Articles & Reviews

Moonlight & Thresholds (Review of Family Album)

By Alexander M. Forbes
Canadian Literature, # 137
summer 1993

Family Albums are dangerous. In Stephen Morrissey's long serial poem Family Album, each verbal photograph is a mise en abyme. Each reflects, in spare images that recall both Tom Marshall and Florence McNeil, a stage of the male speaker's earlier self. The speaker's failure to grow as an individual, however, ensures that the photographs also reflect each other. The speaker's movement while turning the pages of his family album signifies his attempt to understand the language of the pictures, and the process of self -reflection generated begins to have consequences for the album itself. The speaker starts to photograph differently as self-reflection changes him, with the result that when new pictures are added, they no longer look like earlier ones, although considerable mirroring continues to occur until an event that, finally, puts a stop to all reflection.

From the beginning, there is something wrong. The first family portrait leaves out both mother and children ("Preludes"). The next pictures recover some of the missing children, but find them arrested in various postures of still life. From the opening scenes of absence, guilt, regret, and suspended motion, the pictures proceed to depict the speaker's movement through progressive — but overlapping — stages of numbness ("Winter in Huntingdon"), sorrow ("Feel Nothing"), and anger ("Three Poems on a Single Theme").

As the album leaves are turned, the story of a journey into understanding begins to emerge, in counterpoint, "Isolation" discloses the splitting so common in human life (a recurrent topic in Morrissey's earlier poetry). In what is clearly a parody of Dudek's En Mexico, "In Mexico" continues reflection upon this splitting by implicitly associating the speaker with Dudek's account of those who, despite suffering, must confront the daily work of living.

The speaker's response to the pictures begins to modulate under self-questioning. His perceptions move toward an acknowledgement of a "child within"—one of the children missed in the first photograph — and the realignment of a present sense of the self in light of that child's existence ("Four Short Poems"). But the ancestral past must also be recognised, for "we become our inheritance ..." ("July Near Huntingdon"). Recognition permits the renovation of memory and the discovery of meaning as the "full moon overwhelms the night sky" and the speaker becomes "careful to remember" who he "used to be" ("Farewell Darkness"). The light attained proves, however, to be merely lunar.

The next photographs capture family members in acts of escape. The speaker sees that personal habits of denial have a family history: a mother who would not speak about her husband's death ("A Day in 1957"); an aunt and uncle whose house was "furnished as though / they might have to escape" ("The Reunion"). The speaker recognises the typically Canadian, as well as Jungian, problem of individuation: in Margaret Atwood's terms, the problem that occurs when there is a simultaneous need for extrication from, and reconciliation with, a group that has made victims of the very members it has supported.

In "The Return of Memory," another perception is developed: the impossibility of reconstructing "what has been / shattered." When this impossibility is recognised, the speaker is freed to look elsewhere, for what has not been shattered. What he finds is the love of his grandmother:

... how could she die
without leaving something of herself?
Not grief or death but life for life, love for love. ("The Return of Memory")

Healing is not achieved simply by the recovery of memory, or the reconciliation of the conscious self with a personal and ancestral past. The hope of integration is afforded only by something indestructible: by the fact of a love actually given by another, and reciprocated. Previous perceptions have been of value, but only in the actual giving and returning of love is hope finally established, a fact recognised by the speaker in the final poem ("End Notes") when he is struck by a light more bright than moonlight. This light does not spring from within the "old walls" of the self, but it does illuminate them, as "sunlight across millennia" casts "new light on old walls," in a "delirium of light" that suffuses reflection altogether.

Copyright © 2007 The author