Coracle Press (Montreal), 2009
Reviewed by Jody Freeman
The Girouard Avenue that Stephen Morrissey offers us is no mundane stretch of pavement and cold-water flats under a pale sky. It spans an ocean and centuries, reflecting the inner heart of a lonely boy attuned to a deeper ancestral pulse, who finds solace in the quiet of an urban bed of snow under stars, wondering
where does the sky end?
Where are the limits of outer space,
the final conclusion of stars
distant and unknown to us?
“Holy Well” in the Prologue sets the reach of this work: the deep ancient well water of Tipperary and the reflected sky in its depths, “a place of sleep and dreams” offering knowledge of the mysteries of life to those willing to drink. Reverence for that ancient source infuses these poems, along with an unwavering respect for those who came before him, driven by the famine in Ireland, sickened by ship’s fever – the ones who survived and the five thousand who did not, buried in a mass grave spared from desecration by the unnamed workmen hired to build the Victoria Bridge. Here, the massive Black Rock dredged from the St. Lawrence River to mark their grave also marks deeper kindred waters that converge with the underground spring in a park on the corner of Doherty and Fielding, “reminding us of what we used to know, but have forgotten – the water insistent, forceful, always desiring wholeness”- reflecting back to us infinite sky and the heartful ground where the dead never die.
Morrissey does not break the trust with the dead. He listens carefully, stepping out of his own way, committing the essential to paper, stripping away the extraneous. These poems follow an order of their own. His Prologue: Holy Well divides itself in two: 1. The Ancient Well of Ara and 2. The Forgotten Spring. The first set of poems, Girouard Avenue Flat, unfolds in twelve parts, tracing the markers of early family life centring on his grandmother’s flat, while his father was still alive and afterward in the echoing void that followed. Hoolihan’s Flat, Oxford Avenue divides itself into nine. Morrissey was only four when they moved to this flat. It was while living here as a young child that he faced his aloneness so acutely, with his mother in Boston accompanying his ill father, and his older brother never close. November, the ever-dismal month in which his father dies (despite all the young boy’s prayers), splits into twelve. Reflecting more broadly on this half-century since the mid-fifties, November concludes with a personal summing up that captures the sense of rootedness to duty of the small faithful boy within the man, knowing so little of exuberance:
... I’ve lived on the end of strings,
controlled by obligations,
and a rigid sense
of who I am....
And yet cutting through these bonds is the quiet joy of oneness with all, the awe that Morrissey still feels as he did as a child, at all of creation.
Morrissey gives us "The Rock, or a Short History of the Irish in Montreal", divided into seven vignettes, before concluding his book. Here we find a poet-historian with a fine sense of detail, offering us a glimpse into the quarantined quarters and the hardworking life of Griffintown’s residents.
"The Epilogue: The Colours of the Irish Flag", naturally divides into three. Here Morrissey talks more freely about love. Green begins:
If I believed in death I’d give up now, the ground an envelope in which our bodies will lie until our souls are sent to heaven, hell or nowhere at all – we did not meet to be torn apart so soon, that is the cry of lovers heard across a green field.” White: This is the sheet of paper, a flag of surrender This is newly fallen snow and we are walking across it, a field with a few straggly black trees on the horizon where a white sky meets the white field of snow – and I am carrying a white flag [...]” Orange: When a man and woman marry their tears become one, tears of sorrow, tears of joy; without love there is only the growing distance between sun and moon [...] Those who join in union become two people sailing on a wooden ship into an orange sunset, a million gold coins dancing on the water’s surface, the gold light disappears in minutes... tears of sorrow, tears of joy.”
Morrissey has fulfilled the task he set for himself. He has traced the uprootedness of his ancestors and the chasm of loss. He has dredged up that great dark stone and inscribed it in commemoration. I look forward to the new poems waiting in the wings, exuberant, testing the winds.
Jody Freeman is a Montreal translator.