By Guy Burchard
Brick 19, fall 1983
Stephen Morrissey, Divisions.
Coach House Press: Toronto, 1983.
59 pages. Paper $6.00.
"cutting through to the truth/ this for me was always/ the point the single point"
We listened to Mr. Morrissey read the title poem, Divisions, over CINQ-FM, Montreal, in June '79. He reads without any gimmick histrionics. The poem is dominated by the monotone of sorrow, disturbed by scarcely any irony, to the extent that of the 3 of us listening, a friend's cheeks flushed, my wife wept and I only just controlled myself. This is genuinely affecting work and not maudlin. It is meant. It's a bare terrific heart. One may blush to listen but the poet's confession is not tawdry or guilty. The proximity of such emotional virtuosity admits vulnerability and makes a hell of a target but the author does not shirk or shy. Any more than he, buttonholes — it's a lament and intellectually humble. He doesn't proselytize but simply feels more keen and knows more intimately a source. A soul in this mode can't be chastised for breast-baring. It's done so quietly, however emphatically. As isn't generally true of confessional types, the poet's presence here is ethereal. He performs with the least aggression and yet his 'attitude is not subservient to nor reduced by a hard emotional fate. An Oriental sort of "confession" pervades like the old Zen poets and Han-shan.
"expansion and contradiction"
The uncommon passages where the tone is raised are the more remarkable. "poem" beginning "we wrote on/ the sky ..." contains the image of the author as invincible survivor of the wreck of his incinerated plane, arrogant, loveless, "white scarf/ thrown recklessly/ around my neck." That is not Stephen; that is irony.
we lie on the grass
& feel a rock under the head
as a pillow it is a good rock
you make friends with that rock
you can't offend it.:.
& when you leave/ ...
it will never forget...
A trace of anthropomorphism is tinged with tenderness and irony. "near my feet bits of ice"
There is a good degree of composition by association. Take for instance the passage beginning on p. 19, "(we should let/ the poem grow." Following, the mind grows, flowers, takes shade on a park bench and watches a woman sunbathe, "and in another park 10 years later," the poet takes lunch on the grass in late summer sun and calculates,
there is a poem for each month of the year
there is a poem for each week & day
for each hour & second
all time expands ... & then
No parenthesis closes this passage.
the new world begins
at your front door or one inch
from your feet...
... this pilgrimage
... that it be
filled with compassion
is our only hope
Thus the poet imagines earthly virtue in place of /replacing earthly failings and so derives in no occult manner suggestions of sublimity and grace.
He can even write, "(the single dark sky," as though, in this poet's imagination, there could be more! "...on each branch/ sit 200 singing black birds..." "o the moon is my grandmother's/ bun tied in a million// knots...." Hyperbole works for him.
"only poetry justifies language"
The righteousness of the simple statement is creditable and though he repeats the statement in CAPS later in Divisions, I already believe him in lower case. The didacticism is forgivable in 1983. "this language of empty words" "without poetry/ language is a/ meaningless development/ of the human race."
Pay attention, People; the hard part here is heart. As at the movies we're advised to "suspend disbelief," so with this poet's art we suspend scepticism because here it really IS as it seems.
"you have not failed it"
The tendrils of his gifts and good fortune belie his sense of failure, appear to have the strength to push his blades like grass up through macadam.
Copyright © 2007 The author