“real events in an unreal mould”

At Maldon, J.O. Morgan, CB Editions, £8.99
reviewed by Pippa Little

at maldon Morgan
I enjoyed this. A long-ago battle, lost, and a half-lost poem. From these J.O. Morgan has fashioned At Maldon, a satisfying book-length panorama of the August day in 991 when Vikings and Anglo-Saxons met across the Essex river and then fought to the death. That initial time of waiting when each side watches the other is particularly well imagined: then the battle itself begins and we are spared nothing of the gore and the violence of hand to hand fighting. The poem has a satisfying narrative force which carries the reader along as if in the heat of the action yet also depicts the battle from afar with some skilfulness so we see events unfold as if they were a chess game or a pattern in process.

The form is alliterative and echoes that of the original poem but deliberately surprises with references to modernity such as cricket balls, designated drivers, tea-towels, even bin-liners:

It begins with crows,
black flecks against the blue,
like bits of bin-liner flapping on the wind

At first this feels odd but as the poem develops it becomes a deliberate tactic to defamiliarise and unsettle: this poem wants not merely to revisit the past but as the ‘Argument’ puts it

“to cast the real events in an unreal mould and in so doing hope perhaps for accidental truth” for it’s an “unreliable poem from a poet not permitted on to the field” who analyses “second-hand accounts…for misrememberings”

The effect is a powerful one. Old Byrhtnoth and groom of his “great white horse” Godric fall before the Danesmen, brothers die together, there is both heroic courage and a slipping-away by those who can see the battle is lost. More than anything this long poem seems to me to explore the visceral, balletic-like performance of any battle, the soldiers “athletes who practise for hour upon hour” engaged in a strange kind of dance beyond ‘reality’ where enemies are intimate, admiring, even as they cut each other down.

Pippa Little

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