CHAPTER ONE The Once and Future Pilot
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16 CHAPTER ONE The Once and Future Pilot James McGonigal The sense of energy that readers respond to in Edwin Morgan’s poetry comes partly from its recurrent imagery of movement across space and time. This was there from the start – in ‘the blaze and maelstrom of God’s wrath’ that opens his first collection, Dies Irae (1952), and in the same volume’s muscular translations from Anglo-Saxon, with ‘The Seafarer’ exploring ‘sorrow’s abodes, / The welter and terror of the waves’ (CP, 24, 32).1 And movement continues to the end. ‘Epilogue: Seven Decades’ closes Collected Poems in 1990 while at the same time revealing the glint of an opening out into the astonishingly productive eighth and ninth decades that would follow: ‘When I go I want it bright, / I want to catch whatever is there / in full sight’ (CP, 595). When they first appeared in The Second Life (1968), Morgan’s science fiction poems seemed to epitomise this questing energy. What is worth noting now is not just their novelty within 1960s Scottish poetry but the range of approach taken to a new kind of poem. In ‘Spacepoem 1: from Laika to Gagarin’ (CP, 194), bilingual wordplay links the Russian space programme of the late 1950s and early 1960s to avant-garde sound poetry of the tumultuous decade that followed (while also harking back to the ‘trans-sense’ language of zaum developed by Russian Futurists such as Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh whose work Morgan knew well). The dramatic monologue of ‘In Sobieski’s Shield’ (CP, 196–98) is infused with science fiction’s tense trope of worlds lost and found, as the poet explores anew the human capacity for determined hopefulness amidst horror in a grim planetary landscape beset by mineral storms. ‘From the Domain of Arnheim’ follows a more lyrical path, where the emotional impact of human encounters across the boundaries of historical epochs shakes both the observers and observed, so that each remains haunted by what has been glimpsed (CP, 198–99). 17 Time, not space, was, for Morgan, the final frontier. Writing to the young poet Richard Price in 1992 he declared: The sea, which is most of the earth, is very frightening, but that is probably a good thing, since if we all came from it originally it would be wrong to want to return to it, like returning to the womb: we have to shake the drips off and go out, onto land, into the air, into space, eventually into time.2 This was a view he had held since the late 1930s, when he read two books on precognition by J. W. Dunne: An Experiment with Time (1927, extended 1934) and The New Immortality (1938). We know the approximate date of his encounter with Dunne’s ideas on parapsychology and the postEinsteinian physics of spacetime because those volumes are listed towards the end of ‘Books I Have Read (1927–1940)’ 3 alongside other works studied for his undergraduate courses before he had to abandon university for National Service in 1940. Dunne’s work created considerable interest in the 1920s and 1930s, engaging public intellectuals such as H. G. Wells and J. B. Priestley in debate as well as academics with an interest in parapsychology. Part of the impact of his writing derives from the contrast between the bluff no-nonsense style of this Anglo-Irish ex-military engineer, sportsman and aeronautical pioneer and the surprising way he engages with the new physics of relativity to postulate a four-dimensional series of parallel time-worlds, and uses this to explain the otherwise puzzling precognition of future events in certain dreams (he provides a number of credible examples obtained under experimental conditions). A key feature of Dunne’s system is the role of an observing consciousness in the second time-dimension which thereby possesses a wider angle of vision than the sleeping dreamer in the narrower dimension of our present historical world of instants and memories, passing and past. This wider angle allows the observer (who also inhabits the dreamer’s consciousness and is indeed in parallel or serial identity with him or her) to see future events that hence can become embedded in the dream material. Whether or not this is true, it is noteworthy that an observer figure, or band of observers, became central to Morgan’s science fiction poems. One thinks of the development of the observer role from ‘From the Domain of Arnheim’ to ‘Memories of Earth’ (CP, 330–40...