Alan Morrison's collection of poems Shadows Waltz Haltingly charts the struggles of his late mother with Huntington’s Chorea, depicting in 'meticulous detail' the full effects of the illness. The title alludes to the original name for the illness, 'St Vitus's Dance'. Review by Dave Russell.
To my reading, the opener, Staffordshire Flatbacks challenges the servile aspects of the museum culture – blind adulation of ancient tomes, often left untouched on bookshelves, to be admired at a distance, shielded by glass, and accorded uncomprehending worship. Similarly, human beings in positions of authority, shored up by tradition, are often credited with great depths of self-knowledge when such are never truly tested. Their fame shields them from humanity.
My impression must be counterpointed with Morrison’s stated, conscious intention: “I’m using flatbacks as a metaphor for the two-dimensional inauthentic nature of human living/existence in a consumerist culture.” It could be that the museum culture, and colour supplements for that matter, reduce artefacts to a ‘two-dimensional, inauthentic’ state.
Guns of Anguish, concerns Morrison’s grandfather, who was imprisoned and brutally treated during the Second World War; as a result, he became dependent on medication. Concomitantly, he became a ‘life-support’ to his disabled mother. In later life he was unable to recognise his own daughter. The poem contains the very powerful phrase with ‘Huntington’s mutant proteins’, and the sobering thought that ‘We all have the Huntington gene, but something has/To trigger its rampant mutation’. The malignancy could have been activated by grandfather Harold’s traumas in the trenches.
One of the poet’s leitmotifs is to make (highly valid) analogies between the ravages of the disease and those of brutal human activity – the effect of the disease on an individual being analogous to that of brutality on large masses of humanity. 'Will I go out in rage?' Will anger ultimately be futile?
Brittle Twigs encapsulates the life of Morrison’s mother, who in her earlier life was a person of great stamina, and incredibly supportive of her family. The poem plots her inexorable decline, in spite of her struggles: ‘you fought gallant and alone for/As long as you could hold out, dumbly besieged by/The spillages of your own boiling oil pouring back/Inside your battlements, your defences melting down’.
The title echoes the metaphor of mother’s sanity: ‘Your essence, personality, which you felt slipping/Piece by piece like brittle twigs loosening from a besom;/You kept fighting right up until there were barely any/Twigs left bound tight enough for your thoughts to keep their grip’. Without immediately sensing it, he witnessed his mother’s last gasp of health and sanity.
The eponymous Shadows Waltz Haltingly hones in on the original name for Huntington’s Chorea – St Vitus’s Dance – the controlled movements of a dance being the diametric opposite of the involuntary convulsions of the disease. The condition is total in its inexorable negativity, it can neither be prepared nor improvised. It is sporadic, devoid of fluency.
There follows a shift of tone with the vignettes of Japanese Gardens and Chinese Echoes – far more figurative and reflective than the other poems; good for variety and contrast. Autumn Glade has a broad timespan, from Morrison’s childhood until the time of his mother’s death and funeral. There is a post-mortem vision of mother ‘On the other side of a spirit-partition’. His father has two visitations from her, apparently bringing her back to earthly life. She is resurrected in memory after her ashes have been scattered.
A Study in Brown is a reflection on his mother’s body, which seems ‘almost mummified’. The corpse has an almost transcendental quality ‘as if even in death she/Was still fathoming some imponderable’. But still the body was not his mother. He regrets the dead eye’s inability to preserve visual impressions. Morrison is passionately involved with the controversy about the relationship between body and soul, tending to sympathise with the Platonists for their disagreement with St Thomas Aquinas, and for their belief in an afterlife ‘More complete and complementary than the mere shadows/Of our flat-packed world.’
The Bloom is a beautiful articulation of the concept of ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. It is the reader’s response which generates and vitalises a true poem – ‘Without your plumbing eye the poem/Calcifies to Art.’ This statement reiterates to some extent the opening of the collection, drawing a sharp distinction between living and dead art and knowledge. There is a parallel analogy between works of art/literature and human life. Art, metaphorically, can be prey to terminal diseases. To me, this collection embraces vast areas of thought and sensation.