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Review of 'I been there, sort of: New and selected poems'

10 December 2006
Ralph Thompson, The Sunday Gleaner

I been there, sort of

Address at the launch of Mervyn Morris's new collection of poems, 'I Been There, Sort Of', which took place last Sunday at the Phillip Sherlock Centre, UWI, Mona.

The parents of the boy child born in 1937 must have had a premonition that he would become a poet for they bestowed on his name the poetic emphasis of alliteration, Mervyn Morris, the linked 'M' and 'I' sounds rolling mellifluously off the tongue.

Although history does not so record, I have to believe that Mervyn must have started playing tennis and writing poems from about age four, and what a champion career he has had in both.

In 1998 Mervyn was kind enough to launch my second collection of poems and I am delighted this morning to reciprocate by holding out for your endorsement, pleasure and purchase his fifth collection, comprising some 60 new poems as well as selections from The Pond', 'On Holy Week', 'Shadowboxing', and 'Examination Centre'. The new collection is entitled I Been There, Sort Of', a line from the poem 'Toasting a Muse', the action of which took place on the patio of my house. I am prevented by reason of the Official Secrets Act from saying more.

Mervyn went to Munro and both he and [his wife] Helen taught there. I note that Munro is celebrating its 150th anniversary and Mervyn and Louis Simpson, that other great Jamaican poet, must be counted among its distinguished poet graduates. Mervyn is also an Oxford Rhodes scholar, but unlike some other members of this elite club who take the glory and let the scholarship go, Mervyn has had a notable academic career, recently retiring as professor of creative writing and West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies. Mervyn is indeed a gentleman and a scholar whose gentle, but perspicacious mentoring has influenced for good so many of his students.

But, Mervyn Morris is no ivory tower intellectual. In addition to his poetry, which has ranked him among the top West Indian poets, he was one of the first academics to espouse the importance of nation language in helping to define in verse important aspects of Jamaican culture. He spotted the talent of the late great Louise Bennett Coverley, Miss Lou, wrote insightfully about her, and edited her selected poems. He has lectured on West Indian Literature in many countries and in 1976 was awarded the Silver Musgrave medal for poetry.

Revisiting the range of Mervyn's poems in the new collection reveals a poet who feels deeply, but who is careful to ensure that sentiment never slips into sentimentality, that genuine religious experience is never confused with religiosity. The emotion essential to all good poetry is kept within the discipline of the craft, there to shine even more brightly and purely as a made work of art. Mervyn refuses to be trapped in the excesses of post-modern Romanticism or political propaganda parading as nationalism. As he says in 'Advisory':

positive or negative
or in-between.
Don't let anybody
lock you in.

The dialectic of Mervyn's verse fluctuates between Apollo and Dionysus, with Apollo usually winning the debate. He uses satire, wit and irony to undercut preten-tiousness, cant and rhetorical bombast. Thus a Mervyn poem, almost by definition, is pared to its essential vision, is usually short, and in many instances epigrammatic in the classical tradition of Pope. To mark Heritage Week, Mervyn writes this poem, which I quote in full:

Mine history
for the energy it frees.

Do not spend precious time
hanging from family trees.

In 'Asylum' he recommends:
Fix what you can. Forget the rest.
A little learnt indifference is best.

In 'Critique', Mervyn eschews 'blazing revelation' for 'the fire in sobriety', which echoes Walcott's 'my mania is a terrible calm'.

Mervyn finds epiphanies in sex, love and religion, but the spotlight of his poetic imagination usually returns us to the quotidian with all its earthy uncertainties and inconveniences. Hence in Pantomime the poet records:

She smiled and smiled and seemed
   to be
the genial friend, the keen
until the transformation scene;
   then she
became a block of stone, a
   champion hater.

Eddie Baugh, Mervyn's contemporary at UWI, has said that Mervyn writes poetry the way he plays tennis. After his serve you may think he has turned languid, but while you are preparing a return he is suddenly at the net. Smash. Score, 40 love. Game, Set and Match.

Win, lose or draw, love is an essential ingredient of all poetry. Mervyn knows that love encompasses Eros and Agape: Eros, first cousin to lust, and Agape, nearer to God. He deals masterfully with both. Many of the new poems narrate strategies for seduction. In 'Proposition One' the poet comments:

To keep the thing alive
let's loosen up,
let's improvise, my love,
relax, be casual, enjoy the lime,
relinquish the habitual,
reshape the paradigm.

But many of the poems deal with the frustrations of seduction. He confesses in 'Reunion':

We are playing
new games now
acknowledging the strain
of lust inside the laughter.

From the quotations, I have mentioned you will have noticed that rhyme is an important tool in Mervyn's poetic arsenal. He writes in free verse, of course, but his use of rhyme in many poems for emphasis is masterful. In 'Short Story', lovers trying to keep an affair secret:

... hug each other warmly, and


But each has nestled in the other's

art ...

In another poem, Mervyn inge-niously rhymes the two words 'send her' with the single word 'surrender', taking seriously, it seems, Robert Frost's dictum that writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis without a net - an analogy which Mervyn would certainly understand.

The selections from On Holy Week are as fresh and psychologically insightful as when they were first written. Doubting 'Thomas' admits his lack of faith and proclaims 'I'll plunge these fingers in his riven side/ to know, first hand, that what I see/ is him that died.' Even in the religious intensity of this moment we notice the double meaning of 'first hand' coming after 'fingers'

Another unanticipated joy for me is the scattering of haiku in the collection. I spent two years in Japan and was astonished that each year there was a public holiday to celebrate poetry writing. Thousands of citizens would submit poems, mostly in the tight Japanese form of the 17-syllable Haiku. The winning entries were announced by the Emperor and read by him on the radio. Can you imagine such a civilizing event in Jamaica? One year when I was in Tokyo, a garbage collector won first prize. Surely this haiku by Mervyn could have beaten it out:

After a shower
blackbirds preening on the grass
dressing for heaven.

Don't try to fathom what it means. Just enjoy its lyric beauty.

Mervyn has produced many poems about race, most laced with humour. In 'Afro-Saxon' he proclaims with a straight face 'blackness isn't new to me'. I like particularly 'For Consciousness', written in patois with the line

plenty busha doan ride horse
an some doan t'ink dem white.

Asked about race in an interview, Mervyn is quoted as saying that 'black identity' is 'the sense of performance', something not in the past, to be found, but in the future, to be constructed.

And then there is the query of how a poet of Mervyn's sensibility will deal with death. He has a moving poem entitled 'The Day My Father Died', with the profound lines:

The pain of death is living,
The dead are free

But Mervyn's most subtle approach to death is entitled 'Checking Out' which I need to quote in its entirety for you to judge its metaphoric strength.

I slam the door. 'Dear, are you
there's nothing left?' Well, no:
something remains, I'm sure of
some vestige of our lives in this
   bare flat
will linger, some impulse will
   our going, recycled in the flow

of being. We never leave,
we always have to go.

Did Mervyn, I wonder, know that he was writing about death? Did he write the poem or did the poem write him?

In closing I would like to return to the poem 'Toasting a Muse', in which Mervyn typically uses irony and wit to undercut any too romantic view of poetic inspiration. He is moved by the 'unusual radiance, beauty of spirit lighting up the place', but he keeps quiet about it, makes 'small talk', stays sober and enjoys 'the food'.

I have tried to tempt you with a few appetizers, but you really need to sit down to the full banquet. I invite you to enjoy the feast of poems in Mervyn's new collection.
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