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Cathures Paperback – 28 Nov 2002
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About the Author
Born in Glasgow in on 27th April 1920, Edwin Morgan celebrated his 80th birthday in 2000. He was brought up in a comfortable middle class family with his father working as a clerk to a firm of ship breakers. From an early age Morgan was fascinated and passionate about words. He remembers that his teachers used to complain about the amount of work he would give them to mark. His early education was at Rutherglen Academy, then Glasgow High School. He has been a resident of Glasgow for the duration of his life with a six year exception for his service in the Middle East with the Royal Army Medical Corps. On his return he completed his Master's degree at Glasgow University before teaching there, becoming Professor of English in 1975. He retired as Professor Emeritus in 1980. He has since worked as a Visiting Professor at Strathclyde University (1987-1990) and also at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (1991-1995). A former pupil of Morgan's and a notable poet himself, Robert Crawford recalls that Morgan was "an extremely lively teacher ... incredibly focused on what his students were doing".
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"Cathures" is an ancient name for Glasgow, which glowers magnificently from the front cover and lives in the pages within, sometimes in the form of places and moments in time ("Cathurian Lyrics"), sometimes in its language ("Gallus"), most of all in its people past and present, from its patron saint Kentigern through Adam Smith and his namesake the poisoner Madeleine to present-day luminaries. Some of these latter will not necessarily be pleased with the form of their immortality, notably Cardinal Winning and Brian Souter, lampooned in "Section 28":
God said to Winning; "You are not.
Winning, I mean.
Mostly though, the crowd of people jostling each other through the poems are being celebrated for their diversity, their individuality, above all their spirit. The word "gallus" - bloody-minded, reckless, spectacularly cheeky - recurs throughout the book, sometimes applied to one of the named celebrities who are so many they have a glossary at the end, sometimes to someone unnamed but just as important in his scheme of things:
[...] "Ur you a Sir?"
"No, I'm a poet." "Great, see ye la'er!"
He gave a thumbs-up, darted away.
He would turn night into day,
That one. Just watch death, watch dread
cringe and blanch as he bounds ahead.
It is impossible, though one wishes it weren't, to see the mention of death without remembering that the writer is closer to it than most - though actually anyone coming to this book without that information would notice the youthful liveliness and openness of mind more even than the depth of knowledge and breadth of reading that tell you he can't be quite as young as he sounds. There is a note of defiance, of gallusness in the face of the inevitable throughout this book, never more than in the "Demon" poems. The Concise Oxford lists several definitions for "demon", including "evil spirit or devil", "supernatural being of a nature between gods and humans" and "inner spirit or inspiring force". Nor, given Morgan's technophilia, should one overlook the computer term: " background process that handles requests and is dormant when not required". There is nothing evil about the demon Morgan chooses as a voice, though he meets, and rejects, one of the evil kind in course of the sequence ("Another Demon"). But the voice of the sequence is full of the devil only in a complimentary sense - gallus, again. "My job is to rattle the bars", it begins; later it sees its role as to define "what against is for" ("The Demon Sings"). It challenges received wisdom, conventional faith, and in the sequence's most moving poem, "The Demon Goes To Kill Death", the inevitability of death itself:
I tried a battlefield or two, though fields
Were few, rather the sand was fused to glass,
And oil burned screaming along the waves,
And shelled villages were smoking shells,
Or hells, though the sheller crowed to heaven.
Yet the one I was looking for was not there. [...]
She was dead white, I knew that, total white.
Her camouflage could be high mountain passes
Thick with the snow that muffled refugees
Slipping with bundles from country to no country.
Old women were silent, with bleeding feet,
But she I was looking for was not there.
This encapsulates two features that have characterised Morgan's voice for decades: an insistence that lyric poetry should be able to accommodate burning current issues and a fierce, often angry compassion. The poem "Janet Horne", about the last woman executed for witchcraft in Scotland, ends "O heart never harden!" and there is no chance it ever will. It's hardly surprising that he has no time for fundamentalists, devoid as they are of compassion and humour. "The Poet and the Assassin" is one of the few poems I have seen that addresses the alarming rise of the militant killjoy tendency - via a conversation between Omar Khayyam and his one-time friend Hassan, founder of the Assassin sect. Needless to say, Morgan is with Omar in his refusal to value blood over tulips:
Unleash your hemp-soaked stalkers, but don't think
The world will not have, trembling, the last say.
Something else that will never lessen is his delight in language. The demon at one point remarks of his kind "we are merry dancers
Through curtains of the dark". "Merry dancers" is a Scots version of "mirrie-dancers", the Shetlandic phrase for the aurora borealis (at least one of the Demon poems was first published in the magazine The New Shetlander). I don't know when I last read poems that sent me so often, and so willingly, to a dictionary - the Scots I am fairly used to as a rule, but "bahookie", which is apparently Glaswegian for backside, came as a welcome addition to my vocabulary -
His heavy-lidded eyes
are brooding on the beautiful bahookie
of a lounger on the rail of the Brooklyn ferry.
It is Walt, of course it is, who else,
And though, thanks to the internet, I now know "falemnderit" means "thank you", I'm still not sure in what language ("And murmuring falemnderit to the sun for shining", from "A Day Off For The Demon").
The poem "Galoshin" refers to the hero of the folk play who, like St George in some versions, is killed, then brought back to life by the Doctor.
Galoshin rose and sang his song:
"You'll never keep me down for long!"
He is not the only character here who can't be kept down. "Thennoch" records the survival of St Kentigern's pregnant mother
They threw me down a hill to kill
Me and the new life both. No, I said, no,
No thank you, no, not at all. I rolled
Like a ball, hugging and cradling the seed.
I was not broken, I said I was not broken!
No more is the voice in "Sunset":
A burning coat of hope. I see
The harmless flames, walk into them.
The last light hardens to a gem.
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