From Glasgow to Sobieski’s Shield:
Diversity in the Poetry of Edwin Morgan (1920-2010)
by James Graham
3: The Poet in Deep Space
As a boy. Edwin Morgan read science fiction voraciously, Wells and Verne among his favourites. As an adult, far from setting it aside as a childish thing, he developed his own brand of science-fiction poetry.
Soon after his often traumatic war service — mainly in the Middle East — was over, he seems to have turned to fantasy as a kind of antidote. Of course, he continued to write about the world around him but, when it became too painful, he chose a kind of literary leisure in the composition of other-worldly poems. But this early escapism was not to last; even on some invented planet in the farthest constellation, images of war began to infiltrate.
In Sobieski’s Shield
Even in the title of this poem there is an oblique reference to war. The constellation Scutum Sobiescianium was so named in 1684, by the astronomer Johannes Hevelius, after King John Sobieski III of Poland, whose army broke the Ottoman seige of Vienna in 1683. At the heart of the poem, however, we find ourselves unexpectedly transported to the Western Front.
Our Sun is dying, and a group of human beings have been dematerialised on Earth and rematerialised on a planet near a star in Sobieski’s Shield. They find themselves inside a transparent protective dome. The poem is the interior monologue of one of the group, a scientist who soon begins to observe details of his new surroundings.
Glitches in the molecular reconstruction have produced some curious results : his wife’s hair has changed to a beautiful red, his son has only one nipple, and he himself now has only four fingers. One other change in himself turns out to have more significance: a new heart-shaped birthmark — or ‘second birth’ mark — on his right forearm.
There is a loving reunion of the family, and then the narrator begins to observe the landscape. It seems a bleak world, but there is clear evidence of surface water: not lakes but many small pools in a barren expanse of what appears to be mud rather than solid ground. As the sun begins to set, the pools turn red. Like pools of blood, he thinks.
At this point the poet achieves a remarkable effect: almost imperceptibly the alien landscape becomes a World War One battlefield. For the narrator, it is a scene from several centuries earlier, but he has read about it and recognises it. The books he has read on the history of the war have made a strong impression on him, and he is deeply moved by what he sees.
Then, quite close by, he notices something stranger than anything he has yet seen: an arm protruding from the mud, and on the arm — still distinguishable even in the fading light — a heart-shaped tattoo. It resembles his own ‘second birth mark’. How can this be? How can something from Earth’s history have been transferred to this planet, along with contemporary people and their equipment? He can only surmise that the dematerialisation-rematerialisation process, which is quite new and not fully understood, has transferred one of his most deeply imprinted memories and somehow projected it on to this new world.
But his response to this discovery is more than merely scientific. It is full of compassion:
A heart still held above the despair of the mud
my god the heart on my arm my second birth mark
the rematerialisation has picked up these fragments I have
a graft of war and ancient agony forgive
me my dead helper
It is a human solidarity that spans light-years and centuries. The death of the Sun and the Earth does not consign this ‘ancient agony’ to oblivion. Above all, the maiming and destruction of precious human lives must not taint the new society to which he and his colleagues are committed.
The narrator takes his wife and son in his arms, thinking ‘We are bound to all that lived’, and resolved to share his epiphany with them and all the others. A poem that begins with the ‘End of the World’, closes with an affirmation of hope.
Copyright © 2016 by James Graham