Reviews: Beyond Calling Distance

Esther
Morgan






Beyond Calling Distance
Silence Living in Houses
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PN Review No. 143 - Bearing Up - a review by Rachel Elliot
T.S Eliot wrote in 'Burnt Norton' that human kind cannot bear very much reality. Esther Morgan, in her first collection of poems, Beyond Calling Distance, challenges that perception. Of the many themes which weave through her poems, facing up to reality is the most insistent of them, lending her poetry a vivid and passionate quality. The subjects of her poems may not always be full of vitality, but her writing certainly is.

Morgan frequently uses the natural world as a symbol of reality, as in her opening poem 'The Sea', which begins:

'One night the tide went out
and never came back in -
its shoals of moonlight lost
beyond our horizon.

We woke to a desert
a salt-crusted silence.
For weeks the churches were full.
Then they were empty.

The sea became a myth
our thin children don't believe in.
They mock our obsolete knowledge
of trade winds and currents.'

As the poem continues the metre becomes increasingly fragmented and inelegant words jar on the ear. The speaker is frail and old; clinging on to a reality that has disappeared and only the arrogant young and the obsolete old inhabit the stagnating world that remains.

Morgan is not a romantic poet, but she uses the language of romantic poetry to convey harsh meanings, contriving to be both sensuous and stark, gentle and shocking. The languorous rhythm and language of 'The Sea' belie its deeper meaning, and it sets the tone of a collection which lulls and horrifies at the same time.

Morgan's characters have a great fear of facing reality, and so choose instead to build their own prisons. This self-deception is portrayed as the opposite of reality, leading only to stagnation and life-in-death. In 'Double Glazed' a husband and wife are trapped in a prison of their own making:

'A glass door slides -
their lives are guillotined.

He watches her
circling rooms
like a goldfish.'

This self-confinement is an attempt to keep out the batterings of reality; the bird that dies when it crashes into their window out of the storm:

'He discovers it next morning,
holds it up like a hunter
for a photograph -
stiff as stone,
its wings still spread.'

Elsewhere there are more self-made prisons; the woman in 'Deciding not to leave you' who stays in an abusive relationship, like next door's maltreated dog, fearing that the alternative could be worse; the secret in 'The Ring Man' and the family who stay wedded to silence because 'a question could change forever/the weather in a home,/lives bruising into storm.' Just as for the couple in 'Double Glazed', the storm is something to be avoided at all costs.

Fear goes hand in hand with unreality. Morgan is not a judgemental poet, but her wistful tone acknowledges that facing reality is no easy task. The natural world is one of her most potent symbols. In 'The Cows' the speaker admires these creatures because they are gypsyish, living life from day to day:

'They seemed to dream as they chewed the cud,
working their cool alchemy, earth into
cream, dung as rich as cake mixture.'

For her mother, the cows are to be feared - 'She warned me to keep the barbed fence between/us' - but the daughter is unafraid and able to see their beauty, aware that humans are also able to be part of this real world. Nature is a rich source of beauty and she explains:

'I longed to follow them,
their slow hypnosis under the moon

stealing me through the meadow
and into the mist that made
ghost ships of the silver birches.'

This is a far cry from the masts leaning at 'angles/like a forest of dying birches' in 'The Sea'.

Morgan's poetic voice is gentle and sensuous, lingering over images of beauty as well as horror. In 'Detecting' the rubbish collected by a metal detector becomes a kind of treasure:

'I save everything you give me -
empty cans, silver sweet wrappers,
the loose change lost by families.
In moonlight my room shines
like a reliquary.'

The isolation of the character, immersing himself in a world of other people's leavings, is a recurring theme. Loneliness is the reason why Morgan's characters are afraid to leave their self-made prisons. The fear of being alone holds them back.

As with the notion of reality, alternative views of love are identified. In 'Love in the Republic' love has revealed itself as nothing more than sex in a sordid back alley. In 'Slash' and 'Out of Season' sex is a painful, violent act. Equally, the traditional notion of romantic love is shown to be a false perception. 'Images on Glass' reveals the absurdity of our society's romantic love songs, where the boy who holds her for the last slow dance is a stranger who 'drags her off into the corner/for a concrete-mixer snog.'

Bringing the collection to a close is the poem 'Relics'. Here at last is the poet's true perception of love. The sea returns, with all the symbolic meaning it has gathered through the collection. A couple walk a long a narrow causeway which is cut twice a day by tides, and see a ruined church:

'wind-whipped, strafed by sand, roofless
except for one communicating arch
whittled thin as bone, which leaps
the gulf between two pillars.'

Love is the communicating arch, which binds the couple to one another - a fine thread like the causeway. To dare to love feels like an act of faith. Love is acknowledged as a struggle, equalled to the unsteady balance of man and nature. The question of how much reality we can bear comes to this: to dare to tread the fragile mooring is not an easy decision, but it is the only way to achieve real freedom. The couple in the poem are the most free of all those we meet in the collection. They are willingly out in the middle of the natural world, winning a small victory by simply managing to exist. They are willing to fight to breathe, because every moment is a victory. Like the arch, like the causeway, the love between the couple may not hold, but they are courageous enough to risk it.

There is an alternative ending to the collection which returns to the story of the first poem. Water has long since departed this world, and all that remains is age, memories of the past, and the wait for death. In 'Sand' (a mirror image from the first poem) the ageing speaker is shut away in a dying house:

'Soon this house will go blind, its windows silted,
the sun eclipsed, an hour glass twist
in the fireplace.'

Esther Morgan has many themes - fear, loneliness, love, prisons - which run through the collection like threads, and each poem chooses to amplify a different one. Hers is a voice which lingers in the ears beautifully, even though the images are sometimes brutal. The poems are united in their sense of distance and timelessness. Her language is delicate, her images and metaphors unforced, giving the poems an organic quality. The unity of purpose she brings to this collection makes for a moving and satisfying whole, leaving a lasting impression of messages reaching out from beyond calling distance, from characters whose wisdom has been learned the hard way.


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Times Literary Supplement, 19th April 2002 - Signs of unseen things - a review by Stephen Knight
All three poets under review exhibit a degree of self-consciousness in their quest for an artistic identity . . . In Beyond Calling Distance, Esther Morgan appears to confound her own efforts by vanishing into the dramatic monologue or conjuring images of failure; the artist of 'Self Portrait' for example, who works on palimpsests, 'mouths behind mouths behind mouths/all of them closed.' Themes of erasure, absence and isolation are explored in a voice so ingenuous, its language and syntax so plain, that it takes a while to notice quite how disturbing the poetry is: the corpse of a suicide awaits discovery; double glazing severs a couple's links with one another and the outside world; the sea ebbs permanently, leaving 'a salt-crusted silence' and 'white masts leaning at angles/like a forest of dying birches'. . . . Esther Morgan appreciates the virtues of simplicity, though there is a subtle control evident throughout her book. A carefully assembled collection, Beyond Calling Distance' begins and ends with an image of aridity, its contents teetering on the edge of dreams, its desolate figures drifting through a ghostly landscape of 'endless fields' towards a future:

'. . . alone
in the empty living room at dusk,
a sepia rose of damp blooming on the ceiling,
a garden hushed by steady rain.'

This assured debut promises a better future from its author than her own poems imagine.


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Raw Edge No. 14, Spring/Summer 2002
Esther Morgan was born in Kidderminster, read English at Cambridge and teaches part-time at UEA on the undergraduate creative writing programme. Beyond Calling Distance is her first book of poems. It's characteristic of a first collection in that it covers a wide variety of themes - the sense of a writer alive to the richness of the world runs through it like a strong pulse. She confidently leaps between themes, one moment talking about avocados in all their sensuous detail:

'I like the way they fit the palm -
their plump Buddha weight,
the sly squeeze for ripeness,
the clean slit of the knife,
the soft suck
as you twist the halves apart . . .'

The next dealing poignantly with death, in 'Legacy':

'There wasn't much of him to bury.
he left me nothing.

But in the mirror
I have his thin hands
pushing the knot tight
on my Sunday tie.'

Any poet worth her salt is good at loss. If a poet isn't any good at this most dark and beautiful thing, they might as well pack up the Daler notebook and take up tree felling. Morgan does loss very well, particularly the slow, inevitable decline of the busted relationship; this is the last verse of 'Out of Season:

'Sex judders through us
like rubber wiper blades across dry glass.
We cling to the edges in the dark
listening to the slow hand-clap
of a shutter in the wind.'

Morgan has the ability to place us where she has been, in all its precise, technicolour detail, almost as if we are side by side watching the retrospective action, as in 'Slash':

'Next day it burns like acid
her piss squeezed drop by drop
as if from a pipette
and red as Beaujolais.'

Ouch.

The characters in the collection are often drifting, not necessarily from place to geographical place (though some are) but rather trying to find their metaphorical places in the world. It's as if we are behind the ears of people who don't quite know where they are going to wash up or what they're going to do when they get there. Morgan inhabits uncomfortable places for us and for me, that's a real strength of the book. It's an intriguing and immensely readable collection.


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