A Book of Lives

A Book of Lives

by Edwin Morgan

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Overview

Containing poems written by Edwin Morgan during the past six years, this collection looks at human life from a variety of perspectives, encompassing a range of themes, the foremost of which is history. This new work displays the author's characteristic willingness to experiment with a variety of subjects, from the history of cancer to the new Scottish parliament.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847778239
Publisher: Carcanet Press, Limited
Publication date: 04/01/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 96
File size: 265 KB

About the Author

Edwin Morgan was a professor of English at Glasgow University and retired in 1980. He has since been a visiting professor at Strathclyde University and at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth.

Read an Excerpt

A Book of Lives


By Edwin Morgan

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2011 the Estate of Edwin Morgan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-824-6



CHAPTER 1

For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004


Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!

We have a building which is more than a building.

There is a commerce between inner and outer, between brightness and shadow, between the world and those who think about the world.

Is it not a mystery? The parts cohere, they come together like petals of a flower, yet they also send their tongues outward to feel and taste the teeming earth.

Did you want classic columns and predictable pediments? A growl of old Gothic grandeur? A blissfully boring box?

Not here, no thanks! No icon, no IKEA, no iceberg, but curves and caverns, nooks and niches, huddles and heavens, syncopations and surprises. Leave symmetry to the cemetery.

But bring together slate and stainless steel, black granite and grey granite, seasoned oak and sycamore, concrete blond and smooth as silk – the mix is almost alive – it breathes and beckons – imperial marble it is not!

Come down the Mile, into the heart of the city, past the kirk of St Giles and the closes and wynds of the noted ghosts of history who drank their claret and fell down the steep tenement stairs into the arms of link-boys but who wrote and talked the starry Enlightenment of their days –

And before them the auld makars who tickled a Scottish king's ear with melody and ribaldry and frank advice –

And when you are there, down there, in the midst of things, not set upon an hill with your nose in the air,

This is where you know your parliament should be

And this is where it is, just here.

What do the people want of the place? They want it to be filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its architecture.

A nest of fearties is what they do not want.

A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.

A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.

And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of 'it wizny me' is what they do not want.

Dear friends, dear lawgivers, dear parliamentarians, you are picking up a thread of pride and self-esteem that has been almost but not quite, oh no not quite, not ever broken or forgotten.

When you convene you will be reconvening, with a sense of not wholly the power, not yet wholly the power, but a good sense of what was once in the honour of your grasp.

All right. Forget, or don't forget, the past. Trumpets and robes are fine, but in the present and the future you will need something more.

What is it? We, the people, cannot tell you yet, but you will know about it when we do tell you.

We give you our consent to govern, don't pocket it and ride away.

We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don't say we have no mandate to be so bold.

We give you this great building, don't let your work and hope be other than great when you enter and begin.

So now begin. Open the doors and begin.


    Acknowledge the Unacknowledged Legislators!


    Go on, squawk at the font, you chubby Scotty.
    You have a long song ahead of you, do you know that?
    Of course not, but you let the ghost of a chuckle
    Emerge and flicker as if you had thrown
    Your very first chuckle and the water was playful.
    It will be, and gurly too, and full of dread
    Once you are grown and reckoning ahead.

    So squeal a little, kick a little, what's a few drops
    On that truly enormous human brow.
    Man is chelovek, the Russians say,
    The one with a forehead, the one with forethought,
    The one whose mumbling and chuntering will not do,
    Who knows it will not do, who lolls or bounces
    Half-formed but strains for form, to be a child
    And not a bundle! The bungler, the mumbler
    Takes the deepest breath we are allowed,
    Whistles the horizon's dawn right down
    Across the book of earth, audits the figures,
    Tongue and teeth and lips in line, near-perfect,
    Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord, the poet
    Has hooked one leg over his simple chair-arm,
    Sometimes tapping the beat upon his snuff-box,
    Sometimes singing an old and well-loved air
    To startlingly original effect.
    He'll print it too! Won't it be in a book?
    An open mind is proper in this case.
    It's only poetry, after all. Someone –
    I can't remember thousands of scribbling names –
    Has said 'Poetry makes nothing happen.'
    I find that slightly fundamentalist.
    Yes, but do I go along with it?
    I do not go along with it. No, I don't.
    Do I protest too much? Probably!

    Think of what I said about the child.
    He is a man now, let us talk to him.
    Ask him how far he thinks his birkie
    Registers on a Richter scale of insult.
    He's dead? Well, get a good dictionary.
    Talk's the thing. Dialogue's the thing.
    If any parliamentarian should be so remiss
    As to think writers are interchangeable,
    Or stupid, or irrelevant, or poor doomy creatures,
    Punishments may have to be devised,
    I say may, we want to persuade, not scold.
    What is it but language that clamps
    A country to glory? Ikons, concertos,
    Pietàs, gamelans, gondolas, didgeridoos,
    Luboks, a brace of well-tuned sleigh-bells –
    These are very fine, of course they are.
    But better still, always far better still
    Is the sparkling articulacy of the word,
    The scrubbed round table where poet and legislator
    Are plugged in to the future of the race,
    Guardians of whatever is the case.


    The Cost of Pearls


    Do you want to challenge that dervish Scotland?
    Even and only being interrogated
    by a swash of centenarian mussels
    black-encrusted and crusty with it?
    When they folded their arms and gave such a click
    it could be heard right down Strathspey,
    did you reckon the risk of a dialogue was minimal?
    'Come on then, have at you!' It was like an old play
    though far from funny. 'All that winking stuff,
    that metal, those blades,
    you think we don't know death when we smell it?'
    'Your nose deceives you. We are observers, explorers.
    We heard there was a murmuring of mussels,
    a clatter and a chatter
    somewhere in the gravel-beds of unbonny Scotland,
    almost like voices threatening something – '
    'Damn sure we were threatening something! Do you know
    a thousand of us were killed in one day
    not long ago –' 'I heard it was eight hundred –'
    'Eight hundred, ten hundred, it was a massacre.
    Your pearl poachers breenged through our domains like demons
    with their great gully knives and scythed us to shreds
    for what might be, most likely might not be,
    a pearl, a pearl of price, a jeweller's price.

    I hear a shuffling of papers. Prepare yourself.
    We are our wisest, neither clique nor claque
    but full conclave. We want to know,
    and we will know, what is it gives you
    your mania for killing. Don't interrupt!
    For a few smouldering prettinesses
    at neck and brow you would ransack
    a species. I said don't interrupt,
    we have all the time in the world
    and I can hear the steady footfall
    (that's a joke, you may smile)
    as our oldest and wisest, worthily High Mussel
    at a hundred and forty-nine, filtering and harrumphing
    (no, you must not smile now),
    angrily kicking the gravel, and with a last sift and puff
    (no no, this is not funny, think of his powers)
    commands the interrogation to begin.'


    Lines for Wallace


    Is it not better to forget?
    It is better not to forget.
    Betrayal not to be forgotten,
    Vindictiveness not to be forgotten,
    Triumphalism not to be forgotten.
    Body parts displayed
    At different points of the compass,
    Between hanging and hacking
    The worst, the disembowelling.
    Blood raised in him, fervent
    Blood raced in him, fervent
    Blood razed in him, for ever
    Fervent in its death.
    For Burns was right to see
    It was not only on the field
    That Scots would follow this man
    With blades and war-horn
    Sharp and shrill
    But with brains and books
    Where the idea of liberty
    Is impregnated and impregnates.
    Oh that too is sharp and shrill
    And some cannot stand it
    And some would not allow it
    And some would rather die
    For the regulated music
    Of Zamyatin's Polyhymnia
    Where nothing can go wrong.
    Cinema sophisticates
    Fizzed with disgust at the crudities
    Braveheart held out to them.
    Over the cheeks of some
    (Were they less sophisticated?)
    A tear slipped unbidden.
    Oh yes it did. I saw it.
    The power of Wallace
    Cuts through art
    But art calls attention to it
    Badly or well.
    In your room, in the street,
    Even my god if it came to it
    On a battlefield,
    Think about it,
    Remember him.


    The Battle of Bannockburn

    A Translation of 'Metrum de Praelio Apud Bannockburn', by Robert Baston


    Pain is my refrain, pain comes dragging its rough train.
    Laughter I disdain, or my elegy would be in vain.
    The Ruler of All, who can cause tears to stall,
    Is the true witness to call if you want any good to befall
    Those under thrall, roped-up in filthy unsilky pall.
    I weep for all that fall in that iron funeral.
    I raise my battle-lament, sitting here in my tent.
    And the blame for this event? God knows to whom it is sent!

    This is a double realm: each itches to dominate:
    Neither hands over the helm for the other to subjugate.
    England and Scotland – which one is the Pharisee?
    Each has to stand guard, and not fall into the sea!
    Hence those pumped-up factions dyed with crimson blood,
    Squads in battle-actions slaughtered crying in the mud,
    Hence this waste of men, crossed out by war's black pen,
    Whole peoples sunk in the fen, still fighting, again and again,
    Hence white faces in the ground, hence white faces of the drowned,
    Hence huge grief is found, cries with which the stars are crowned,
    Hence wars that devastate field and farm and state.
    How can I relate each massacre that lies in wait?

    It is June Thirteen Fourteen, and here I set the scene,
    The Baptist's head on a tureen, the battle on Stirling green.
    Oh I am not glued to ancient schism and feud,
    But my weeping is renewed for the dead I saw and rued.
    Who will lend me the water I need to baptise these forays?
    Already torrents and springs overwhelm my heart-strings
    And break the rings of my singing of better things.

    The governor of the land has that land's domination,
    At his slightest command a great force is in full formation.
    Huzzas from English throats; Scots in eager armour;
    Soldiers with high notes may not live up to their clamour!
    See how the English king, consulting and considering,
    Asks boldest men to bring fear to the Scots, penetrating
    Chivalry with chivalry, country into country!
    Charging the nobility to draw on every ability,
    What a brilliant band of magnates mustering and swerving!
    They want you bowing and serving! Scotland, take sword in hand!

    Infantry scenting battle crisscross county and shire.
    Sailors all afire plough seas till the halyards rattle.
    Armour-bearer and squire hasten with bridles and reins.
    Cavalry seethes and clanks, trumpeters strain their veins.
    All the belligerent ranks surge forward bloodthirsty and fierce
    (Dark death will pierce, if it wishes, those high-fives and swanks!).
    A knight mounts his horse, he is braced and bright for the fight,
    His face breathes force, his rich garb woos the sight.
    Four Germans arrive, offer free services:
    Will the English derive help from these pseudo-mercenaries?
    All I know is that arms are handed out to all;
    No one says no if the man seems handy and tall;
    Safe hands for a shield, for a lance, for a bloody field,
    Strong not to yield, skilled, war-welcoming, steeled.

    They spent the night drinking, bragging how they'd bring down the Scots.
    Their boasts were unthinking, they mouthed windy thoughts.
    They drowsed, they snored, they were superhuman, they ignored
    Fate, they soared in their dreams right overboard.
    What would they do when their banners fluttered in the sun?
    They were about to be run through, all arrogance undone!

    The herald blares his horn, the baleful battle-news is born.
    Gall from honey is torn by the fingers of such a storm.
    Now Scots men-at-arms mustered by war's alarms
    Have no magic charms but boldness and brash brawny arms.
    Hey, Saxon standard-bearer, terrify the Scots with that flag!
    Your troops are action-famished there, they won't linger or lag.
    Archer, stretch your bow and stretch your bow.
    Let arrows fetch devastation from that side to the foe.
    Spearmen, flash lightning from this side. Breathe deep, let go.
    Make it a smash, a crash, let death let them know!
    Slingshot-boy, spread panic with your stones,
    It is no toy, fill ditches with the dead and with dying groans!
    All must stand fast; crossbows are drawn at last;
    The swarm is cast, bolts batter and buzz and blast.
    Spears are at hand, the Saxon satraps look grand,
    But things are at a stand, clear strategy seems banned.

    The Scottish king forms, and informs his potent throng,
    Infantry and cavalry. Oh what an array, so ordered and strong!
    The king's voice is heard, inspiring the nobility,
    Giving the measured but fiery word to the men of quality.
    He checks and directs the formation of his eager troops.
    Others are worthless, he reckons, and their star droops.
    He incites and delights the multitude of his men.
    He flytes and derides the English – their treaties not worth a hen.
    He said, and he led; all fingers must be firm to the end.
    Never swerve from a serf of the shameless Saxon blend!
    The masses are sassy, they relish the royal rousing.
    They will stand like a band and give the Saxons a sousing!

    Unity is strength, says the king; each knows what each must do.
    Here at length is the war; here, the weapons that are due.
    A jet of arrows will get a bloody groin or two!
    And let a flurry of snake-biting spears bring death to not a few!
    Let each sleek spear leave the leaders without cheer,
    When soon it must appear that death and defeat are near!
    Let the axeman slice limb from trunk with professional flair,
    Let his action be a brandishing of something immovably there!
    A sword-point cannot hide; no one, on no side, sees no readiness.
    Only fate knows those who replace the dead in lucky steadiness

    Wicked hands have invented a trap for trampling horses:
    Ditches with stakes, planted to stop them in their courses.
    The plebs have kindly dug and dug to spatchcock the cavalry
    But those on foot too have the rug pulled out from their revelry,
    Not one of those men will clamber on horseback again.
    Thus lords, though in pain, will be lorded over, complaining in vain.

    The invading army is summoned, the Scottish army is numbered.
    The frontline phalanx is ordered, the king's bodyguard is sworded.
    The leaders of both sides decide to send out scouts,
    Who come back to divide good counsel with deadly doubts.
    Bloody Sunday opens with the rumbling of omens
    For the Sassenach yeomen, moment by moment.
    The first assaults come whirling on the dry ground of Stirling.
    The English host shines splendid, but soon the glitter is ended.

    Pain is great, pain is piled upon pain.
    Rage is in spate, rage rages as rain.
    Clamour is not blate, a frontline-to-frontline refrain.
    Bravery – checkmate, brave follows brave in vain.
    Ardour cannot wait, ardour is furious and fain.
    Fighters blame fate, fortitude is on the wane.
    Amazement is the state, amazement spreads its stain.
    It is a fuzzy slate, order is slated and slain.
    Uproar cannot abate, Abel loses to Cain.

    Black Monday gives a new life to the deadly plague.
    Scots blow the plague by lucky force upon the English flag.
    The Angles are like angels glittering high and proud,
    But valorous and vassal both are labouring under a cloud.
    English eyes scan the skies for Scots ambushes to arise,
    But Scots are near, are here, full size, surprise surprise!
    The plebs are roaring and swearing, but when things get scary
    They wilt and are weary, they crack under the fury.
    The ogre is mediocre, the Scots are stockier.
    Who will be known as victor? The Dutiful Doctor.
    A reckless raid pretends to be robustly arrayed.
    Deep sobs escalade from the face's palisade,
    Scots find a route to rush fast forward on foot,
    Brandishing boot on boot, fielding loot for loot.
    What snatching and catching, what bruising and broostling, what grief!
    What warhorns and warnings, what winding and wirrying, no relief!
    What slashing and slaughtering, what wounding and wailing, what a rout!
    What lurking and lunging, what grabbing and groaning, what a turnabout!
    What roaring and rearing, what shrinking and shaking, what lassooing!
    What cloaking and collecting, what snipping and specking, what undoing!
    Bellies will be empty. Both broadswords and bodies are booty.
    So many fatherless children to clutch at futurity!

    Clare of Gloucester, fosterer of courage, earl and landlord,
    Ah, you are out among the dead, by God's avenging word.
    Lionlike Clifford, you have stiffened at the sword's point,
    So many blows from the enemy have jarred you at every joint.
    William Marshal, macho, martial in the battle-line,
    Scottish hardmen hacked you down with dastardly design.
    Edmund Mauley, bold and manly royal steward,
    Hosts of hostility have got you scotched and skewered.
    Tiptoft, top fighter, like a blazing fire
    Your grave is blades and staves, and the banners retire.
    Noble Argentan, great gentleman, sweet Giles,
    I would fain have fainted when I saw you in those falling files.

    What is truth worth? How can I sing about so much blood?
    Could even tragedy bare its breast to show such cut and thud?
    The names may be famous but I do not know them all.
    I cannot number the humblings and tumblings of hundreds that fall.
    Many are mown down, many are thrown down,
    Many are drowned, many are found and bound.
    Many are taken in chains for a stated ransom.
    So some are rising, riding rich high and handsome
    Who before the war were poor and threadbare souls.
    The battlefield is barren but piled with spoils.
    The battlefield is barren but piled with spoils.
    Shouts and taunts and vengeful cuts and brawls –
    I saw, but what can I say? A harvest I did not sow!
    Guile is not my style. Justice and peace are what I would show.
    Anyone who has more in store, let him write the score.
    My mind is numb, my voice half-dumb, my art a blur.

    I am a Carmelite, and my surname is Baston.
    I grieve that I survive a happening so harrowing and ghastly.
    If it is my sin to have left out what should be in,
    Let others begin to record it, without rumour or spin.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from A Book of Lives by Edwin Morgan. Copyright © 2011 the Estate of Edwin Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Title Page,
Acknowledgements,
For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004,
Acknowledge the Unacknowledged Legislators!,
The Cost of Pearls,
Lines for Wallace,
The Battle of Bannockburn,
James IV To his Treasurer,
Retrieving & Renewing,
Planet Wave,
Valentine Weather,
Three Songs,
Old Gorbals,
1955 – A Recollection,
My First Octopus,
Boethius,
Charles V,
Oscar Wilde,
Hirohito,
New Times,
Gorgo and Beau,
Questions I,
Questions II,
The Welcome,
Brothers and Keepers,
The Old Man and E.A.P.,
An Old Woman's Birthday,
For David Daiches, on his Ninetieth Birthday,
A Birthday: for I.H.F.,
Wild Cuts (with Hamish Whyte),
Five Paintings,
Love and a Life,
The War on the War on Terror,
Conversation in Palestine,
Also by Edwin Morgan from Carcanet,
About the Author,
Copyright,

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