Issue 6: Edwin Morgan Tribute
Alan Riach

Morgan Orbital

Part One: Glasgow Orbital

Over Rutherglen: Cathkin Braes. Begin with the curvature of earth, rising on your way south-east, landing at a spot exactly on the round, bald brow of the place, and turn to look over the whole various city in its cradle of the Valley Clyde, the hills all louping round it in their whiteness like a school of whales, breaching, sounding, rising, diving, and Ahab-like, a charting, hunting, endless, set determination, not to fix on one but find as many as the shapes and slopes are different in movement, action, form. He walked the incline over Cathkin Braes, talking with his friend of what was yet to come.

Come into the arcana of the Gothic castle: literature and languages, built on infinite strata of scrap, colours everywhere, structures of all kinds. With others, building bridges into strangeness, what dimensions world war brings to those whose hearts are bound, to letters, not to violence. And the grey fog falls in city canyons, the riverwater slugging through the channels and the ships blast out their horns at midnight once a year in multitudes of tones. His ears tune in to levels. Register, translate, make sense of wordless songs and dumb desires. Russian sounds and looks as far removed, as close connections are in energy alive.

Alive as a string from a rod in the still, slow stream: the worm on the hook, the hook on the line, the line along the long bamboo, the fingertip alive to it. And then, the tug. The whole earth, curve and mass, solidity, begins its move in the astronomical dark. The stars light up co-ordinates. You have it at your muscle's call, the poise and strength is there to make your strike. North-east to Glasgow Green, the company of men unseen, unseeded in the dark. The east end beckons, the workers sleep below the pavement marked to tell us all at Candleriggs. Above Cathedral and Necropolis, the ponderous approach: Tarkovsky in his great balloon is coming down to visit.

Visit north and then to Anniesland, along Great Western Road, curved like a drumlin runway for the off. Take the top flight on the bus, sit at the front and see the future coming from the height. South-west, along the estuary, old Dumbarton rock, Clydebank, Davidson and Graham then and all those city boys were pointing towards, the rivets, facts and language going in like nails into the hardwood planks, then east again, and back towards where it was you started from, where was it now? The loss of yourself in city, cities, let it be as always in the labyrinth, the thread that takes you into more than one road, corridor, avenue, around, to find yourself in difference, and over.

Part Two: First and Last Men

Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge, 1976. A mustard-yellow jacket over a russet shirt. He is standing on the middle landing, in the stairwell, between basement and ground, so that his voice will reach all parts of the space available. It is as it will be, not loud, attentive to the words, with a rush, a breathlessness, a forwardment, its tone and timbre occupies the murmur of the browsing people, upstairs, downstairs, passing him on the landing, pausing, listening, attentive in response. A friend and I are leaning on the rail above, as if at the prow of the ship looking into the ocean, as he reads, and he reads, without a fixed or steady audience, as people go about, above, below him. We listen close and hear the single poems through, each one to its end, the snack-bar, central station, Glasgow in the air here, unemphatic. Unobtrusive. Ubiquitous.

Glasgow, Whittinghame Court, 1979-1986. I am working on MacDiarmid, reading Olson, Doughty, our contemporaries, science fiction, and as widely all around as time will allow. So many afternoons or evenings, long conversations over years, guidance, suggestions, gifts, poems exchanged. He sends me, from Sonnets from Scotland (1984), 'In Argyll', about MacDiarmid, the perfect skull of the dead, the fight in life once lived, to be balanced in the flight of it, to fix the tilt of the wings, adding circumspection in a note: 'A touch of coals to Newcastle about this.' He gives sharp comment, approval, questioning. Warning me of Olson: 'There are those, you know, who dived into that ocean and never swam ashore.' Acknowledging MacDiarmid's later work, I say: 'There is usually a point at which it begins, and usually an ending of some kind. The thing is, though, it can go on forever in between.' He agrees, acknowledges, approves. 'Yes. Anywhere. Wherever it takes him.'

Edinburgh, the Aghmatar Armenian Lake Van Monastery in Exile Restaurant, c.1984. EM and I and a small group are reading: 'Poems from Scotland and Armenia'. A bizarre event, venue, intimate company, small audience, ready supply of Armenian food, Armenian wine, from the proprietor, Bedros Vartanyan. A few months before, I had visited EM at his flat at Whittinghame Court, we had talked about an anthology of Armenian poetry both of us, unknown to each other, had just read. I mentioned this restaurant, legendary, dark, candle-lit, the evenings there filled with many courses,  accompanied by Armenian music, ending in Armenian dancing. We found we had both independently marked the poems we liked in the anthology, agreed on a selection, braided them with Scottish poems, had a running order, found the proprietor approving and enthusiastic, organised the company, delivered the reading. Driving EM back to Glasgow, later in the evening, it was the smile on his face. The pleasure of the strangeness lingering, the strangeness of the world, all taken in good part.

Hamilton, New Zealand, 1991. He has read to a packed lecture hall, full of students, staff, alumni, administrators. An hour of every shape and size and sound and place and strange enquiry. I am high in a row of seats near the centre at the back of the hall, and as it happens, sitting next to the Vice-Chancellor. Like everyone else we've been quiet and attentive and engaged through it all. Like everyone else we've watched and enjoyed the questions, answers, exhilaration, delights. After the final applause, Professor Malcolm turns to me and says quietly, 'That is what makes the effort of running the university really worthwhile.'

Glasgow University College Club, 14 February 2004. St Valentine's night reading with Liz Lochhead, and I end with Morgan's 'Pelagius' – the opening poem from Cathures, the 2002 book of poems gathering work completed in his role as Glasgow Poet Laureate. I introduce the poem by speaking about EM telling me of his feeling of identifation with Pelagius – the meaning of both names seems to refer to sea-travelling. In the poem, EM imagines him a native of Glasgow, returned to the city in his old age, looking towards the future and those still to come who will inhabit it: 'man is all.' There is no taint from Adam. There is no original sin. 'I do not even need to raise my arms, / My blessing breathes with the earth. / It is for the unborn, to accomplish their will / With amazing, but only human, grace.' And I note a particularly intent gaze upon me from one of the members of the audience, who, I'm told later, is the current Cardinal of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

Glasgow, Royal Exchange Square, 2004. I am walking in the late afternoon dark, late in the year, around the Gallery of Modern Art, past Borders Bookshop, towards Buchanan Street, with a friend. The Art Gallery and the Bookshop as we pass are all lit up from inside, colours, artworks, books, bright lights, warmths and meanings. Turning a corner, there is a small group of three jugglers throwing skittles high the air, spinning them, catching them, one, two, three, four, five, throwing them to each other, patterns in the air. And then there is a man on stilts, black top hat and black and silver stripes on jacket, elongated trousers, walking past us. We take it all in, not pausing, and my friend says, 'Isn't it remarkable? It is as if Glasgow has become a poem by Edwin Morgan.'

Crow Road, Glasgow, 2010. I am delivering the Association for Scottish Literary Studies Honorary Fellowship scroll safe in its cylinder, into his hands. He couldn't be in Edinburgh for the event, so I'm calling in to hand it over. Last time we talked was a few weeks ago, his 90th birthday, at the Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh. He'd appeared in wheelchair, the same shade of mustard-yellow jacket as the first time, this time over a T-shirt with the logo of a Tunnock's Caramel Wafer and the words, 'Glasgow's Best'. His eyes light up as I come towards him, his fist lifts into the air: 'Next time, one hundred!' he says, his voice still rushing forward. When I leave him, though, his eyes and face nod towards me, and my hand rests longer on his left shoulder and I stand there with him for a little longer.

 Part Three: Letters

[On a postcard of Brooklyn Bridge, New York] Impressive object still: I looked up at its underbelly from the round-Manhattan boat. I have also been to the top of the World Trade Center, and the view from that eyrie is impressive too. All these non-Inaccessible Pinnacles! (27 September 1984)

[On a postcard of German Military Underground Hospital entrance, Jersey, Channel Islands] Everything becomes tourism in the end! German fortifications here were very extensive, and Nazi memorabilia are carefully preserved, well documented for the postwar generations. Plenty of German visitors – I wonder what they make of it? (27 July 1985)

Please keep the enclosed if they are of any use: two sections from [Allen] Fisher's Unpolished Mirrors now published as a complete work, which I recently bought (Reality Studios, 1985, £3.50). Serial B has a 'Homage to Hugh MacDiarmid', as you'll see; and in a later section there's also a 'Homage to Charles Olson'. Forgive me if you know all about this already – you probably do! Fisher seems certainly to be working in at least some areas similar to yours, in his case with London as a base. (24 January 1986)

Trocchi not even mentioned in T. Royle's Companion to Scottish Literature, though Ruthven Todd gets a whole column. I thought it was the Russians who created unpersons? (11 June 1986)

But do I really want to put 'the hinges of civilization back on the door' after all the heroism of the breaking of the jambs? I'm not so sure. Hinges are not far from locks and bars... Perhaps a little civilization is all right, but. (We'll leave that sentence with the but hanging, Glasgow-style!) (22 December 1986)

Anent your spotlighting of Tom Leonard: Liz Lochhead and I recently tried to convert Norman MacCaig and Ron Butlin (quite fair: two against two) but to absolutely no avail; in the end we began to feel it must be an east v. west Scotland thing. To Norman, Tom isn't writing poetry at all (i.e. it's not a case of 'bad' poetry), and Ron can't be doing with the violence, which he's sure is basically 'sentimental'. I must send you, in case you haven't seen it, Tom's latest – Situations Theoretical and Contemporary. [Galloping Dog Press] (22 December 1986)

The city has publicly promised to build its new concert hall in time for 1990 and Glasgow's year of being 'Cultural Capital of Europe' (which you've no doubt heard of). Edinburgh folk are pale and speechless. (22 December 1986)

Here as promised is Tom Leonard's new book. “The galloping dog has touched down at Waikato. 'All I need is a shower,' he barked.” (January 1987)

Houses in Crovie are like boats in Brighton Marina: you had better get on with your neighbour... My weekend here has brought me a spectacular electric storm over the Channel; night as day, at least in flashes, all very grand and fine. (23 August 1987)

I once told Colin Hamilton (the bookseller) that 'Heaven is a pavement after rain' – he laughed, but I think Grimshaw would have understood. I love his work. [Written on a card reproducing A Wet Winter's Evening by J. Atkinson Grimsshaw (1836-1893)] (15 January 1988)

Thank you so much for the invitation to what I am sure will be a happy and splendid event on Saturday 12 September. I'm afraid an engagement in Langholm the following day – at a MacDiarmid centenary lunch – the Langholmites must have relented – will keep me in Scotland, but consider me to be there in spirit, raising an invisible glass and breathing every good wish. (12 June 1992)

Carcanet sent the MacDiarmid Selected which seems excellent – manageable size, not offputting, yet fully representative. That's the molehill behind you – now you have the mountain. I sent off a cluster of steamers, not sailing from Gravesend but flying from Glasgow Airport, as a wedding gift; hope it arrives safely. The girl in Frasers, approving the purchase, said, 'Steamers are healthy.' All the best. (16 July 1992)

Every time I hear [Robert] Carver I find more in it – perhaps especially what I always felt was something architectural, repeated rising phrases like Gothic arches – I listen for them coming round in the 19-part piece [the motet, O Bone Jesu] – wonderful stuff!

            Whittinghame Court is now roof-dished, I mean for satellite TV. I gave away my 17-year-old Tandberg and am now glared at by a powerful stereo Toshiba complete with video and satellite receiver. I now have 14 channels instead of 4, and all those idle hours (where are they?) could be filled with zapping and waving my remote control like a demon conductor. Books – what were they? One of them I am reading at the moment is A.L. Kennedy's novel Looking for the Possible Dance, which I recommend. (21 April 1993)

I'd like to have heard your paper on Twin Peaks and the Mohicans. I keep thinking I hear the moody TP theme music which must have impressed itself on my memory (perhaps more than the film as a whole). As for Cooper, by a coincidence I have just picked up an old copy of Jack Tier, a novel of his which I hadn't even heard of – fascinating tale of marine transvestism – in a Brighton bookshop. One of the characters is a Rose Budd, and a previous owner has scribbled in the book, 'Cf Melville's “Billy Budd”'. Oh there are things – Starbuck – things! (2 August 1993)

I'm delighted to hear about James Garton and I hope mother and son are doing well. A New Zealander – even if you bring him up on Scottish ballads and Crowedieknowe. May he thrive!

jungle boy

jaunty bawler




jolly buddy

bubbly josser

etc etc

(August 1994)

You are the opposite of Don Paterson; it's good to have that balance. Both poetries work, in opposite ways. (18 March 1995)

Happiest of Christmases







time every time

all the time it's TIME



(December 1999)

Alan Riach is Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, author of Representing Scotland in Literature, Popular Culture and Iconography, co-author with Alexander Moffat of Arts of Resistance: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland, described by the Times Literary Supplement as 'a landmark book', and the author of five books of poems: This Folding Map, An Open Return, First & Last Songs, Clearances and Homecoming.