Nine Arches Press, 2009 £5.00

 Sphinx seven stripes

Reviewed by Eleanor Livingstone, George Simmers and Hannah Eiseman-Renyard

Eleanor Livingstone:
When I was young, the circus had its own glamour but it’s decades since I thought of visiting one, or even watched a circus act on television, and the animal shows which attracted audiences half a century ago are mostly frowned on now. But though circuses may feel like sawdusty left-overs from the pre-television era, they are very much still with us, literally—the other day I drove past one setting up their huge tent on the outskirts of town—and also metaphorically. Aspects of the circus still provide vivid and accessible images for writers.

David Morley’s The Day of the Night has a Big Top content. However, he isn’t interested in metaphors but in those who work for the contemporary circus. Almost half of this pamphlet is made up of the sequence ‘A Lit Circle’, poems about circus performers—Rom the Ringmaster, Demelza Do-It-All, Colin Clown, etc. The names may have an innocent and entertaining sound to them, out of children’s fiction perhaps, but there’s nothing at all lightweight about these characters, their situations or the poems. Some include Romany and Parlari (British Circus Language, partly derived from Romany and not a written language) expressions for which a glossary is provided. ‘Tober’, for example, is Parlari for circus ground. Here’s Saydimè the Strongman talking about his audience:

     They’re popping pictures with their phones, not that they have fingers
     for figs when I light on them.
     Not that they don’t crap themselves
     when Kash veers up in that van.

As well as the strong characterisation, David Morley is also experimenting with form and structure. So Stiptsàr the Stilt-man is set out in two stilt-like columns, a poem strong enough to stand on its own two feet:

     I’m careful. If I
     stumble once, that’s
     thirty-five feet of falling
     man at ninety degrees
     to the second. I back-
     calculate my steps to
     the inch. I toe this
     dotted line.

However, though it’s a quality publication, various things got in the way of my appreciation of the poetry. The cover bothered me: the dark blue paper is fine but the black text hardly shows up at all, especially on the back where I found the blurbs almost illegible. Also I think the publication is trying to do too much. It opens with several strong poems about domestic violence from the viewpoint of a child:

     I am trying to behave but my father
     has a fist crammed with kitchen knives
     like a brilliant new hand, and the rest
     of us in the house are suddenly not alive.

These are the opening lines of ‘Three’, and it would be hard not to be gripped. However, between these poems and the circus sequence is yet another set—nature poems dedicated to the memory of Nicholas Hughes. David Morley is an established poet whose previous collections I’ve read and enjoyed, but I found a 32-page pamphlet too constrained a medium for three strong and distinct sets of poems as well as a few unattached ones. No doubt the sequences will in due course appear in later collections, and I look forward to that. Meanwhile this pamphlet gives a preview for those who don’t want to wait.

George Simmers:
What sort of poet is David Morley? He doesn’t seem able to decide, since this collection contains three sections with radically different (and conflicting) aesthetics.

In the first three poems, written sparely and violently, a child describes a history of trauma and family horrors:

     I am trying to behave but my father
     has a fist crammed with kitchen knives
     like a brilliant new hand, and the rest
     of us in the house are suddenly not alive.

The narrator’s father’s ‘blood thirst’ is made vividly real, but we are not told whether these disturbing poems are memories or fictions. I think it makes a difference.

Then follows a sequence of poems on standard ‘poetic’ subjects—walks in Oxford, dragonflies, mayflies, salmon fishing. Some of these are skilled, but after the directness of the earlier pieces, they can seem like writing exercises:

     those envoys of an oceanic storm Salmo salar,
     coiling against arcing voltages of an Alaskan river,
     springing at their height like bending wands.

The diction here is depressingly ‘poetic’. That Linnaean Latin adds nothing but unnecessary mock-exactitude to the standard English ‘salmon’. The visual comparisons are expressed in a word-sequence (“coiling against arcing voltages”) that would never exist outside a poem that is trying very hard to be a poem.

The final ten poems are much more interesting; they tell us something of the lives of travelling circus folk. Written in long prosy lines, some of them are studded with words and phrases in Romani, to produce an intriguing and exotic effect. We meet Kasheskoro the carpenter, Stipstàr the Stilt-man and Mashkàr the Magician, and learn a little of the precisions and challenges of their craft.

But is the Romani culture described here supposed to link with the violence of the first poems? Is the father’s bullying the dark underside of the outsider culture of the circus? We are not told, which means this collection, though it contains some sharp observation and interesting ideas, seems unsatisfactory. Perhaps we should see it as a work in progress, and maybe a later collection will see the various strands of David Morley’s talent combined in a more satisfying synthesis.

Hannah Eiseman-Renyard:
David Morley’s collection packs a punch right from the start. The opening poem ‘Perjury’ is formed of short single-sentence statements, building to the final line ‘My marks are good. I am trying to behave.’ The second poem then uses the same words for its first stanza:

 I am trying to behave but my father
has a fist crammed with kitchen knives
like a brilliant new hand, and the rest
of us in the house are suddenly not alive.
One of us is guilty of the crime of two biscuits.
One of us has taken biscuits without permission
so all are condemned and have earned his lesson
which is to cower in the bedroom’s corner
without cover while he slices our arteries open
in the air between us. His house is his abattoir.
His home is lit with hooks and steel hands.
We are not alive as he bars the bedroom door.

This harrowing piece is one of the strongest and most memorable of the whole collection. It uses simple but vivid imagery to describe the nightmare world of living with someone violent and combustible—and also how the everyday fits in around it. The second stanza begins “The morning is ordinary because I am three”, yet ends with “My brother at this time is being flung into a wall/ and all I am thinking is that I do not like oxtail.” The poem conveys the cycle of the normal and the nightmarish with its two very distinct lexical fields—the matter-of-fact and the abattoir. The only problem I have is that I occasionally don’t know how much of the ‘abbatoir’ sections are ‘real.’ Perhaps this shouldn’t bother me, but it does a little.

The first three texts in the collection form their own unit about the young boy and his family—dominated by the towering figure of his father. The final eleven poems lead on from each other with a phrase from the last line becoming the first line in the next poem. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a poetry grouping that works so cohesively—each piece illuminating the others with a different perspective.

The poems in between these two groupings are all (bar one) on the theme of the natural world, and Morley paints with deft, confident strokes. Though the quality is indubitable, I found the more meditative pieces could sometimes wash over me without leaving much impression—‘The Water Measurer’ especially. I preferred the natural world ones when the speaker is interacting with it—such as where Morley describes jumping into the water as colliding “with a chill so stinging it was like flinging your body/ into a bank of nettles.”

The final group, on the theme of a Romany travelling circus, is a series of monologues. Most are titled with the name of the character speaking such as ‘Rom the Ringmaster’, ‘Kashekoro the Carpenter’, and they are laid out very differently—but they build to give a glimpse of daily life in the circus—and to describe its fate. The pieces all tell a story and it’s done so well that I am loathe to give plot-spoilers, but the sequence needs reading again and again because more details become clear every time. I could well imagine it performed as a series of dramatic monologues.