From 2008 to 2011, Morrison was poet-in-residence at Mill View psychiatric hospital in Hove. In 2009, he received a Sussex Partnership NHS Trust Arts Award which he used to fund the reversible double-anthology The Hats We Wear/ Blank Versing the Past (Waterloo, 2009 /2010) resulted. Morrison was then commissioned to write his own poetic response to his residency, the key work of which is the epic title poem Captive Dragons, a Laingian testament to the vastly nuanced subject of ‘mental illness’; its personal and social aetiologies, private and public implications, and the stigmas still tacitly attached to it today. Morrison’s core dialectical motif is the ancient phrase Here Be Dragons, once used on old maps to warn of possible dangers in unexplored regions: Morrison juxtaposes this with the relatively unmapped right hemisphere of the human brain, thought to be the source of not only psychiatric pathologies, but also the primal creative impulses which hold promise for their future illuminations.
Similarly self-reflexive, and equally searching for sublimity, Alan Morrison’s Captive Dragons is a sequence of thirty-five cantos based on his residency in a Hove psychiatric hospital, coupled with a sequence of portraits of some of the patients there, the publication partly funded by the NHS itself. Morrison’s poetry is verbally dextrous, Joycean in its play as it trips the light and heavy fantastic metaphors around the idea and history of mental illness, playing Laingian riffs on the experience, society’s reception and medicine’s treatment. The word pictures he paints are often gargoyles and grotesques, the “thick impasto moth-tones of wall-clung Walter Sickerts”, but these – of course – are of society’s making, the impulse that used to inform potential travellers of strange unknown regions by affixing the warning “Here be dragons” onto maps. Erudite notes accompany this ambitious tour into territory that is still far too unknown. But the effects are expressed with sympathy and understanding in the accompanying “Shadow Thorns” these patients bear:
Darks antlers of crackling energies worn
On prickling heads of shadow-saints shorn
Of rights, recourse to question the scorns
N.S. Thompson, Stand Vol. 11 (No. 2)
...an extraordinarily vast and ambitious work... the style of Captive Dragons as a whole is reminiscent of Ezra Pound, particularly of The Cantos in sections, since the verse is educational and classically-driven...
Red the full review at here
This is a compassionate as well as a ferociously intelligent writer.... These Cantos are pretty much blank verse and are filled with wide erudition, splendid, tongue-twisting wordplay and alliteration, where the thinking is allied to pleasure in language and an increasing sense of angry reasoning which builds as a powerful response to notions of sanity and madness as a critique of our whole social order. This is R.D. Laing for the new century and its arguments are coherent as well as being emotionally responsive. In terms of Morrison's formal devices I can only say that this magnificent and beautifully designed work reads like a coming together of Milton and Joyce… which in my view, blows away a lot of the tired arguments between modernists and post-modernists and the linguistically innovative.... This is quite simply a masterpiece …magnificent and powerful work. …Morrison…is a polemicist of sorts but one fuelled by great imaginative flights. …As someone once said of Milton, you need to read him for the sense and then listen for the sound. These poems have a rhythmic, metrical beauty as well as being fuelled by a powerful and humane critique. …he's touched with genius. This is a wonderful, wonderful book.
Steve Spence, Stride
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‘Here be dragons of the head’s uncharted territories’ writes Alan Morrison in Captive Dragons, an extraordinary study of the ‘penned dragons, captive dragons ...neither frightening nor fire-breathing’ who inhabit the wild edges of our societies. Morrison writes in a rich, rhetorical Miltonic voice, heavy with anger and prophecy. Exploring the world of mental health, he ends up writing about the mental health of our world, and the real dragons of our time — bankers, politicians, speculators — who lay waste to everything they touch. Magnificent stuff.
Andy Croft, The Morning Star
Captive Dragons/The Shadow Thorns is an intricate and intense anthology. Written as a poetic response to his residency at Mill View psychiatric hospital in Hove the epic poem Captive Dragons testifies creatively to the intricacies and complexities of mental illness. The stigma of mental illness and its relationship to the institutional setting is powerfully evoked by complex metaphor and symbolism. This is bound within the historical and mythic tradition with a hallucinogenic quality. Packed with paradox and deeply politicized.... The second part of the anthology is entitled The Shadow Thorns. The poem 'The Shadow Thorns'...is, as with all of the poetry within the anthology, highly artistically achieved. The poet has actively resisted simplification of mental illness and the psychiatric institutional setting
through diverse references to metamorphosis and religious metaphor.
...Deeply symbolic and highly worked the poems all depict fictionalised individuals within a hospital. They are highly nuanced, deeply political,
and problematize the pathologization of mental illness within fiction...
The anthology ...covers a diverse range of topics and ideas through a kaleidoscopic web of synecdoche, historical allusion and paradox and its interaction with consciousness.
The Madness and Literature Network
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...some beautiful imagery including a “mesmeric pen”, a “lime milkshake sea”, and the “woodland’s bruise of bluebells in colourific surprise”. There was also more thought-provoking imagery such as “thoughts that thrum in hibernations of skull” as well as the more disturbing image of toilets as “slaughter closets” where patients have taken their lives. Through such techniques, along with dense linguistics and sound, he manages to convey the deep complexities of thought that those with psychosis experience.
Chichester Creative Network
The anthology is highly enjoyable and will be of great interest to anyone interested in the relationship between creativity, mental illness and the institutional setting. It covers a diverse range of topics and ideas through a kaleidoscopic web of synecdoche, historical allusion and paradox and its interaction with consciousness.read breathlessly as freeflow consciousness; or, given the environment/subject matter, word salad. Incorporating the whole lexicon of mental illness, the dragon mind-monsters (as any magician will tell you: we see what we tell ourselves to see) manifest themselves in habits and assertions. Previous dragon-inhabited poets called on to give and bear witness - Plath, Coleridge - it is a world that I also know accurately rendered. ‘...lost pilots / Of torpor, bathed in beatitudes of static sweat...’ ‘...fuggy ambrosial grogs / Of chlorpromazine...' To gain most from their density, references/allusions, this collection is best savoured, explored, one Canto
at a time. (The explanatory notes are almost as intriguing as the Cantos themselves.) While for anyone who has had experience of mental illness
this sympathetic collection can provide context, reassurance...
Sam Smith, The Journal Issue 35
Like Burroughs and Ginsberg with The Yage Letters or Ken Kesey with One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Morrison is a sensitive poet equipped with relevant insider knowledge and consequently he is able to provide a deceptively innocent and/or brutal humour as he feels to be appropriate. ... Morrison eventually succeeds through the medium of poetry, in a Finnegans Wake kind of way, with his neurotic bid to provide a suitable outlet for the subdued fire of his soporific students. ... Morrison's book may prove to be one of the poetic wonders of modern psychiatric literature. It is one of the keys to the mysterious world of art brut. It belongs on the shelf alongside the works of Freud and Jung.
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Alan Morrison has written the ultimate spearheading long poem
to defend poetic reality, often clinically diagnosed as madness, but in fact pushing dimensions out into the retrieval of a reclaimed poetics. In a brilliantly impacted, rich diction fused to a profoundly humanitarian sensibility, he has succeeded in writing the most sustained poem about crossing frontiers of altered consciousness that I personally have encountered. He deserves our thanks.
The Shadow Thorns are wonderfully sinuous and startling.
The London Magazine