FR20: Dec 1999


Walleah Press


Famous Reporter


Of Friendship and Pain

Reviews of Beautiful Veins [Mal Morgan] and MAL [John West]

Beautiful Veins
Mal Morgan
Five Islands Press 1999
ISBN 0 864186266
John West
SideWaLK [Poets] 1999
ISBN 0957745109

Mal Morgan's Beautiful Veins takes the reader to a harrowing place. Mal Morgan has cancer, and the book begins with 'The Diagnosis' and continues, with some sense of narrative unfolding, to develop the poet's reactions to that fact. One can't help but be reminded of Philip Hodgin's haunting poems about cancer in Blood and Bone; it is a tragic literary genre to find yourself in, but what surprises and delights is the humour and candour and courage that permeates this selection.

In fact, what these poems are about, as much as the fact of cancer, is love and friendship. The book is full of dedications to musicians like Beethoven, Dylan, Mozart, Mahler and Elgar and writers and friends such as Myron Lysenko, John Forbes, Alex Skovron and Michael Sharkey. In what many might fear as a lonely journey, Morgan's poetry is full of life and love, witty and humorous and bulging with connections, real and imaginary:

If Walt Whitman knocked on my sleep tonight
I'd tell him      he's just another dreamer
from the old revolution. But I'd say
come in.

These aren't recklessly hopeful poems either; there is an understanding and fear of the unknown at the edges always, but this is also a compassionate and hopeful voice. Mal Morgan is famous in Melbourne poetry circles for his selfless encouragement of other writers as much as his own distinctive poetry voice developed through a series of books culminating in Throwaway Moon - New and Selected Poems in 1995. This book develops that defiant rebelliousness even in the face of death in poems like the clinically detailed 'Radiotherapy' which ends with:

         Home     I open
A green can.      Keeping breathing for me
trees!      I've got lung cancer.
What have you got?

In the preface Morgan writes 'For several difficult weeks I did not envisage writing again, or rediscovering the sheer joy of the creative process. My life has been rich, filled at moments with an intensity greater than ever before'. We can be thankful that Morgan was able to grasp the courage and strength to find these new poems and moments like the end of 'Love Sleeps in Another Room':

Last night I thought I heard love's footsteps
Walking down my corridor.      It was my heart
Beating      inside its cage of bones.

The book is full of such moments of lyricism and longing but it is always funny and candid and honest. Morgan looks back over a life as poet and parent and friend but the book is full too of the absolutely contemporary: CNN, the death of John Forbes, CAT scans and Bob Dylan's bootleg tapes. This is not a man to retreat from the world; every day he 'cheats death' is another beautiful new time when poems may emerge.

If this book is different from Morgan's earlier work it is perhaps in the volume. The book has a quietness about it at times, and a less exclamatory and 'speechifying' rhythm. It is not a book that has the strong vocal sense of some of Morgan's early work; it is often calmer and more accepting, sadder too, as in 'Death in Shing Armour':

You just don't
hear it stop.
One day you're in someone's kitchen
then their life     and then you're not.

Five Islands Press should be commended on the production; the book comes with a CD that features Mal reading a number of poems including some earlier work from 'Once Father and God' and 'Out of the Fast Lane'. It is sombre stuff; Mal's familiar voice clear and strong, reminding us of some of those wonderful poems over the years.

There's a self-deprecating aspect to this collection too, a subtle farewell and a genuine humility which might help explain Morgan's legendary generosity to other poets. In 'I Clicked on Print Preview' he speaks of 'these hands   that have / scribbled so' and in 'I'll Leave a Poem or Two' he writes of 'five or six readers' who may read this poem. This book certainly deserves much more than that.

John West is one of these poets who has found inspiration and support through his relationship with Mal Morgan and West's poetry chapbook 'Mal' explores something of that relationship as it describes a series of visits to Mal in his illness. The book is described as 'poems for Mal Morgan' but it's one poem really. Sometimes the subject is Mal, sometimes the poet himself, somethimes the relationship with Mal as poetry mentor, almost father figure.

West's background as a nurse gives some of this an almost dispassionate edge at times; 'we understand what makes bones ache', this is a man who's seen dying people before:

You've chosen badly, Mal,
You should have gone for something cleaner,
A decent heart attack or stroke

When I saw the single word title of this book 'Mal and thought of Morgan's illness, I half-expected a kind of affectionate poetic tribute; a kind of future eulogy. But, as Morgan says himself in 'In a House Where Someone's Dying', 'I know you're no sentimentalist' and West is no stranger to 'all the sweaty little jigsaw bit of dying'. West dinfs himself here watching the coming of death and, of course, thinking of his own. So the poem is as much about the persona as the subject: 'I'm just another / who feels cramped / in the dolls' house / of someone else's dying'.

The book has an almost unbearable honesty and attention to detail that is unsettling; the paintings, the Solitaire game on the computer, the coffee plunger, the corduray shirt are all described plainly as part of a world that is dissolving before the eyes of the writer. Yet is, in the end, a tribute poem too, and a fitting one.

The day Beautiful Veins was launched at La Mama in September by Michael Sharkey the place was bursting at the seams. As it should be. At the launch Alex Skovron and other poets read from the book and people squeezed by to shake Mal Morgan's hand; it was as Melbourne an event as the footy down the road. This is a book to be celebrated and welcomed. It's painful and sad too. That's the way it is. Mal Morgan knows that better than most.

Warrick Wynne teaches English on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne and has been widely published in Australia and overseas. His latest book was The Colour of Maps (Five Islands Press). He is currently working on a third collection of poems.