A Night in Morden Tower
“Leonardo criticized the painters, who, as he put it, ‘want even the slightest trace of charcoal to remain valid’, and asked them: Have you never thought about how poets compose their verse? They never trouble to trace beautiful letters nor do they mind crossing out several lines to improve them’. He wanted to warn artists to keep their compositions ‘provisional’ until they hit upon a radiant form, and warns against a method which would tie their creative process down to the original commitment. He advises the painters that they should ‘be ready to change course at any moment, like the poet’. I for one have never ascertained how long I have to think of something before it stops being spontaneous. Perhaps it is not a matter of duration. Perhaps true spontaneity takes its own time.” – Michael Donaghy
It begins on Keelman’s way in winter sun -
the Tyne flows to my right; morning ends
as fragile day ascends towards the one
time that sky dissipates and decides to lend
somehow an aspect of something outside
this globe. The path, perfected with snow, bends
past heron to car park to the train ride
that Tom Pickard once took in reverse
to meet with Basil Bunting and decide
to meet again and tack the course of verse.
It seems history’s breadcrumbs lie in lines
between Wylam and Back Stowell Street. First
Northern Trains Limited faces then mine
reflected back in ghost stations: Blaydon,
Dunston. The mall built on the mines
and over the river to the garden
of Victoriana that’s Central
Station. Directions. Accents have softened
since the dole queue’s descent to fictional
account. Pink Lane. City Walls – I see
how Chinatown has made them functional
by borrowing a section for its back alley.
I tread past a row of putrid dumpsters.
A burst conditioning pipe. Don’t dilly-dally
on cobbled lanes like this, where the jumpers
come to glue-up before they visit the bridge
and the pigeons sit in silence, plumper
than they ought to be. Refrigeration
outlets spin. And then a clot in the wall,
leans in over my head: this hermitage
of brick and ancient stone has stood this tall
for eight centuries or more and for less
than fifty years has been a place of all
existing literally outside the rest
of reading, peacefully and unchallenged.
Goldsmiths, plumbers: these artisans were guests
who stayed two hundred years and changed
the windows and the walls but not the air.
And here I stand, my destiny arranged.
My hand rests its weight on the thumb-drop latch.
The ghost of a bass line from the Stage Door
club rattles my subconscious. Lines catch
in my throat and I cough them free. And more
of this in life I need: words and a glass
of something, if I want; making time for
five shillings (as it was in days that passed
before my birth) and poems. O poems.
Those words smelted to nuggets of amassed
memory. Steps. Stone. Human verbatim
is too much but never enough and full
of rhythms of childhood: parental hymns
that I sing now, with all their shortfalls
and hit-givings to the psyche. Doorway.
Before it opens I pause to smoke, all
lack of willpower forgiven for today,
of all days, when I will spend a night in
Morden Tower. Solitary, the way
I was solitary as a child. When
so much of me is new, strange all I see
here is old. Medieval door pinned
with paper names that jog my memory.
The cigarette is stubbed. And I care
to heave the door of poetry’s colliery.
* * * * * * * * *
Inside. The square room is circled.
Connie sits with sherry and sandwiches
for sharing. We talk about radical
poetics, the funding of anarchy,
whether anarchy wants funding at all
until Connie melts into the walls.
I am alone. My muse’s sciamachy
begins with lists, observations: Pigeon
hidden behind plaster coos Tchaikovsky,
a case of donated books (with lines in),
rooms not dissimilar to this, a box
I suspect is for money, chairs with thin
legs (donated, with carpet) and stocks
of tea and sugar always free to use.
Spotlights – surely 80′s, as is the Vax
which must be brimming with skin accrued
from poets and listeners. Then aloud
I incant some names this tower once knew:
Adcock, Armitage, Bennet, Binta Breeze,
Bunting, Carter, Chaplain, Caddel, Corso,
Cleary, Creeley, Cobbing, Cutler, Crozier,
D’Aguiar, Darling, Diaz, Dunn, Durcan, Dorn,
Fainlight, Ferlinghetti, Feinstein, Ginsberg,
Greenlaw, Griffiths, Heaney, Henri, Herbert,
Hegley, Horovitz, Hughes, Jamie, Kinnell,
Kwesi Johnson, MacDiarmid, MacSweeney,
MacMillian, Mahon, Mapanje, Mitchell,
Monk, Morgan, Mottram, Mortimer, McGough
Nuttal, Nicholson, O’Brien, Paulin,
Patten, Patterson, Prynne, Pybus, Raworth,
Reed, Rakosi, Rumens, Shvarts, Simms, Silkin,
Sweeney, Summers, Stevenson, Standen, Smith,
Schneider, Turnbull, Trocchi, Williams, Wilkin.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Incanted and sensing sleep has come,
I fumble the voice that answers back:
And who are you to speak of me? A drum
of syllables. Are you here to leave plaques?
I come around as a stone hand airlifts
me out the door by the scruff of my back
and drops me by the moat. This is a gift,
one which I’d never believe except for
being here unwrapped with all the swift
dexterity of myth. The old Morden
Tower raised onto two columns of stone
inquisitive before me. After awe
comes realisation: we are alone -
it was her hand that plucked me from her mouth.
She stares with window eyes. I am bone.
In saying my names do you look for proof
of my existence? ‘No’, I say, my voice
strangely structural as if shock proofed
by my desire to obtain the choicest
morsels of this moment. Her sound is choir.
‘You sing. What are you?’ I ask. The noise
of every poet that has lyred
their verse in me, and none of them at all
I am part city, part outside, wired
to be boundary, a tower in a wall.
I exist on neither side of myself
and in both silence and the spoken call
of the words flesh brings to leave on my shelves.
‘What of music?’ I ask. Aye, music sounds
like poetry is poetry like music welded
to symbols we know like suns taking rounds
in the sky. I don’t know what this means but
it seems to fit my head like it was found
in the intricate prints of dragons she put
about our city. ‘Keep fighting Tower!
We need to know you’re there.” A cloud of soot
leaves her mouth as she recoils and lowers
her neck below the cultural axe.
Pollen on the stamens of history’s flower.
1. Gordon Brown, High on the Walls: an Anthology celebrating twenty-five years of Poetry Readings at Morden Tower (Bloodaxe Books/Morden Tower, 1990)
2. Ciaran Carson, Opera Et Cetera (Bloodaxe, 1996)
3. Anton Checkov, The Steppe And Other Stories (Oxford University Press 1998) Transl. by Ronald Hingley
4. Polly Clark, Take Me With You (Bloodaxe 1995)
5. http://www.co-operativebank.co.uk/, accessed 12th March 2009
6. Michael Donaghy, The Shape of The Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions (Picador, 2009)
7. Paul Durcan, The Laughter of Mothers (Harvill Secker, 2007)
8. http://www.dur.ac.uk/basil-bunting-poetry.centre/morden.tower/, accessed 24th March 2009
9. Gina Ford, The New Contented Little Baby Book, updated edition, (Vermillion, 1992)
10. Lee Hall, A Strong Song Tows Us – Another History of English Poetry, broadcast on 2 March 2009, 3pm, BBC Radio 4
11. http://www.mordentower.org/, accessed 23rd March 2009
12. Morden Tower posters, Northern Arts manuscript collection, Literary and Philosphical Society of Newcastle Upon Tyne
13. James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover (Knopf, 1993)
14. http://poetsinalens.blogspot.com/, accessed 4th March 2009
15. David Rudd, An Eye for an I: Neil Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’ and the Freuidian Uncanny, Seminar at Newcastle University 15th October 2008
16. George Szirties: Cold dark deep and absolutely clear: poetic knowledge as archaeology, Bloodaxe lectures and reading,16-19th March 2009, Newcastle University
“A Night In Morden Tower” was first published in Fix this Moment: Writers respond to North East literary history (Newcastle upon Tyne: New Writing North, 2010).