Natural Mechanical by J O Morgan (CB editions 2008)
Reviewed by Linda Black
A couple of months ago a slim volume by a poet unknown to me, the cover the colour of brown wrapping paper, endorsed on the front by Simon Armitage (‘Remarkable, a gem of a poem’) arrived through the post for review.
I read it and loved it, only to discover a few weeks later that it had been shortlisted for the Aldeburgh First Collection Award and then, to my delight, that it had won (out of a record 92 entries). I hadn’t heard of J.O. Morgan – he’s never published before, nor has he tried to, though he has written a novel, short story, lyrics, a long poem and a children’s story. How the book came to be is a serendipitous story.
Charles Boyle, the editor of CB Editions:
‘In the summer of last year J.O. happened to be listening to a Radio 4 programme that happened to be reviewing a short novel of mine that Bloomsbury had just published. He sent me an email with, attached, the first 30 or 40 lines of Natural Mechanical, asking if I’d like to read more. Oh yes. And then we talked on the phone, and talked more, and when we’d agreed to publish it I sent copies of the poem to Christopher Reid & Simon Armitage & Andrew Motion – and (but this NEVER happens) all of them responded within 48 hours, and all with enthusiasm.’
I could tell you briefly what the book is about but, being an admirer of J.O. Morgan’s turn of phrase, I prefer to quote the title in full: ‘NATURAL MECHANICAL being a rendering of the true life stories of Ian Seoras Rockliffe.’ Let us turn to the Apologia for a further taste: ‘That the episodes presented here…’; ‘That though the narrative is poetic in form and structure…’ and so forth. I’m hooked. I am about to be taken on a journey and I know I’m in good hands.
Boyle went on to visit J.O. in Devon, then ‘Rocky’ in Inverness-shire: ‘J.O. has known Rocky for some years; they’ve spent many hours over mugs of tea at the kitchen table in Rocky’s croft, and though the idea for the book was J.O.’s they both saw it as a kind of collaborative project. I believe J.O. tape-recorded hours of Rocky talking, but when it came to writing the book he didn’t refer to the tapes at all.
‘See this boy – this Rocky’ the poem assuredly begins. The use of the present tense continues. The language is direct and active, spare and emphatic – spare in its avoidance of excess, detailed but not embellished, compassionate but unsentimental, perceptive and non-judgemental. In the words of Mimi Khalvati, one of the three judges of the Aldeburgh competition, Natural Mechanical is ‘Such an engaging, affecting book. It effortlessly combines different verse-forms: remarkable, particularly for a first collection, in deftly tackling a book-length narrative, and also refreshing in its sense of tradition.’
Here is a boy with a harsh upbringing, raised in the Inner Hebrides on Skye, a boy of few words. Words do not sit easily with Rocky – he has what would be termed today as a Specific Learning Difficulty.
As in a dream the letters stay as letters.
They are glue. Have no perspective depth.
Their shapes mean nothing other than their shapes.
have no relevance to sound, to throat. Un-word-like.
His language is Gaelic not the English of the classroom. From the onset he is a canny fellow, a free spirit wont to solving his problems with learning by absconding himself whenever possible: ‘His teaching to be gathered from the earth/ From scrub and thicket: profit never dearth’. Rocky is resilient (and often hungry), finds his own solutions, snares rabbits and sells them to the butcher, teaches himself to mend bikes, fix cars.
In a scene reminiscent of Kes, Rocky is ‘frogmarched to the schoolhouse’, led on to the stage and in front of the assembled pupils, entreated by the principle to ‘ … be so kind to tell us/ what it is you do get up to/when you choose to be elsewhere than here.’
…So he tells them about the fox.
He tells them everything. In detail.
From start to finish.
Whilst much of the language is pared down and succinct, the incident previously observed (and now summarised) by Rocky is filled with detailed observation. In a stanza nearly two pages long, with mostly end-stopped lines and several short phrases for sentences, we are treated to a deft and precise description of a fox ridding himself of fleas:
Shepherds are known to talk of such things.
Though few eyes have ever beheld it.
Rocky is different – is special, has earned the respect of his peers; from now on he is ‘NATUREBOY’.
There are many lyrical passages in the text with subtle use of rhyme and repetition. Extended syntax contrasts with shorter more clipped sentences. The lack of a main verb or the dropping of an indefinite article adds to the sense of immediacy, the force running through the narrative.
Some nights Rocky doesn’t make it home at all, but sleeps ‘beneath the circling panoply of stars’:
… And if a chill wind blows then fallen leaves
may serve as blanket, holding back the draught.
And if the warm airs lift and leave the wood
he huddles closer to his dog and both sleep on.
Whilst we are there with Rocky, empathising though never feeling sorry for him, drawn into the stark, uncompromising nature of his life, rooting for him, we are not allowed to forget that this is the past. Occasional glimpses into the future – the interjection of the facts laid bare – are all the more moving for their candid lack of emotion.
Witnesses speak of the past:
But would the extra tutelage have helped?
with him so strange and reticent a boy?
Apologies won’t make amends – what could I do?
After a while we tired of calling,
unknowing of how many mountains
divided our lips from his ears.
These voices add poignancy to his story, reminding us that to all intents and purposes Rocky was on his own in the world, ‘up and running’, a survivor, driven to fend for himself.
Natural Mechanical is unique and highly recommended.