A Private Mythology, by Stephen Morrissey (Victoria, B.C.: Ekstasis Editions, 2014)
Review by Anne Burke
The title bears comparison with Leonard Cohen’s Let Us Compare Mythologies, Cohen’s first book, which was published in the McGill Poetry Series by Louis Dudek in 1956. The cosmopolitan city of Montréal has been the inspiring venue for what came to known as “The Montreal Poets”: A.M. Klein, A.J.M. Smith, F. R. Scott, and Leo Kennedy. Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, and Leonard Cohen followed in this English-language tradition. (Morrissey studied with Dudek, at McGill University, for his Masters degree in English Literature.) Since 1973, The Véhicule Press poets have carried this legacy forward. Morrissey, with his sustained contribution over the years, returns to his roots, and has retired from teaching at McGill University. The poems are pearls, organic, developing; formidable works, in and of themselves.
Morrissey’s chapbook The Coat Poems was published in Montreal by Coracle Press, in 2012. Much of part “One” reads as parables with lesson plans. The collection opens with an anatomy of coats, pertaining to a Shakespearean series of “ages”, both personalized and chronological. The biblical coat of many colours is replaced by a coat of many shadows (“The Poet’s Coat”). Though a personified shaman’s coat is on a mystical journey by which the poet journeys too. His “Inner Self” feels old. A spiritless red coat emptied of her owner is an emblem, an affirmation. A Mink Liberation Army escapes the German army. A sense of madness pervades a rarely-worn mink coat with which the poet identifies. A cast-off coat is rejected even by the homeless. Further, “winter is inevitable” in the diurnal round, is it the “winter of our discontent”? Indeed, “where lilacs bloomed” is a gloss from Walt Whitman. This analysis achieves somewhat of an inventory but there is security to keep out the unwelcome. He dreams of Psyche visiting him, images of bound animals, and a tour in which he makes his home. The Cedars is where he wrote poems alone. He reflects on the anniversary of his father dying. “I will one day join the dead,/ who are indispensable/ to my existence” (p. 32)
Excerpts from “The Great Year” and “Lines from Magritte” were first published in Mapping the Soul, Selected Poems 1978-1998 (Winnipeg: The Muses’ Company, 1998). “The Great Year” was published on the Astrology Guild website in 2005. In “Two”, the poems are based on astrology, from Virgo, Leo, Cancer, Gemini, Taurus, Aries, Pisces, and Aquarius. “The Great Year” is situated in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, by Joseph Campbell, the great symbolist theoretician. The time span is from 13,000 B.C. to 4,000 A.D. with a quote from W.B. Yeats, “the world felt itself/at the beginning/of a great change” which is presumably the “germ” of the poem’s conception, as we used to say in English class. Yeats’ “A Vision” of gyres, the spiral staircase, and the double helix are all prompts. The setting now shifts to “The Forbidden Universe” and appended “Or Olympia”. (From The Mystic Beast published by Empyreal Press, in Montreal, in 1997). In “Lines From Margritte” (http://www.vehiculepoets.com ) a man is said to refuse transformation but is brought down by his body’s decline, until his vision of a Goddess named “Olympia” (as Everywoman) redeems him on the beach. His wife is a practicing poet. One of Carolyn Zonailo’s collections is The Goddess in the Garden (2002). He detects his double within him, representing negation, which emerges from his being at night, taking on its own existence. Not quite Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. More like The Secret Sharer a short story by Joseph Conrad and/or the Jewish golem signifying his impending death. The poet remembers a cage from the orphanage, figuratively or real, in a dream-memory. He believes he escaped that cage but reconciled “to always be/an outsider, /always different/and alone.” (p. 58) The present collection is dedicated to Zonailo, who is responsible for choosing the title. Morrissey’s chapbooks The Beauty of Love and The Carolyn Poems were published by The Poem Factory, in Vancouver. In “Three”, he casts off the solitary role, instead embracing “My Wife”, “The Well of Love”, “Walking My Love”, “My Russian Wife”, “For My Love”, “Anniversary”, “The Room of Love”, and others. The poems range from an economy of words, some enfolding metaphysical conceits, such as carpe diem; while others are elongated contemplations of ecstatic moments, the object of his adoration, who is transformed in his eyes. She is a constant of the Fountain of Youth who, in turn, renders him into a young man of desire. Mortality is never too far away. Their existence is written in the stars, among “stars, moons, / planets, asteroids, comets, / and black holes.” (p. 71). The poet raises the bar “beyond/space, God, angles, and saints/”. The Music of the Spheres is a medieval concept representing harmony in the universe. He senses inevitable parting from a momentary separation. Unlike cars, “People cannot be repaired”. An old woman sold pencils on a Montreal street when he was a child in the 1950s. With his father’s passing, what remained of his family undertook “A Drive in the Country, 1960”. He was an invisible child, following a path of loss in 1961. The film River of No Return was filmed in Banff. Joseph Cotton and Marilyn Munroe were stars. She committed suicide in the year the poet recalls. At that time, the years spent writing poems, the experience of “sitting alone in a parked car/on Christmas Eve” are moments “in some cold/distant future night.” (p. 82) His Mother simply married “another sick man?” (p. 83) His new Smith Corona situates the poet in 1970. His first mother-in-law kept his poetry books in 1983. He observes that “The poem of morning is created” because “it will all work out/it always has”. (p. 86). An ode to “Oh thread, oh broken threads” invokes the flimsiest of family connection.
Morrissey’s literary papers are archived at McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections in the McLennan Library.
January 6, 2015.