I vividly remember the shock of joy with which I read Planet Wave when PN Review first published it in a shorter version in the late 1990s. In it, Morgan seems to have achieved almost complete control of expression. For those who haven’t read it, it’s essentially a version of the Human Story from Big Bang to our colonizing of a planetary system around Barnard’s Star. Glorying in its anthropocentricity, it treats the whole evolution of the universe as if it were only of significance in relation to man. It sparkles with wit and a kind of generalised humanity as it defiantly proclaims faith in man’s continuing progress. None of my reservations are meant to diminish its achievement. At the same time, I do believe that its exhilarating vision has been bought at a price which can be seen by a comparison with a much earlier and shorter piece.

“CAMPOBASSO ITALY UNDATED REPORTED MARCH 1971” is one of Morgan’s Instamatic Poems published in 1972. As their title suggests, the Instamatic Poems all seize moments of life which they present in strongly visual terms and almost entirely in the present tense. Their imaginative mode is almost opposite to that of Planet Wave. Where the latter sweeps its parts together on a wave of faith in human creativity and courage in the face of whatever history and nature throw at man, Instamatic Poems is all about the moments themselves. “CAMPOBASSO …” presents a snapshot of a scene in which Giovanna, a pregnant forty- year-old woman and her seventeen-year-old son-in-law-lover Angelo are lying together in sensual bliss, Giovanna’s fourteen-year-old daughter Salbina, Angelo’s wife, has killed her baby by him and hanged herself, and Giovanna’s nine-year-old son Gennarino (by a nameless husband who himself committed suicide a year ago)

crouches like a dog in the corner of the farmhouse
unwashed, wide-eyed, afraid to whimper.

The poem steps out of the present into the future in the last two lines:

No one cares for him but he is the witness
and will sit high in the cold black court.

All the emotion restrained in the rest of the poem comes flooding out in that final moment when time starts to roll forward. In a sense, the language is starkly presentational throughout, with the exception of the third to last word, “cold”; there is a subtle shimmering of tones that perhaps hints at the poet’s feelings, but until the last line there’s no overt moral commentary and no emotive language. We are left to react as we will to the situation itself, and the reaction as it gathers is the more powerful for seeming unprompted and unsolicited.

What I want to focus on, in contrast to the poems of Planet Wave, is how intensely contradictory this reaction is.

Some of the contradiction relates to a subtlety in Morgan’s poetic technique. This makes it difficult to talk about; I can only try to make clumsily explicit and analytical what is implicit and imaginative in the poem.

On one level, Morgan assembles the pieces of the poem like a mosaic, one paragraph for each character, each paragraph starting with the character’s name, each name given a line to itself, no name used twice. We’re made to feel the individuality and isolation of each character, to think of each as an irreducibly separate centre of self, demanding to be understood on his or her own terms. We empathise with Giovanna, almost kinetically inhabiting her body as she luxuriates in her sense of animal well-being and her assurance of her beauty. Angelo is presented cinematically in a way that makes us admire his good looks and vigorous sense of self. We feel intense horrified pity for Antonio, Salbina and Gennarino. But of course these responses don’t simply lie alongside each other as they might in a mosaic. They collide as the story behind them emerges – as we respond to the poem not just spatially (as to a mosaic) but also sequentially. We see Giovanna and Angelo in a new light. Some will see them with simple condemnation and revulsion as morally defective in their complacent selfishness. Others will emphasise the appalling social conditions hinted at it the poem. Others will have complicatedly shifting feelings it would be impossible to summarise. There will probably be as many responses as there are readers and reading occasions. For what it’s worth, though, I think Morgan made us feel empathy and admiration for these lovers before showing the consequences of their actions because he wanted us to feel such empathy and admiration with a strength that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise – and because he wants those feelings to remain as part of our response even as we see their solipsistic blindness.

The essential contrast I want to make is between the brilliantly unsparing focus on particulars and on colliding sympathies and moral responses in this poem and the ruthlessly cheerful overviews of Planet Wave. We see such a view at its most extreme in “The Mongols (1200 – 1300 AD)”, where Morgan delights in the virility, chutzpah and cleansing energy of the Mongols, casually writing

Were they off to make rubble of some great city?
I think they were off to enlarge the known world.

To me that seems pretty vacuous. There’s no bothering with the massacres and rapes, hunger, disease and despair that the Mongols, like any conquerors, leave in their wake. A certain ruthlessness has, I think, always been part of Morgan’s writing, but in his greatest poems it’s tugged against by intense, unsentimental compassion. Though Planet Wave is in many ways a masterly work, wonderfully exhilarating in its inventiveness, its evocativeness, its optimistic faith in man and to use Morgan’s own word, its chutzpah, the loss of that vital tension makes it seem heartless by comparison with Morgan’s work at its bes

Leave a Reply