A Private Mythology
Review by Bert Almon
The best poetry in Stephen Morrissey’s A Private Mythology is found in the sequences. His 2012 chapbook, The Coat Poems, is included in the first section of the new work. He makes some amusing and often moving variations on the garment: “The Homeless Man’s Coat,” “The Poet’s Coat,” and “The Shaman’s Coat,” to name a few. The garments become metaphors for themes like love, poverty, the self, and the writing of poetry. Hints of childhood in a dysfunctional family in “Mother’s Mink Coat” are elaborated in several later poems.
The most interesting sequence is “The Great Year,” which reflects Morrissey’s long interest in astrological signs and his understanding of anthropology. The Great Year is a cycle of around 26,000 years, each portion of which is marked by a dominant constellation. W. B. Yeats worked out the scheme in vast detail and used it to explain all of history. Morrissey covers the period from the Age of Virgo (13,000–10,800 BC) to our present Age of Aquarius. He naturally exploits the symbolism of the astrological signs ruling each period, especially the animals. The poet has researched the epochs of human history from the Neolithic onward, and he describes developments in material culture and shifting mythologies. In the last poem of that cycle, he has his own vision of the world, seen from space as one living being, a fitting epiphany that puts our history in cosmic perspective.
The autobiographical works in the book’s last section mix love poetry, discussions of the poet’s calling, and family stories. Most of the love poems have only their sincerity to recommend them, and the remaining poems often fail to make his private mythology (his family history) interesting enough to others. The most memorable lines of the book are in “Waking at 4 a.m.” Morrissey tells us that “this is when the poem / of morning is created; / we are workers in the darkness, / early risers, busy with / the enterprise of light.”