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Review of I been there, sort of: New and selected poems - Glyne Griffith, The Caribbean Review of Books

This most recent collection from Mervyn Morris features new poems as well as selections from his four earlier books, The Pond (1973), On Holy Week (1976), Shadowboxing (1979), and Examination Centre (1992). I Been There, Sort Of is a boon for lovers of Morris’s poetry and for those who are yet to discover the pleasures of his artistic insight, wit, and craft. Some of the earlier collections are not readily available, and when you are able to locate copies, the prices tend to reflect that lack of ready avaflability. Now lovers of literature generally and poetry in particular have access to a broad range of Morris’s poetic themes and can glimpse the development of these themes over the several decades of his poetic commitment.

The title of this new volume hints at one of Morris’s themes: the sense and feeling of uncertainty, the sometimes agonising realisation that uncertainty is perhaps the only certain experience in life. Yet Morris’s poetry does not conclude, as so much modernist poetry has, that only nihilistic despair and absurd existence can result from the unfolding of this troubling realisation. Neither does his craft seek to resolve this torturous realisation by means of the self-centered wordiness that is often characteristic of so much postmodernist overemphasis on the word for its own sake. You sense in all of Morris’s poetry that even in the presence of individual engagement with uncertainty and angst, words do still refer to more than themselves. Meaning is still a believable possibility in a world that has at times sought to intellectualise meaning out of existence in order to displace processes of signification with a focus on the cleft between word and meaning.

Neither modernist nihilism nor postmodemist vagueness demarcates the intellectual space within which Morris’s poetry labours. His craft explores the sort of uncertainty that you feel when you realise, for example, that your adult self is still negotiating your ghost childhood, or that your commitments to love, family, and friendship are still haunted by the phantasms of disengagement and flirtation with the noncommittal. These, and more, are the uncertainties explored by the artistic certainty and assuredness of Morris’s poetic craftsmanship. Consider, for example, one of the new poems, “Gaffes”:

        We try to smother
        troublesome remarks,
        but hurtful truths
        (however casual) survive,
        fluttering tenaciously,
        defiantly alive

Here we see an engagement with the life of words, the reality and existence of words as things in the world, but an engagement that does not fetishise the word as much as it highlights the manner in which words and statements have lives or half-lives of their own that reproduce meanings and resonances of meanings long after the word or remark has subsided as an event of utterance in the present. The truth of the hurt produced afterwards is as significant as the truth of the utterance, perhaps moreso, as the “we” of the poem oscillates between the subject of the hurtful utterance and the object of the utterance. The “troublesome remarks” and the “hurtful truths” flutter defiantly in the memory, just as a flag fluttering in the breeze might symbolically demarcate the political conflict over some contested territory; the hurt of the human condition, exacerbated by this or that utterance, exists in that uneasy territory between remembering and forgetting, utterance and silence, and truth and consequence.

Morris’s poems have become known for a sparseness that is a sign of rigorous reworking and editing. The finished poem on the page appears as a sign of poetic effort to pare away all that is superfluous, so that we are left only with those words and phrases that produce the images sought after by the poet’s crafting. The final effect is of a pebble dropped onto the surface of a still, deep pond of conventions of meaning and literary references. The ripples and disturbances produced at the surface of signification travel beyond the superficial and result in layers and resonances of meaning in excess of the poem’s initial reading or utterance. See, for example, “Data”:

        facts lie
        behind the poems
        which are true

There is a wonderful play here between the poem’s line breaks and the continuity suggested by the prose-sense reading of the words on the page, so that the requisite tension betweentruth and falsehood, fact and fiction is established. Poetic andfictional validity expose the lie of factual reality and data-drivenmeaning, even as the poetic play suggests that no attempt is being madeto substitute one sort of would-be definitive truth for another. Thisis the “sort of” textuality of disavowal, recalling the intriguingtitle of this volume, which always seeks to counterbalance any putativecertainty that might be attributed to the “I been there” of poeticexperience. You might even think of the poem “Data” as a fitting epigraph to much of Morris’s poetry.

His new poems also highlight his continuing poetic interest in language registers, the fluid shift between standard English and Jamaican English, for example, and the exploration of the private register of personal interest set
against a background of community and public expectations. Consider the poem “Eve”:

        the garden

        a proper

        she buck up

        On a serpent
        talking nice

The several resonances produced by the language of this poem in itssubtle register shift from standard or “proper” English to the JamaicanEnglish evident in “she buck up” also humanise the archetypal garden ofEden as an echo of a past and a future tension between colonising powerand anti-colonial resistance, both in the world of deities and also inthe world of men. The final coup, in a manner of speaking, is that themost spiritual Fall of humankind is echoed in the sweet fall of many awoman’s innocence or coyness in the presence of some good old saga-boyWest Indian sweet talk. The biblical texts become retrospectivelypeopled with Caribbean folk. This is, indeed, a significant aspect ofthe poems originally published in On Holy Week, and the entire sequenceof poems from the earlier publication is reissued in this new volume.

Morris is adept at sketching the outlines of those personalentanglements by means of which we all discover ourselves withquotidian frequency, but he is careful to allow his poems to sketch orvoice only the colours or notes necessary to produce the reflection ormood of the well-crafted poem. Like a mature expressionist painterworking with a Caribbean palette, or a seasoned jazz instrumentalist who appreciates thehermeneutics of counterpoint, Morris has discovered that you don’t needto overwhelm the canvas with colour or the air with sound. The blankspaces devoid of paint and the musical silences devoid of notes canenhance meaning through the foregrounding of counterpoint and contrast.This artistic and poetic approach is the hallmark of Morris’s poetry. IBeen There, Sort Of is a wonderful read of a range of Morris’s poetryover many years. In light of the fact that the words on the pages of Morris’s poetry collections have fought hard to make theirappearance in the text, I can think of no more appropriate way to endthis review than by giving space to another wonderful poem. Enjoy“Peelin Orange”:

        Dem use to seh
        yu peel a orange
        an yu get new clothes

        But when mi father try
        fi teach mi
        slide de knife
        up to de safeguard thumb

        I move de weapon like
        a saw inna mi han
        an de dyarnn rind

        An if yu have de time
        yu can come see mi
        in mi ole clothes 

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