The Gypsy and the Poet by David Morley. Carcanet Press (2013)
David Morley's most recent collection, The Gypsy and the Poet, reflects his background in ecology and his Romany heritage, but it is also a unique tribute to one of the most celebrated poets of the English countryside, John Clare. Many of the poems make up an ongoing dialogue between Clare and a mysterious Gypsy named Wisdom Smith.
Wisdom Smith appears briefly in John Clare's notebooks, and Morley uses this as a starting point for a series of playful, joyous sonnets made up of springy, alliterative verse which occasionally turns sombre (as when Clare says "Were poems children/I should stamp their lives out" and Wisdom Smith responds "Then do not make them", in 'My Children'.) I found myself wondering if Wisdom Smith was simply another aspect of Clare's complex personality (or is Clare another aspect of Wisdom Smith?) and if the sequence was a sort of Yeatsian dialogue of self and soul. This is particularly the case towards the end of the collection, as Clare descends into madness and the corporeal reality of the two figures' encounters becomes more doubtful. I think the poems can be read either as real encounters or as aspects of one personality, but in any case, the two characters have much to teach each other. Each sees the world at an angle that the other finds challenging, and so they bring each other to new understandings, even if it's through banter and mockery:
'I do not read, brother,' states Wisdom smiling,
'for I will not bother with Mystery.
Worlds move underfoot. Where lives Poetry?'
Wisdom Smith gets Clare to live in the moment, in the natural world; Clare gets him to look more seriously at poetry.
'Poetry is in season,' laughs John. 'Rooms woven from wound wood
are like rooms of woven words.' Wisdom looks at Clare - hard.
'Poetry is not everything. You know that, John,' smiles the Gypsy.
'You are wrong,' dances Clare. 'Everything. Everything is poetry.'
The poems are highlighted by English and Romany epigraphs, which heighten the impression of a dialogue between two cultures, both at home in the natural world, but in different ways.
The book is divided into three sections, the first and third of which are the John Clare and Wisdom Smith sonnets. The central section is made up of a variety of nature poems, including pieces which became part of the Slow Art Trail in Strid Wood, poems based on birdsong and painted on bird boxes, and shape poems. I am not really a fan of shape poems in general, but I saw all the poems in this section as a kind of extension of John Clare's (and David Morley's) notebooks and his observations about his life in the natural world. These poems are a record of what is happening around us, often unperceived, and they go a long way to show us how complex and intertwined the natural world is. Two poems, 'Fight' and 'Ballad of the Moon, Moon' are based on Lorca and his rich, strange perceptions of the Gypsy world.
The Gypsy and the Poet is a book to be taken out and read in the fields or the forest, but if this isn't possible, it can at least take the reader there in imagination and provide new insights into our relationship with the natural world and with other cultures, all wrapped up in some very colourful, distinctive and haunting verse.
BARDEN TOWER (David Morley)
I have heard a tourist claim this view
as though she had bought it at cost -
an expensive mirror. Unseen and ornately
ivy throws its ropes across the leaf-litter
shifting a forest's massive furniture;
the moss robes veil the thrones
of fallen oaks; trees flare with lichen;
Autumn smashes rainbows across
the woodland floor. You may never
have seen these trees more brilliantly
than when you turned your eyes
to that hunting lodge and sensed the light
kindle a million leaf mirrors.
In his woods near Lake Tuusula
Jean Sibelius shaped symphonies
from the speech of trees; firs bowed
violins while his swans sailed, keening.
Before his death a solitary swan
veered over and made him her own.
I am close to you who once shared this view.
This is not my sky, my flight, my words. This is not a mirror.
Walking from Embsay back to Barden Bridge
Poem © David Morley, 2013. Artwork © Peter Blegvad. Used by permission.