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Alan Riach/Scottish Review of Books
'Morning Glory' by Alan Spence
Volume 6
Issue 4

At the centre of this hundred-page sequence of short, poised, evanescent poems and illustrations, are these lines:

after his passing,
everything as it was,
nothing as it was

This is a hinge in the book, a turning point of access into a world of fleeting but acute perception. You can read little poems quickly and you can glance and pass over pictures without pausing much – but what’s the point of that? Some books are motorways: you get somewhere fast but see nothing on the way. This one is an unpaved path you follow, pausing at every opportunity, walking back again to look at what you just missed, guided forward patiently by author and artist, not handheld but rather with the welcome sense that in a difficult place like bereavement, someone has been there already who cared enough to make a record for those who would come later and to give the requisite honour to those who have gone before.

It is a beautiful book, of course, but beauty is peculiar to the eye of the beholder, so what makes it objectively worthwhile?

Begin with the object itself: an artifice of words and images made by two of Scotland’s finest artists. Alan Spence is a writer as gifted on the page as he is unobtrusive, and Elizabeth Blackadder has a record of accomplishment that imbues her painting with great authority; yet together in this book there is nothing overbearing, nothing magisterial, about their practice. This might – in a culture that has succumbed to the cult of celebrity, in the arts as much as anywhere – lead folk to think Morning Glory is a slight, ephemeral publication. It is anything but. It is exemplary – plentiful in imagery, observation, humour, compassion, pathos, but not arch. You will find here no trace of the ‘look-at-me’ tones and techniques so numbingly familiar.

The relation between words, pictures and meaning is ancient, from the caves at Lascaux to the Chinese written character. One values this book because it takes such things for granted. Remember: Derek Walcott, West Indian Nobel laureate, also an accomplished artist; J.M.W. Turner, greatest of English artists, a fascinating poet; William Blake, exploring meaning in imagery sometimes deceptively dreamlike, discovering softness and savagery both in the touch of the tiger; Picasso, crazily surreal in poems, endlessly inventive in visual and sculptural forms; not to mention Michelangelo.

Edwin Morgan wrote a series of poems to accompany paintings selected by readers of The Herald as their ten favourites, the poems and paintings reproduced in 2007 in a volume titled Beyond The Sun. There, the poems worked as commentary on the pictures, opening a dialogue between the poet and the artists; you could take it further and trace a conversation beginning between the poet, the artists, the works of art and the readers of the newspaper, an open readership extending into the future.

In Morning Glory, the same open dialogue is taking place – but the poems come first. Alan Spence has written a sequence of haiku and tanka: short forms both with international provenance and easy to read, inviting you to dwell with them for a time. Elizabeth Blackadder’s paintings are indeed illustrations of images, aspects or meanings found in the poems. Sometimes these are obvious – but not banal – as when a sense of transience and beauty is associated with leaves and flowers; the images and the poems have an unforced charm that precludes any threat of banality. The words move into an introspective space; the pictures remind you of the visual, outward aspect.

These are not sentimental poems, as the one I quoted at the start of the review might indicate. Without cliché, the book is not an elegy but a celebration, recollecting the opening lines of Sorley MacLean’s great poem in memory of his brother Calum: “The world is still beautiful though you are not in it.”

So there is much to enjoy for its own sake: the child on the phone telling her mother, “it was this big!” or wave after wave of the sea at night, coming “out of the dark” or the cold rain that “falls even harder under the bridge” and always “still that old familiar moon”. An unintoxicated pleasure runs all through this work, not indulging itself in romance or idealism, but reminding us of good things we still have while here whatever the weather, the season, the year.

Alan Riach

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