REVIEWED BY KEITH JONES
Esther Morgan (Bloodaxe Books: 2018)
Esther Morgan read from this, her fourth published book of poetry, when she was the guest speaker Suffolk Book League on October 21st. Its title denotes the casualty register of the Norfolk Regiment in the First World War in which her own great, great-grandfather died on the Somme. And sure enough, there are direct meditations on the catastrophe of that time, in memory of men who, “walked toward the enemy lines in a slow motion trance, their minds half-shot, turning the collars of their greatcoats up
as if the bullets were a kind of rain”.
Esther read this poem, Private 2663, to those who attended the event at Ipswich Institute. Its spare, accurate words are purged of elaboration, reflecting Samuel Johnson's advice to strike out of our writing anything that “seems particularly fine.” But in what is left from this purification we notice all the more the quiet pun in “half-shot”, and the irony in “a kind of rain”. And as we read these poems, we see these victims of war as our own forebears. We also see them against the background of the landscapes they knew and which Esther loves, the East Anglian fields and coasts.
Sometimes when I think of you
I can almost hear the leaves
The natural world spreads over the book like Flanders poppies, and the woman who voices them is implicit in the vision that emerges. The “great, great granddaughter passes the time
stripping seeds from the flowering grasses” as she is pausing halfway across a set-aside field
to let the coastal wind pass through me
Even punctuation has been taken away from this double memory, of herself standing in a field, and of her dead ancestor. The sense of her own life passing through her, as a young mother with a child, as an inhabitant of today's landscape, as living in her time and place, is startlinely brought home to us.
Among Esther's many penetrating remarks to us gathered in the Institute, Esther spoke of the way that poetry carries us to the verge of a truth which we readers must explore for ourselves. The experience is all but inexplicable. Her own translucent poems do it marvellously. Here is a book I for one want to have near me from now on.