive.
I’ll be surprised, and disappointed, if this book doesn’t end up in the running for one of the big awards this year, but regardless of whether or not it does, it’s a superb piece of work. Read it.