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Intricate verse forms out of plain speech

21st century poetry with Andy Croft

Alan Morrison is probably best known as the editor of the ground-breaking anthologies Emergency Verse: Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State, and The Robin Hood Book: Verse Versus Austerity. But he is also a prolific critic and a brave and original poet.

His new collection, Shadows Waltz Haltingly (Lapwing, £10) is a record in verse of his mother’s 15-year fight against Huntington’s disease to her death in 2013: “The chorea’s grotesque routines of circus tumbling; / Leaving her husband a pale washed-up clown, / Face-tugging, fuddled by juggling of diagnoses / And ever-switching prescriptions, trick-unicyclists / Passing on batons of appointments between them, / Until the last port of call hit upon the mutant gene / By a smudging margin: this degenerative germinal / Seed might be passed on… and on… far out across / The circular sands and seaweed links to distant tides…”

Because Huntington’s chorea used to be called the St Vitus’s dance, Morrison uses dance-imagery to painfully describe her long physical and mental decline: “Hesitation, Change, Drag, Twitch, Hesitation, Drag, / Twitch, Fasciculation, Change, Drag, Twitch Again, / Judder, Halt, Akinetic-Rigid, Unsteady Gait, Rapid / Progression, Jerky Movements, Arms Flailing, Halt, / Posture Stooping, Drag Trunk Slanting, Halt, Jerk, / Wobble on the balls of the feet, repeat, repeat — / Thus goes the Hesitation Waltz of Huntington’s, / St. Vitus’ Dance, known by other bitter sobriquets — / The Terpsichorean Chorea, the Misfold Fandango, / The Westphal Shuffle, the Basal Ganglia Tango...”

It is a hard book to read, but powerfully moving, a beautiful memorial to his mother, a record of the author’s own suffering as much as hers, and an extraordinary study in mortality and loss: “Old Granny Time winds us down the lane / Of her girlhood’s buttery patina — Kiss-in-the-haystack lass, buttercup-under... A bloom of old dears whose petals loser fade / Colourful for moments in the shady sway / Of a tree-beamed Church’s creaking bought... / Bluebells, twinkling in the cold dark wood.”

Antony Owen was recently announced as one of CND’s peace foundation patrons, teaching peace education in British schools. Margaret Thatcher’s Museum (Hesterglock Press, £6) is his fourth collection, a strong and bitter memoir of growing up in Coventry. (“Childhood was a magic trick, / it vanished with the work, / sometimes in the eighties.”)

Owen writes a kind of passionate urban lyricism about working-class life. (“If the street played a violin it would sound like secrets from damned men and throb like the bones of sparrows sighting the axe... If our sky was for sale the stars would be sued by Murdoch for breach of copyright.”)

Running through the book are poems for his parents. His mother was The Other Iron Lady: “I was the son of a woman who spelt big words wrong / yet did little things right, who knew the dialect of love / was the great unsaid till it had to be, said.”

There are some great individual poems here, notably Nigel Farage Street, The Unmourned Chavs Who Died in a Stolen Nissan, Our World Speaks English and The Little Things Destroy Us: “When I was a son / you closed with the factories, / broke things to fix them. // You grew a moustache, / wore unemployed clothes, / caged your world in a shed. // That black leg Easter you wept, / Thatcher glided in a Daimler, / like spit on union coats.”

Portable Property (Greenwich Exchange, £9.99) is John Lucas’s 11th collection. As always, it combines the clever, the funny and the serious. Lucas is a brilliant craftsman, making intricate verse-forms out of plain speech, including a wonderful sestina (Look at it This Way), a long narrative poem in ottava rima (Don Johnson, Restaurateur), versions of Brecht and Ritsos and a splendidly silly McGonagall parody.

There are some neat epigrams such as The Truth About Politics (“You know the bastard’s lying when you hear / “And let me make this absolutely clear”’) and Conspicuous Consumption (“That Rolex, friend, you’re proud to show around / Tells the same time as one that cost a pound”).

Best of all is a sonnet in memory of the comic Radio Fun and the radio comedians who starred in it: “Where are they now, those black-and-white / heroes, their bark and baloney bringing to hell all / who tried out-classing them? Top of Batley’s Bill the height / by which they measured worth each bow-wow Saturday night. / ‘Turned out nice again.’ Not now, Arthur. A pall / Of Oxbridge voices smothers them, 24/7 dismal.”


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