Scottish poet J. O. Morgan’s The Martian’s Regress makes some powerful points about ecological collapse, but has a questionable approach to gender politics
Originally published: Cape Poetry, 2020
Last week I wrote a review a Peter Robinson’s Poetry & Money: A Speculation. Throughout it, the link between poets, their art and the thing that dominates their lives became clear. If money has been the muse-du-jour over the centuries though, in the 21st it’s been replaced by something else: our future on this planet.
That’s reflected across all genres; last week The Bookseller reported that publishing houses are expecting massive sales of books about the natural world in 2021. Whereas nature may have been a saving grace for many of us throughout lockdown, it can’t continue to be if we don’t save it first. And that’s what Scottish poet J. O. Morgan argues in his latest book, 2020’s much-lauded The Martian’s Regress.
We’re Running Out Of Time
A narratively arced collection charting a Martian’s return to planet Earth in a Post-Apocalyptic future and his ensuing actions & emotions, it’s a brutal, forlorn piece of work pretty much from the start – though what else would you expect from a collection which opens with a poem entitled A Dream of Planetary Subjugation?
There isn’t much in the way of optimism here, but of course there’s no point in viewing the stats through a rose tint either. Morgan’s emphasis is on the lack of time left we’ve to care for our planet, and The Martian’s Regress is suitably sobering.
Eco-imagery And Cross-Medium Art
Despite the nihilism, Morgan employs plenty of hooks to draw you in. There are immediately variations on classicist poetic language in the aforementioned opener, as well as the breathless pace set by the lack of punctuation. There are instances of no-punches-pulled beauty too, like this from Frequently Asked Questions:
‘We’ve jettisoned so much metal in close orbit you can see its magnificent sky-smear glinting on clear blue midsummer days’.
The imagery in Continuity Rites is positively cinematic, and The Martian Struggles Alone might recall eco-centric horror flick The Hallow, or H. R. Giger’s work on Alien. There’s also a fairly strident anti-imperialist undercurrent that makes the likes of Supplemental Matter and The Martian Visits a Museum damningly righteous.
Gender Politics Problems
There is one big question mark hanging heavily over The Martian’ Regress for me though: the issue of gender politics. The Martian’s companion, characterised as ‘she’, is almost never depicted in a sympathetic light. Either she’s submissive – and it’s impossible to ignore the whiff of misogyny in those cases – or she’s not compatible, emotionless and incapable.
Some readers have interpreted that it is indeed a metaphor for the constant subjugation of women by men. Given the book’s theme, it might be more plausible to argue that ‘she’ is planet Earth and is being decimated just as our home is. And in fairness, Morgan goes as far as to long for a feminine future in A Cautionary Tale. Either way though, it’s never clarified, and it leaves an odd aftertaste.
In terms of eco-poetry and the way the form reflects our immediate reality, The Martian’s Regress is a pertinent, important read.
You can purchase The Martian’s Regress here.