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Review of I been there, sort of: New and selected poems - Kwame Dawes, Jamaica Journal15 June 2008
In the late 1960s and 1970s, a cluster of male poets found themselves reading and discussing each other's work in Kingston. Wayne Brown, a Trinidadian of lyric power and unquestionable formal accomplishment touted as the heir apparent to Derek Walcott, was writing some of his best poetry at the time. Tony McNeill was, arguably, the Caribbean's most experimental and postmodern poet after Jamau Braithwaite. In the work of Dennis Scott, one encountered poetry of sharp wit and intelligence as it engaged with the language and culture of urban Jamaica. Mervyn Morris, the subject of this review, was the fourth of this group, and he has often spoken about how energising it was to work with those writers.Previous review of 'I been there, sort of: New and Selected Poems'... Next review of 'I been there, sort of: New and Selected Poems'... To the 'I been there, sort of: New and Selected Poems' page...
The production of these poets was not overwhelming, even if quite substantial. After publishing his groundbreaking debut On the Coast (1973), Wayne Brown has published one other collection of poems, Voyages (1989). Tony McNeill, notoriously the most prolific of this group, still managed to publish only two collections while he was living, and a third collection appeared posthumously. He died in 1996. Dennis Scott's full output, before his death in 1991, was three collections of verse, including the groundbreaking collection Uncle Time. Mervyn Morris published three collections of verse in the 1970s. He would go on to publish another three collections of verse in the following decades. It is fair to say that these poets of the 1970s worked with little attention given to their work and relatively few opportunities for publication. Yet they continued to produce a body of work that helps us to make sense of the evolution of Caribbean poetry over the years.
Morris has continued his steady productivity, and in many ways we can regard his most recent collection, I been there, sort of: New and Selected Poems, as something of a triumph, a vindication for one of the region's best poets. After all, he is being published by a major British press with the promise that more people will finally have a chance to see just how good Morris is. Indeed, the entire project is presented as an introduction of Morris - a long-overdue introduction - with Michael Schmidt of Carcanet playing his frequent role of introducing his readership to a brilliant but little-known poet.
But while I can understand the thinking behind 'introducing' Morris with a "new and selected" collection, I would have preferred this to have been treated as a brand-new collection: the new poems in I been there, sort of are enough to constitute a full book, especially if the formatting allowed a new page for each poem. The space-saving format, cluttering several poms on each page, allows for quite a slection of Morris' work to fit into ninety-one pages. I been there, sort of includes On Holy Week in its entirety, and copious selections from The Pond, Shasowboxing and Examination Centre, providing thus a rich serving of Morris' poetry.
Oddly enough, Morris does not present the poems here in chronological order of publication. The collection opens with the new poems, followed by On Holy Week (first published in 1976). This is followed by poems from The Pond (first published in 1973), Shadowboxing (1979) and Examination Centre (1992).
It is easy to create clusters of themes that seem to occupy Morris in these selections. The poems chosen from The Pond are lyrics reflections of childhood and coming of age, and poems that introduce us to what may be arguably Morris' most telling contribution to Caribbean verse - poems of domesticity and affection. However, we also encounter some of Morris' political poems. In To an Expatriate Friend he reflects on the cost of the movement from the self-hatred of blackness that may have marked the way black Jamaicans viewed themselves, to the more liberated and perhaps radical embracing of blackness to the exclusion of whites. Morris accepts these developments, but wryly lays out the emotional cost of this kind of politics:
And then the revolution. Black
and loud the horns of anger blew
against the long oppresion; sufferers
cast off the precious values of the few.
New powers re-enslaved us all:
each person manacled in skin, in race.
You could not wear your paid up dues;
the keen discrimination typed your face.
The future darkening, you thought it time
to say goodbye. It may be that you were right.
It hurt to see you go; but, more,
It hure to see you slowly going white.
This is Morris ar his best, offering the complexity of feeling and thought that surrounds real political issues, and yet he never sticks to a clear side - not along the lines that others have set out for him. In the penultimate stanza, it seems as if he is criticising the tyranny of the new push for blackness and black self-identificationl He tackles the same topic in other poems. Morris is clearly wary of any kind of celebration of race that might seem doctrinaire. And yet it is clear that he is not being ironic when he suggests that there is a history of oppresion that has to be redressed somehow. So in the final stanza we see him choosing the human moment rather than the political moment. The friend may have been right, he observes, but even the friend starts to take sides, and this saddens the poet. The poet accepts resignation - resignation at the loss of innocence, but a realisation that such loss is inevitable, as the future darkens. Taking sides, Morris seems to demonstrate, may be futile. In To the Unknown Combatant the man who chose first to duck may have been best off staying low rather than responding to the calls of the sides asking him to join them. But 'the middle' gets too hot:
He though perhaps he'd better choose.
He crawled to join a side.
A bullet clapped him in the neck -
of course he died.
Such exquisite and responsible cynicism marks much of Morris' political verse. We get it in poems like Afro-Saxon ('Don't let that nigger fool you, he is White!') or For Consciousness (both in Shadowboxing) which is a brilliantly cast poem that captures in a few lines the very subject of vintage postcolonial novels like A Man of the People, A Grain of Wheat, and The Mimic Men:
In de new plantation story
firs' t'ing dat have to know
is who an' who to tackle
when de call to battle blow.
Of course, he does take sides sometimes, or does he? Morris never leaves things so simple. The political poems of the new sequence of verse are perhaps best captured in the phrase 'smouldering restraint', a phrase he offers as a critique to a younger person (perhaps a poet):
Authenticity for you
is blazing revelation,
the suicidal nerve
exposed, the madman
naked in the xtreet.
One day, one day,
if you live long enough,
you'll feel the fire
in sobriety, give thanks
for smouldering restraint.
Morris is not immune to the sharp cut - 'If you live long enough', said to a poet interested in the 'suicidal nerve' - but here his credo is presented: 'smouldering restraint'. It is the best way to describe the politics of this effort to tackle the conundrum of language for the postcolonial writer:
The language they're conducted in
dictates the play in these debates.
Good english, as they say, discriminates.
White people language white as sin.
So his jabs are subtle - diminishing English with the common letter (in the vein of postcolonial criticism), and the shift to patois in the last line is subtle - a kind of restrained celebration of the dismantling of English as an act of resistance. But Morris has no answer to the conundrum, just the description of it. And he further covers himself by the deft way in which the subject of the poem becomes the 'they' in the phrase 'as they say'. Is the last line the poet's line or the line of the 'they' in 'as they say'?
In Cabal Morris creates a small parable that is rooted in actual political events that have everything to do with corruption and political manipulations. He chooses the voice of the corrupt individual and reates a pragmatic position that heightens the sense of corruption inherent in the 'pragmatics' of politics:
Me scratch your back, you scratch mine;
but if yuh turn traitor yuh must pay.
Dyamn fool! De eediot bwoy was tryin
to block de road. We move him out de way.
Morris' scrupulous restrain may represent, in some ways, a shift that marked the work of many of the poets of his generation, away from the more direct political clarity of the poets of the anti-colonial era. Tellingly, though, this often manifested itself in the rather cerebral practice of irony at the expense of the shout, the howl, the scram, of risk-taking, of overindulgence, and the abndon of only barely restrained metaphors. Morris' 'cool' has made him a less than attractive model for younger poets still in love with the abundance of language and the comfort of absolutes in emotion and political views. Yet, one imagines that it is just this restrain and formal skill that makes him appealing to Schmidt of Carcanet, who is sceptical, in is own verse, of the 'grand gesture'.
Morris' greatest passions are reserved not for political topics, but for more domestic matters - questions of relationships between men and women, their complexity, their capacity to lead to cruelty and ironies. Indeed, the new poems fall fairly comfortably into a series of loose grouping. Perhaps the most dominant preoccupation in these new poems has to do with relationships, and these ranger from the romantic to the way in which people relate to each other, talk to each other, argue with each other and try to find a way to understand each other.
The early pages, however, explore many possibilities of seeing the artist/poet as a source for metaphor. In Short Story, for instance, we know that the 'story' is about a tenuous relationship, but the framing of the poem is the matter of making art. Morris leaves us to wonder whether the poem is mostly about the philosophy of art:
Goodbye. 'Let's keep in touch,'
they say, without conviction.
They hug each other warmly, and depart.
But each has nestled in the other's art,
so it's another story in the fiction.
The failed connection between the two is not tragic because somehow, art emerges, a fiction. One is left wondering if the fiction was the purpose of the meeting in the first place. Here, Morris is teasing out the question of the place of art in life. As a poet, he is conscious always of his 'use' of experience, and his feelings towards that are always ambivalent.
Unstable text, your wife
has broken up the game.
Now she has left you, academic
reading doesn't seem the same.
I could offer many examples of poems that seem to be as much about the fault lines in relationships as about philosophical matter. This one is as good an example as there is. Morris here looks at the 'traditional' critic who has now been overtaken by the post-structuralists and who is no longer 'in control'. The critic no longer understands how to read experience and how to relate to the 'text' - indeed, Morris indulges in a game of deconstruction, reminding us, in the process, that poets have long understood and exploited the instability of the text and the unreliability of the author. In At a Poetry Reading, Encounter and Behind the Curtain, the language of the theatre is employed to look at the position of the artist, and it remains clear that the poet is troubled by the reception he or she receives and the role he or she might have in society. Yet despite this scrupulous care to establish a double-faced quality to the work, we know that Morris is helping us to understand something of his view of relationships - their unsettled nature, their unreliability and their potential for treachery.
There are, of course, some poems that are explicitly tough in their take on relationships. In most, Morris is impatient with men who seem to toy with women or, worse, exploit them and hurt them. We see this ins Operation ('then mumbling how / he couldn't stay / the fucker / walked away'); Happy Hour ('but the detested animal / is potent still it seems // the prepossessing monster / dominates her dreams'); Persephone (who talks of her 'faithless lover cruising / at the cemetery gate'); and Casanova ('Flaunting his gym-toned pectorals, / washboard stomach, fashion - / conscious locks, he worked the image / of philanderer, every woman's / fantasy or threat') - poems that position the male in surprisingly uncomplicated ways - unfaithful users, basically. And if the women are not quite victims, they are certainly justified in their acts of subterfuge:
She smiled and smiled and seemed to be
the genial friend, the keen collaborator
until the transformation scene; then she
became a block of stone, a champion hater
The truth is that, most of the time, harmonious love is simply not interesting. Morries writes like a poet of manners - a poet who feels no obligation to write the great political poem or the great poem of the moment. Instead, he is interested in the small details of day-to-day living, and in this, he becomes quite unique among Caribbean poets. In Gaffes we can see the value of such careful observation:
We try to smother
but hurtful truths
(however casual) survive,
Normally, one would expect a stanza like this in the middle of a longer, but equally terse, poem; but Morris is happy with it standing alone - a kind of occasional poem that is satisfied with the simple observation of this detail. Interestingly, for a poet of such brevity, it has taken Morris a long time to finally publish haiku, but he does in this collection. I mention haiku at this juncture because the haiku's quality of seeking to find, in the details of nature and the world around, the simplest but most sublime engagement with the world is something that Morris is reaching for here. His haiku, while formally (physically) adhering to the traditional English version of the Japanese form, do depart from the rhetorical demands of the form - its metaphysical qualities. But these are lovely poems.
An especially pleasant short sequence of poems in this series comprises those that return to a subjects that he dealt with somewhat in his earliest collections - the business of childhood, and, specifically, the matter of his experiences as a boarding school boy. In Boarding School, he reflects on something of a sexual awakening that revolves around classic Hollywood films, and in Caning, the persona is a teacher or master who offers a rationale for the value of shaping boys through caning and other punishments. There is an edge of irony in these poems, a subtle commentary on the culture of colonial education, but for the most part the poems read like tiny memoirs.
The final cluster of the new poems seems to take Morris back to his days as a poet of occasion during his high school and college years. But these are not light verses, always. They are poems that tackle the matter of mortality through a series of epitaphs. There are dangers in this kind of poem in that much of their effect depends on the intimacy that is shared between the subject and the poet. For instance, in Anniversary Proceedings one imagines that the subjects, 'Clinton and Barbara,' are indeed wonderful people, and that their achievements warrant the hope of the final stanza: 'Clinton and Barbara / you shall serve hereafter / another forty years / of love and laughter.' But little time is given to making them important enough to the reader to really care about what they represent to the poet. In the end, the poem writers for a wedding anniversary - a poem that will be read there - a forgettable poem, really, and an odd one to collect here. At least two other pieces suffer from the same problem even if we allow that the poems have a formal skill that we have come to expect from Morris. The problem, of course, is that these poems have lack Morris' irony, his unwillingness to allow sentiment stand unquestioned. In these lyrics, he does indulge sentiment. In Transitions, a funeral makes him think of a recent wedding, and leads him to offer some moral guidance - a message from the dead:
perpetual open house
a family of friends
and urging that we rise
above our sorrows
and terrestrial ends
Epitaph is dedicated to Nita Barrow (1916-1995), and it begins with exactly the kind of clichéd observation that one expects in occasional poems in praise of the dead. In Morris' hands, one expects a twist of sorts, a kind of self-conscious awareness of the hackneyed phrase, but in fact, he continues in that vein to the end of the poem. The sentiment is absolutely moving, and it may well be the greatest tribute to Nita Barrow that Morris allows himself to abandon his penchant for the ironic twist, for the undermining of sentimentality, to praise her:
A very special human being,
genial, compassionate and wise,
she helped us see what she was seeing,
our true potential playing in her eyes.
Even if we grant that the word 'playing' is a nod to such ironies, the gesture is so subtle and reflects such restrain that ultimately, the sentimentality triumphs. So one is grateful for the more ambitious poetic expression in the other 'death' poems. Jamaican Dance #2 confronts the wailing of a mourner with encouragement. The allusion to the folk song Sammy Dead-oh offers a strong counterpoint to the twittering birds. Then the final line, 'Bawl, woman, bawl,' while abandoning the principle of 'smouldering restraint', seems quite right here - a sudden burst of drama. In A Chant Against Death, Morris writes a chant, and produces a poem that is nothing like anything else he has published. It sprawls across the page and has a rhythmic quality that is meditative and effective:
Even more satisfying is the final poem in the collection. Morris is back to his devious wit. The very title of the poem makes what amounts to his final will and testament, seem like a passing comment: 'Oh, just one other things please...' or 'one word, please.' In fact, it is a moving hint ot indulgence by a poet who is notoriously averse to self-indulgence - a poet's self-deprecating quest for immortality, tellingly not to be found in his verse, in his 'word' if you will. Yet everything is carefully placed here, from the lower case 'i' to the rhyming throughout - slant rhymes and the more pronounced rhymes of the final stanza. The opening line suggests a Jamaicanism - 'please to' - and the poem ends with the wonderfully understated request for continued existence for 'a month or two'. The full poem is worth quoting here:
burn the body
when i die
ashes in the wind
so there is nothing
physical to focus on
when i am gone
& please to
let me linger
in the memory of a few
close friends & family
a month or two
In this new collection, Morris makes no significant departures from the themes he has always explored in his work, and stylistically he is where he has always been. There is something comforting about his consistency, and yet I can't help feeling slightly disappointed by the very thing that gives me comfort. The good news, however, is that those who are not familiar with Morris' work will have in this volume, a splendid introduction.
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