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Steve Spence

"Tan Raptures" by Alan Morrison. ISBN: 978-0-9955635-0-6

Alan Morrison is probably the most eloquent ranter on the scene today. His poetry has a consistent political thrust which is fuelled by a deep knowledge of the history of socialism and related philosophical tendencies and a great deal more besides. He is at once a defender of a form of class-consciousness long since deemed to be irrelevant by the powers that be and also an advocate of an anti-philistinism which is allied to a notion of the autodidact. Self-education is, or should be, both a delight in itself yet necessary also to challenge prevailing views of a society which sees economic determinism in a late-capitalist consumer-fuelled environment as being the only good and indeed the only available option. Morrison’s epic rants against the long Tory hegemony are passionate and angry yet filled with information and a wonderful cornucopia of poetical tropes and methods which have an almost ludic, playful element which make them much more than an immediate and reactive emotional response to our current predicaments. The book’s title refers partly to the colour of official envelopes, the kind that send the recipient into a state of frozen anxiety and he’s put together a related cover design – a montage, in fact – which is both aesthetically pleasing and yet packs a punch. I love this dual implication in his work, that art and decoration are as valuable as political militancy, especially as cuts in education, health provision and public services are having a devastating effect on those least able to participate. At the heart of Morrison’s ongoing protest/analysis is a longing for a society where human flourishing is solidly on the agenda, at the centre of things in fact and not some pie-in-the-sky romanticised vision forever unrealisable.

That said, this is desperate text at times, where harsh reality becomes harsher by the page and is only redeemed by the astonishing tenacity of Morrison’s objection and by his scintillating mini-epics, packed with excoriating wordplay and wonderfully wide-ranging sentences which combine polemic with aesthetic in an absurdist response to an absurd situation. The collection is broken up into four sections: Green Tinder; Red Wilderness; Coventry Blue and Tan Raptures and is underwritten by an almost theological intensity as hinted at in the title which refers to the biblical notion of rapture. There is irony in Morrison’s usage here of course as well as splenetic venting which no doubt has a therapeutic aspect. In fact the only other contemporary poet I can think of who writes with such a sense of historical input and combative insistence is Niall McDevitt though his output is nothing like as massive as Morrison’s. Take this example from the first section in a poem called ‘Greeks Bearing Rifts’:

          Consumption and mass penury – Capitalism is a clay
          Ray Harryhausen Cyclops, a scaly grotesque whose single eye
          Swivels envy-green for everything it wants but nothing
          That it needs, mesmerised by its own ingrained commodity-
          Fetishism, trapped in jolty footage on stop-motion repeat…

I love the mix of classical allusion and popular twentieth century culture here, something which Morrison effectively fuses in his perpetual onslaught on the citadel. His texts combine lyricism and an inventive artistry with serious commitment, something rare in contemporary poetry and much needed at the present time.

In ‘Wootton Bassett’, from Section two – Red Wilderness – he deals with the difficult legacy of empire and of ongoing conflicts with a bracing vigour which refuses the gung-ho language of militarism yet acknowledges an awareness of the casualties of war and its aftermath while positing an alternative form of celebration:

                                              …..At Remembrance and on
          Armed Forces Day we will bite our tongues out of respect,
          As our tears silently sting us; together we will salute
          A khaki sunset which will rise next day in spite of us,
          As traumatised veterans retch into sinks in unsung mornings;
          While in our nation of novices that venerates ‘hard work’
          As the cardinal virtue, we will be strangely discouraged
          From celebrating International Workers’ Day each 1st May, …

If Morrison provokes and is occasionally didactic in attempting to promote thought it’s because he has a vision of an alternative history to the received version and it’s one which through disaffection and exclusion feels more inclusive and decent in its opposition to those in control.

 It’s difficult quoting Morrison out of context, partly as his poems build cumulatively in their effects and are often best read initially at speed in order to experience the full flow of the sounds and meanings interacting. His use of vocabulary is varied and enriched, mixing the erudite with the colloquial, sometimes in a manner which elicits laughter, at least in this reader, an element which lightens the often dark litany of the material itself. In ‘Eton Mess’ – a reference to the concocted pudding (similar to the ad man’s invention of ‘The Ploughman’s Lunch’) as well as to public school privilege and indeed to David Cameron – we get this:

‘As for the class divide, well that’s another story / In terms of desserts: more a Knickerbockerglory…’ , which is throwaway and knockabout, a proletarian response to a ruling class concoction. In ‘Glossolalia’ we get references to William Morris, the dramatists Trevor Griffiths, Alan Bleasdale and Dennis Potter as well as the documentary filmmaker Kevin Brownlow and the singer/songwriter Ewan MacColl. It’s as if Morrison is attempting to revive neglected cultural traditions in order to give sustenance to the present and hope for the future. In this sense he’s quite singular in his approach, especially for someone of his age and although there are other ways of writing political poetry in the here-and-now (I’m thinking of the work of Robert Sheppard, Maggie O’Sullivan and Drew Milne, to take two examples, where a more late-modernist mode is employed) Morrison’s way of coming at it is perfectly valid and also combines a more traditional approach with a degree of modernist input. 

The final section – Tan Raptures – is prefaced with quotes from Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe and is possibly the bleakest of the four in that it deals directly with the victims of government policy and while filled with the usual wide referencing, its polemic becomes strident and ever more assertive. IDS comes in for a particularly serious roasting, well-deserved I have to say. We are very much in the world of ‘benefit claimants’, ‘scroungers’ in the words of those on high, where disaffection and dark, lightless rooms are the order of the day. Morrison documents these lives, challenging the dehumanising clichés – ‘mugging the taxpayer’, ‘parasites’, malingerers’ while also foregrounding the almost sinister jargon of the state bureaucracy – ‘Customer Compliance Procedures’.  As Niall McDevitt says on the back-cover blurb – ‘British realpolitik and the resistance to it are weighed on the scales’. For me Captive Dragons is Morrison’s real masterpiece, where his linguistic aptitudes and historical sense really come together in the imagination to stimulate both the emotions and the intellect but Tan Raptures is a worthy follow-up which keeps the flag flying. Somebody needs to!





Copyright © Steve Spence, 2017