Stephanie Smith Browne for New Hope International, original review 2004
As the key persona of Alan Morrison's third poetry collection, CLOCKING-IN FOR THE WITCHING HOUR, Al-Andrew-Fred is a man of many names but one poignant face: the face of a clock, of time — lost, stolen, gone — ticking on unfailingly, unfortunately. Morrison's poems are a convincing chronicle of one working day (or rather, working night) of a man whose life has been littered with good intentions but heart-rending consequences.
Set as composite parts that work as chapters in the story of Al's routine nightshift existence (SETTING OFF, CLOCKING-ON, FIRST WATCH, CLOCKING-OUT FOR TEA AND BISCUITS, etc.), the collection begins with a nursery rhyme rhythm:
It's half-past half-past nine'o'clock
tired eyes accuse the clock
as if the mantelpiece were a dock
and the ornaments that clutter it, a jury
"How many ticks to a tock?" we are asked in an aside. How long is one life's span? The image of the ticking clock runs throughout all the poems; here, wedded to the childhood-pulsing rhythm, it haunts the opening poems, as Al readies and departs for his "cap-badge" wearing security officer's job. Just another day to tick off the calendar of his depressingly depleting life:
To some it's just another night,
to him it's one more score
on the calendar of his mind's grey walls
while he serves out his time.
Don't get me wrong — even though the subject of the poems is a man with a stifled spirit,
bitter plights, loss of self-respect,
the effect of reading these poems is anything but dismal. On the contrary, I was amazed at Morrison's ability to sustain this portrayal of a man trying
to turn his guts-ache music off,
without turning off his reader.
Each poem shrewdly archives the hours of Al's bleak shift: from the yammering of his crude co-workers
There's a sex-murder-hate-lust-blow-it-all up
to-smithereens-movie on tonight — just look!
through reminiscence of lost opportunities — but for a twist of fate, Al
might now be Baronet of Asgill House
on the banks of Richmond by the River Thames
a further sip of genealogical tea
to LAST LAG OF FLAGGING NOSTALGIA TILL DAWN, in which Al remembers the mother who flung her body over his child's frame to protect him from the bombs of the war, the great-grandfather who was a Fabian socialist, and how
his father once took a horsewhip to his arse
on an occasion when he asked him
if he was working-class.
Though Al's life is marked by nostalgia and lack, the poems are inversely marked by a plenitude of energetic (though sometimes visually tiring) lists. One of the best catalogues the details of the life that was and could have been. With his beautifully sated descriptions, Morrison slips from the homely to the erudite to the religio-political. The fullness of his sketch logs a mighty absence in his protagonist's life:
... fuelled on empathy, cosy Socialism,
armchair safe-and-sound Salvationism
in William-Morris-wallpapered rooms;
milk-skinned sincerity, pristine white
as porcelain vases by Pre-Raphaelite
firesides; crested tea spoons, silver
service, chink of china tea-things,
clink and clank of antique crockery,
buttersunk crumpets, cakes and tea,
cultured can of seminal left-wing
papers crumpled by apostles' slippered
feet taking their Gospels literally
At other times, the lists tire. The nature of the list in poetry is one of forward, on-rushing movement. There are so many in the collection that attempting to absorb them all in one read is like being asked to run a long race. At one point, after being told of Al's
Valiums and anti-depressants
we get, only three stanzas later,
Mobile Mushroom parades on deck,
boundless skies ocean blue.
and, not long after, description of
first kisses amidst the hay-stacks,
scrumpy straight from the apple-barrel,
cycling to school down bookish lanes,
knights in shining armour,
black-and-white plated battlefields,
Morrison's textual style is also notable, for he makes ample use of formatted theatrical asides, or what at times could be read as footnotes or editorial commentary on the main thrust of the stanzas next to which they sit:
he'll blame himself more time in future
forgetting the cards he was dealt
weren't his to deal — he'll conceal all but a helping hand
his pain behind an ill-confident grin.
The space and formatting of this review does not allow for a fuller exploration of this technique, which Morrison deploys with marvellous skill throughout. But again, what begins as a wonderfully refreshing technique, used to explore the unspoken or side-spoken emotional import of the words that find expression in the main stanzas, becomes, after a while, somewhat exhausting. I admit that this may well be my own custom-made pique, for I can imagine readers who would find the sustained intimacy and forcefully thoroughgoing revelation of the method stimulating.
One of the most telling moments in the collection occurs in BACK TO THE MESS. It opens with what the poet offers as
This ever-recurring repetition
idea of Hell, or thereabouts,
because Purgatory's too vague a thing
to inflict such suffering
a second time around.
There is a refrain running through the poems of a man just hanging on, conceivably suicidal, trudging through his ghost of a life. It is a testament to Morrison's skill with poetic narrative and his precise management of tone that the reader is sympathetically and fascinatingly drawn in to this sad man's story. For in the end, as Morrison says of Al, this man's face is
an interesting face, patterned with age and faded scars.