OCEAN DEEP: J. O. Morgan’s ‘In Casting Off’
J. O. Morgan, In Casting Off (HappenStance, 2015)
Review by Matt Macdonald
From a critical standpoint, it would be all too easy to compare In Casting Off with Morgan’s earlier narrative collections, Natural Mechanical and Long Cuts (CB Editions, 2009 and 2011 respectively). However this would mean missing the fundamental difference between the earlier collections, so heavily rooted in the life of their main character Rocky, and this new collection, with its lack of concrete main character. This collection is also marked by much more magical realism than the latter two.
In a way that the titles to his earlier collections were not, the choice of title here is a vital key to the whole collection. A good title should be like a crossword clue, something that gives a hint of what to expect from the work about to be read, but that provides a deeper and more nuanced/complex viewpoint once the work has been completed. Upon first reading, the title immediately brings to mind fishing, the pushing off of a boat from shore. This is a water collection, a series of poems that focus on the ebb and flow that only water can fully express. However, this is still a Morgan collection, with his habitual, almost ethereal tone, his excellent hand with images that elevates them above mere incidental strokes of world building, to a leitmotif of their own. In Casting Off is another grand addition to Morgan’s oeuvre, and cements his position as one of the foremost narrative poets in British writing today. Unlike the earlier collections, where the poet was necessarily constrained by his real life characters and events, this collection is full of characters who are at times someone and no-one.
Morgan’s narrative arc is loosely draped around the arrival of an outsider to a small village community. While there is much happening in the collection, the core of the poems is looped around the interaction of host village and outsider. The poem ‘Exchanges’ documents the first appearance of the new arrival; and it is clear that, in the eyes of the village, she is other.
Amidst bundled packages, letters made safe
From the spray under oil-skin tarpaulins: a foreigner,
Wrapped in her own thick red waterproofs, glossy,
And speckled with wind-wobbled droplets
This woman does not belong; she does not even have the correct skin for this place. She lacks the natural protection the villagers hold dear. While there are clear delineations of expectation between the hosts and the interloper in the beginning, there are moments where a certain amount of interaction holds between the two.
In ‘Exchanges’, the woman offers a paper from a distant bureaucratic body, granting her some authority to remain in the village. This form of identification is considered lacking by the natives, who rely on more concrete forms of self and personality. Her host demonstrates this most clearly where he “ignores them, slow shifting/her pack to his shoulders”. Yet, in ‘Staying Afloat’ and ‘Sun-Trap’, the foreign woman shares a skinny-dipping experience with a friend she has made in the village. In ‘Observances’, the difference between visitor and location come to their most clear expression as Morgan writes
The things one shouldn’t do in foreign lands:
eat all the food on one’s plate;
look a child directly in the eye
and it is clear that there are still tensions between the two. Yet, in ‘Parting Gifts’, the woman is sent away with trinkets –
small tokens of polished stone
cut from the mountain,
the wide spine of the town
In Casting Off is a collection that deals in differences. The most obvious is the difference between the visitor and the village, but there is much more going on in this collection. The village is both a fishing village (in ‘First Meeting’, a young girl watches a painter paint his vessel), and yet nestled on a mountain range, as pictured in ‘Sun Trap’ and ‘Dividing Line’:
A long way back from the sea, within
the hills that rise behind the village, fish
encounter the first of many barriers they must unpuzzle
Morgan uses different cadences; the sea poems are full of water, the chaos of the ocean, oils, skins, and fish. The mountain poems are poems of people, of houses and order, the intrusion of modernity into nature. Where Morgan blends the two (as in ‘The Current’, when stanzas alternate between a fish in its upstream struggle and a family attempting to hold the edges of their life together with the tenuous string of fishing) he achieves the unity on which the collection depends.
Many of the characters in the collection are presented in very faint pencil lines. Consider the opening poem, ‘A New Suit’, where a selkie arrives on land and sheds her skin, another outsider approaching the village – there are no details given that allow the readers to picture her, in the same way as the girl at the heart of ‘Presentation Box’, who is scraped and preened until deemed appropriate by her parents. Even the ‘protagonist’ of the narrative is presented in such sparsely sketched details that we can never infer anything of her, other than her otherness, her distance from the heart of the village. This opacity propels the reader into understanding the collection less as a story about specific people, with specific concerns, and more about the interaction of people with their world, especially when there is intrusion and escape. It is easier to feel the themes and lines that Morgan is pulling us along as we are coming to the poems uncluttered with the expectations of specific characterisation. As a village by the sea, there is the tinge of mythology in the corners of the collection, as selkies appear in both the opening and closing poems, and there is a pair of poems (‘Ceremonials’, ‘Dividing Line’) that encompass a skin changing bear and seal embodying a man and woman in some form of intimacy.
Of the 24 poems in the collection, most of them contain specific or oblique references to skin. Central poems like ‘The Presentation Box’, or ‘The Work’, where the newcomer faces her role as reducing a fish to mere meat, and even apparently disparate ones like ‘Game Theory’, where a game similar to draughts and chess is played out, and ‘First Meeting’ the notion of skin as both protective and identifying; as granting solace and singularity is played out. In ‘The Work’, the woman, an interloper to the village learns the art of skinning and preparing the catch, and in the act of skinning she moves the catch from a functional part of the village to a product:
with all its fishness removed, what remains-
what she’s cut off, laid aside – is now just food
If skins can be removed and changed (as in ‘A New Suit’, and the haunting mating pair of villagers in ‘Ceremonials’) then can you ever believe what you see in people? Morgan poses this question most directly in ‘The Work’:
how can she hope to distinguish between
a feigned politeness and an honest smile
The lingering memory of this collection is not so much of a world painted in expressive detail, but with the quality of a dream – the blurred and partially remembered world of imagination. It is in this quality, as the concrete details of the world fade away, that challenges our perception of our own relationship with literature. It would nearly be impossible to compare the poetry that paints for us a world of thick experiences, viscerally written with clear imagery and rarely allegorical context, with the poetry of the near-dream, where much of the concrete detailing is submerged beneath the broad yet graceful strokes of allegorical metaphor. However, the fluidity that Morgan’s style gives to this village and these characters grants it a longevity that a fixed point of space-time may not provide. The Waste Land will echo to a wider group of readers far longer than Four Quartets, for example, specifically because the former exists everywhere and nowhere, but the latter is rooted heavily in the Christianity and named locations important to its author.
With In Casting Off, Morgan creates a collection and village that will always be able to be read again, and each reading will open a new meaning. This lifts the collection into one of the best that he has written and speaks volumes to what Morgan will create in the future.