Articles & Reviews

Review of Mapping the Soul: Selected Poems, 1978-1998

Mapping the Soul: Selected Poems, 1978-1998.
By Stephen Morrissey.
Winnipeg: Muses Company, 1998.
182 pages. $17.95.

By Ian Colford, published in The Dalhousie Review, 78/2, 1998, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Stephen Morrissey has been an active participant in the Anglo-Quebec poetry scene for many years, as the subtitle of this retrospective attests. His work has been made widely available in Canada: in literary journals, in six previous full-length volumes, and in a number of chapbooks.

Mapping the Soul presents a generous selection of Morrissey's previously published poems, along with some new, unpublished work. It presents an opportunity to assess the output of a poet in mid-career and to arrive at an understanding of what has been accomplished over the course of twenty years.

Morrissey's poems are characterized by what could be termed a documentary voice. He writes predominantly in a confessional mode that appropriates, in equal measure, the banal and the painful of life's experiences and transmutes them into a very personal art. One can readily assume that the Soul of the title is the soul of the author, but one suspects also that Morrissey is implying that the breadth of his concerns is wider than this and that he's charting the topography of the reader's soul as well.

In his preface, Morrissey is refreshingly articulate on the subject of his sources, his methods, and his goals.

I have always aimed at a directness of statement and emotion in my poems, to communicate an image and a strong emotion; to merge the personal self with the archetypal self. Poetry is the voice of the psyche speaking through the poet. These poems, selected from twenty years of published work, map the convolutions, terrain, and geography of the soul. (11)

The earliest poems are also the most overtly experimental of the collection, though the experimentation is tame: restricted to fragmentary lines, lack of--or eccentric--punctuation, and words purged of vowels in the manner of bill bissett (abt for about). "Divisions", the long poem from the 1983 volume of that title, is the most striking of these. Comprising a series of observations on how life alienates people from each other, from their past, and from their surroundings, it draws on memory for much of its content. However, apart from the whimsical arrangement of its component sections, the tone and subject of this poem are very much in keeping with Morrissey's less idiosyncratic work, to such a degree that the reader wonders what purpose the atypical structure is serving. Morrissey himself must have wondered the same thing, because this poem marks the end of his experiments with form, and from this point on he rarely strays from the left-hand margins and short lines that we see in the vast majority of contemporary poetry.

Morrissey's development as a poet is difficult to chart because his subject, and his treatment of it, has remained much the same for the last fifteen years. He writes of his own spiritual development as a human being, of his family, of his triumphs and (overwhelmingly) of his failures. Clearly, a defining event for Morrissey as a man was the collapse of his marriage, an experience that is wrenchingly depicted in the poems from his 1993 volume, The Compass. Morrissey's quest for healing does not permit him to shrink from chronicling his damaged state of mind and revealing the frayed edges of his psyche.

Tasting crumbs found on a plate
by the kitchen sink, trying to remember
if I had eaten breakfast
when the time for lunch was long passed.
I stood in the driveway and watched
her leave. Weeks later: Do you
miss me? she asked on the phone.
("The Things She Left")

At times in the poems from The Compass, Morrissey comes dangerously close to self-pity, yet we cannot help but savour the precision with which he draws his images and admire the strength and purity, and emotional richness, of his voice.

In more recent volumes, Morrissey's voice evolves into the sturdy, reliable voice of the mature poet. Approaching fifty, he seems to have attained an equilibrium in his emotional life that is reflected in the poetry. Childhood memories continue to provide the material for many of his poems, and he remains a deft observer of the ever-present, essential moment. At a time when many of his contemporaries are immersing themselves in global events and diluting their art with politics, Morrissey's inward-looking voice is immediately engaging and intensely personal. Mapping the Soul is a significant volume by a major Canadian poet. It is also a book that any reader of contemporary poetry will find rewarding and satisfying.

Ian Colford
Dalhousie University

Copyright © 2007 Ian Colford