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Shingle Street review – heartfelt bravura from Blake Morrison

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Blake Morrison makes a welcome return to poetry with these powerful observations on the erosion of our land, lives and values

Long subject to inundation and increasingly despoiled by erosion, the Suffolk hamlet, Shingle Street, has an unexpected history of associated literary figures, among them Edward FitzGerald and W G Sebald. “The east stands for lost causes,” the latter observed, and Blake Morrison echoes the thought in the opening poem of his new collection, Shingle Street: “From Shingle Street/ To Orford Ness/ The waves maraud,/ The winds oppress,/ The earth can’t help/ But acquiesce/ For this is east/ And east means loss,/ A lessening shore, receding ground, /Three feet gone last year, four feet this/ Where land runs out and nothing’s sound./ Nothing lasts long on Shingle Street” (The Ballad of Shingle Street).

While coastal erosion is hardly the stuff of the traditional ballad – a narrative-form Morrison rendered so effectively in the Yorkshire-dialect title-poem of The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper, his 1987 collection – Shingle Street’s geological nemesis unfolds excitingly. Punchy two- and four-beat lines accelerate the pace, packing in alliteration and rhyme as they build a disaster-movie-like momentum. The villains are not only elemental, and the action includes an apocryphal tale of Nazi invasion. The end-stopping of the verse and its incantatory repetitions enact a scary inescapability which becomes the impasse of life itself.

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