Katherine Lockton reviews
By Esther Morgan
Sometimes it is the simplest of words in the simplest of orders that allows the subject of the poem “to become itself.” This is particularly true of Esther Morgan’s Grace, where the poetry is deceptively simple on the first reading. It is only after subsequent readings that a maze of hidden links between the poems is uncovered. These links come together to create alternative meanings to Morgan’s words. Morgan successfully conceals the seams in her tapestry of images, which if shown would break the spell that engulfs us as we read.
One of Morgan’s main preoccupations in her third collection is to look at what Wordsworth called “spots of time.” It is in this way that different moments are distilled to reveal the essence behind them. In the opening poem, ‘Grace’ it is the “the moment the house empties like a city in August/so completely/it forgets you exist” that is explored through simple yet amazing images:
“the circle of white plates on the kitchen table
the serious chairs that attend them
even the roses on the papered walls
seem to open a little wider.”
The images are clear, concise and a true depiction of the objects described. Morgan’s simple yet revealing style is reminiscent of William Carlos William in, for example, ‘Red Wheelbarrow.’ Morgan and William’s poems’ beauty and language are simple, but not easy to achieve, and pretend to be simpler than they really are.
Another common factor between the two poets is that they both concentrate on colour as opposed to shape to evoke haunting images in our minds. The poems are so arresting that they stand as manifestos as well as testaments to what can be achieved with simple language. Morgan is so adept at stepping into a moment that when she tells us that she has been doing so since a girl, we believe her.
One of the main images that Morgan uses to investigate her spots of time is the domestic one, which prevails throughout the collection. Morgan adoption of this imagery accentuates the theme of simplicity that is present in all of the poems. She is able to take a uncomplicated scene and through the use of common household images present it in a manner that everyone can relate to and appreciate.
In using domestic imagery Morgan succeeds in creating an air of sanctity to the home in which a table is laid out as if “an altar.” In ‘The China-mender’s Daughter’ she is able to compare people to crockery:
“The people in my life are like plates,
I have to keep them happy, keep them spinning.”
Morgan continues this powerful simile and builds on it explaining, “how she’d check for veins of damage/lifting each piece of fine-bone to the light.” In these lines the china-mender’s daughter's activities are viewed with the same sanctity as those of a Doctor.
Morgan’s use of the domestic image is also seen in the poem ‘After Life’, in which she tells us that:
“As far back as great, great, great
names and faces
are scoured away
like plates scraped clean
of painted flowers
by daughters wanting more.”
Here, as in ‘Morandi: Still Lives’, Morgan plays around with the structure of the poem on the page in order not only to inform us of how to read the lines but also to allow them space enough to breathe freely so that we can appreciate them fully. The words employed are visceral and violent yet simple, which means that their impact is greater when read.
Morgan is a master of imagery and it is the uniqueness of the pictures that she creates in our mind that forces us to take notice of her work. She not only puts her own twist on domestic imagery turning our expectations upside down, so that we are struck by the freshness of this perspective, but she also stamps an enduring imprint in our minds. We cannot help but read ‘Grace’ over and over again, trying to unravel the seams in order to understand and emulate her art. Lines such as “sometime in the early sixties/a candlestick takes a vow of silence”, “the embankment buddleia/burning with admirals” and “the children drowsy as flies/in the long classrooms” are all typical of Morgan’s simple yet powerful style which keeps us captivated and turning the pages of Grace.
Morgan’s poetry sings to us in a concert that we cannot help but listen to again and again. Her verse is extremely lyrical and has a lovely rhythm to it which is simple and soft:
“the takings not counted and locked in the safe,
the tables still sticky with rings.”
We are also invited to hear sounds such as “a back-yard dog” who “barks at the stars”, “the thought occurs like birdsong”, “a voice” and “creaking wings.” Morgan fills are ears and minds so that we believe in her “make-believe trees” and “stranger walking in the dawning fields” who “might take her for a vase of wildflowers” she is so still.
In Grace we are led on a journey through stillness, music and simplicity. Morgan’s poetry consistently intrigues throughout the collection, starting and ending with poems that demonstrate her versatility as a poet. Her subtle writing echoes the stillness explored throughout the collection. Grace is an altar to the art of fine writing and should be read by all who love and appreciate poetry.
K. Lockton is currently working as a poetry workshop leader. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Magma, Rising and online at Eyewear, Poetry 24 and Whippersnapper Press. She is assistant editor of South Bank Poetry.