Articles & Reviews

Geography of the Spirit: The Poetry of Stephen Morrissey

By Carolyn Zonailo

I first made the acquaintance of the Vehicule Poets on a trip to Montreal in 1978; at that time I met Ken Norris, Endre Farkas, Tom Konyves and Artie Gold. I also was given a copy of Stephen Morrissey's The Trees Of Unknowing. We met in Artie Gold's apartment near McGill University, and along with Cathy Ford, I attended the Annual General Meeting of the League of Canadian Poets, in Montreal May 1978. From 1978 on, I was aware of the Vehicule Poets and of their publishing activities. I had founded Caitlin Press in Vancouver in 1977, and at that time I was running the press along with Cathy Ford and Ingrid Klassen. In 1984, Stephen Morrissey wrote a review of my book, A Portrait Of Paradise (Vancouver, blewointment press, 1983), which was published in CV II. After that, we began corresponding, and I received copies of The Montreal Journal Of Poetics, published by Stephen Morrissey from 1978 to 1985.

In 1987, Tom Konyves moved from Montreal to Vancouver, and we shared the position of British Columbia representative for the League of Canadian Poets. We organized readings and League meetings in Vancouver, and I got to know Tom Konyves quite well. By that time, I was running Caitlin Press by myself; in 1988, I published Tom Konyves most recent publication (his first from the West Coast), Ex Perimeter. At the end of 1988, Stephen Morrissey sent me a manuscript; we began editing back and forth through the mail, and in 1989, Caitlin Press published Morrissey's Family Album. The Vehicule Poets were contemporaries of mine, actively engaged in publishing and giving readings in Montreal, similar to what I and fellow poets of my generation were doing on the West Coast.

The first poetry Stephen Morrissey published was in 1971, in a chapbook entitled Poems Of A Period. This was published with another young poet and Morrissey has eight poems in it. In this early publication, when Morrissey was an undergraduate at Sir George Williams University, there is the kernel of the subject matter and style that keeps recurring in his subsequent work. There is one poem "A Quebec Evening" that is the beginning of his theme of family. It is about his grandmother, one of his aunts, and his Uncle Alec. He could have written this poem nineteen years later; it could have been written for Family Album. It is a seminal poem for Morrissey's work. Another poem in that same chapbook is "1939 Cars," also concerned with the past, with an historical viewpoint, the overlapping of history and family history, juxtaposing the collective culture with the narrative of the individual. "1939 Cars" ends with lines about the poet's grandfather:

Did my grandfather's ghost
 caress his last motor
  caress the steering wheel
the crank case
 check the oil
  then accept being dead
   take his '36 Chevy up with him?

Other poems in this selection include "Near Sand Bay," and "Fat Black Crows," two landscape poems that have the same tonality as later landscape poems such as ones that appear in The Trees Of Unknowing and Divisions.

The Trees Of Unknowing was published in 1978; when I discovered it in that same year it was hot off the Vehicule Press. This book is Morrissey's "young" work; several of the poems are untitled, there are concrete poems, haiku, two prose pieces—one opening and the other closing the book. These are poems in which Morrissey is searching for philosophical ground: he is affirming creativity, he is affirming the act of writing poetry, he affirms loveā€”both universal and romantic love. There is some family content, but he moves away from exploring family in this book; he moves away from exploring the connections between the past and the present, the historical and personal. It is a more lyrical book than his work that follows it. These poems have an exuberance of youthfulness. Poems that I would mention in it are "Waves," "The Trees of Unknowing," "I owe the world nothing," "Heirloom," "Contained in an amphora," and "Isolation." There is also the opening statement about poetics, "The Insecurity of Art: 5 Statements", an essay about the creative process and writing poetry. This 'manifesto' was used again in an anthology of Quebec writers which took its title from Morrissey's piece, edited by Ken Norris; and by Victor Coleman in "Only Paper Today" from Aspace Gallery in Toronto. "The Insecurity of Art" is a seminal statement on poetics for Morrissey, early in his career, just as "A Quebec Evening" was a seminal poem in his early work. It is a recapitulation of Morrissey's own poetics. In The Trees Of Unknowing, the style is self-consciously "experimental," compared to the earlier and yet more formal poems in Poems Of A Period. The Trees Of Unknowing is a book from Morrissey's student and Vehicule days, and it is written in the style of the times. Morrissey writes in "The Trees of Unknowing":

it is 3am & the house is silent
the piece of fir tree

beside me
is better than any incense

or the smell
of any flower

my friends are scattered
across the earth

In The Trees Of Unknowing, Morrissey is searching for philosophical ground; his lyrical sensibility establishes an affinity with nature and with how landscape comes into the poem as a natural part of poetic apprehension. This is a youthful, exuberant, self-consciously experimental work, not yet quite in his own voice. The poems in Poems Of A Period although written and published earlier, are actually closer to Morrissey's own distinct voice he develops in later books. There occurs a leap from The Trees Of Unknowing to Divisions, Morrissey's second book, published in 1983 by Coach House Press in Toronto. Here Morrissey as a poet begins to come into his own voice and style. His themes of family, and of personal, philosophical revelation begin in a serious way in this book. The major thrust of Divisions is in "Divisions," the title poem of the book, which is a long confessional piece. This poem is a manifesto of self; a statement of poetics; a philosophical poem not so much about family as about self, the existential self both in isolation and in relation to family, to others, to neighbourhood, to locale, to community, and to poetic persona. It marks the coming into an individual poetic voice for Morrissey—it is his poem of birthing himself as a poet.

The other poems in Divisions frame the title poem, and deal with the sense of an existential self looking for universality; the establishing of a philosophy that postulates a universal notion of self as well as the concept of universal love. Two other shorter poems that I would single out are "The Poets' Progress" and "The Dead in My Life." Morrissey writes in "The Poets' Progress":

we wrapped
ourselves in blankets
not to keep warm
for the temperature
had already reached 70° F
but for protection
from the others
they wouldn't know
we were under those
human shaped blankets...
& we were safe
with our secret
only we would ever know...
proud of our
being hidden
this became the
key to our future

This poem is about making a persona for the self as a poet. The poetic self becomes an inner being living inside the person; this poetic self is not the self that is visible or moves through the everyday world, but the self that goes into inner consciousness and the life of the imagination. "The Dead in My Life" returns to the subject matter of family we first saw in Poems Of A Period (1971) and that appears again in the third book after Divisions, Family Album (1989), then reappears again in his most recent book The Compass (Montreal, Empyreal Press, 1993), and continues into current manuscripts in progress, such as The Yoni Rocks. For example, there is a poem in The Compass called "The Clothes of the Dead." In Divisions, in "The Dead in My Life" Morrissey writes:

to see the trees' branches
grey & archaic

against a sky
far whiter than the

moon an old woman's hair
tied in a bun

she blows a strand up through yellow
& absent teeth the hair

fallen over her forehead

o the moon is my grandmother's
bun tied in a million

knots tied to her
ancient head with the stubby

fingers of time

In his third book Morrissey centers on this main subject of the self in relation to family; the family in relation to the generations; and the generations in relation to historical context, locale, and community. Morrissey's exploration of this theme of family becomes like circles created from dropping stone in water—the circles from the stone going out in ever enlarging concentric circles. In Family Album, finally Morrissey dedicates a whole book to the exploration of family:

cycles of death
that's all we know
ancestors we've forgotten to worship
have returned disguised
in dreams, our restless sleep

These lines are taken from the last poem of the book and are also used as preface for the book.

Again, there is a portrait of the poet's grandmother; "The Return of Memory" contains one of the central images in the book:

The view from grandmother's dining room window...
. . . .

Here the only life
is that ancient tree in the yard below.
The tree is grandmother's spirit
moved beyond these walls;
having lived here over forty years, how could she die
without leaving something of herself?

There are portraits of different members of his family, some of them humourous; the style is pared down—the lyrical and experimental approach in The Trees Of Unknowing and the existential sensibility in Divisions has changed into a much wryer and cooler observational tone in Family Album. There is quite a bit of sideways humour, such as in "Aunt Mable in P.E.I.": "driving into Charlottetown one night/ they found her dead upright in the back seat/ death came like sleep/ yawning she leaned back for a minute." This poem mixes the grimness of death with a black humour that works throughout this book. The members of his family become caricatures, sometimes lovingly presented, sometimes wryly. In "A Day in 1957": "mother's funeral hat/ was a crow on her head/ worn months later/ when she had to work/ it blew out the window one winter day...a hat that looked like a dead black bird". This poem has a way of understatement and a way of making humourous a tragic situation: the poet's father's funeral, his mother's husband's funeral, and this hat that looks like a crow that flew out the window becomes emblematic of both the grief and loss but also the necessity to keep on living. For, if you have any spirit in life, things are humourous at the same time they are tragic, and as you pass through this veil of tears, life can at least be relieved by moments of humour and insight.

Morrissey's most recent publication, The Compass, is a book of pilgrimage and of self. It is divided into three sections, the first section begins with a longish poem about his grandfather that was published as a broadside by The Poem Factory in 1991, called "The Whip." This meditative poem again displays that mixture of grief and humour, going further and further now in quite a sophisticated way into family material. The Compass is a personal pilgrimage; it's not close in form to Divisions, but it is close in spirit to Divisions, going back to that same sense of the examination of self. This is not the existential self in isolation anymore but the self in relation to family; the first section is about family; the poems in it follow directly from ones written previously. The second section is about the poet's own marriage and divorce, focusing on the grief and pain of divorce and the complexity of the modern contemporary family. The third section is about rebirth and establishing a new life after a divorce, a section of erotic love, falling in love and connecting with both a new sense of self and with others. All three sections are explorations of the self, undergoing a pilgrimage from family and past in the first section with poems titled such as "Uncle Herb", "What I Remember", "Grandfather's Mother", "The Dynasty", "The Clothes of the Dead"; and in the second section going into the experience of divorce, a contemporary depiction of family life; and then the third section with erotic, love poems, and rediscovery of self, rebirth, and the book ending with "Three Prayers".

This is Morrissey now in his mature voice, and well within his own voice; the poems, however, draw stylistically on different techniques used by Morrissey in previous books. There is a resurgence of some of the lyrical exuberance of The Trees Of Unknowing and a confessional narrative thread such as he developed in Divisions. There is that ability to observe the people and relationships and events in his life and comment on them from the stance of his own poetic persona that he developed in Family Album. The Compass is a book that ties all his previous work together into a single narrative—the poet's pilgrimage through life; you go from one to the other of the books and the style and techniques he uses seem to change in each one, yet both style and subject coalesce to form a mature and accomplished poetry in The Compass, still without losing the "experimental" or risk taking feeling of Morrissey's younger work. In "Some Days" Morrissey writes:

Some days I turn the family tree upside down
shake the dead into a huge white sheet
and throw them unceremoniously into the air,
they fall back to the earth
some hitting their heads
and saying "oh, oh, oh,"
while others land laughing
and become invisible as they walk through me.
Grandmother looks out her dining room window
and sees a tree;
that's when she ascended to heaven
and sat laughing at some joke
the ending of which we had both forgotten.

Grandmother has appeared in various forms in Morrissey's poems since 1971; now we are in 1991, twenty years later, and the poet now has a sense of his own mortality, so that Grandmother and poet now share that cosmic joke together, they can laugh together, they are getting to be on the same level.

Poems Of A Period is Morrissey's first published chapbook; The Trees Of Unknowing is a youthful book; Divisions is when he comes into his own a poet, he develops his own poetic persona and gives birth to himself as a poet; Family Album is when he stakes out his subject matter and territory; and The Compass is the first of his mature books, one where he has reached his full stride as a poet. The family vision is one of generations and it contains a sense of place as well as family, what it becomes is a geography of spirit. "Divisions" is Morrissey's signature poem but again it follows from the poems that precede it, going back to that first chapbook. The early experimental work was part of the 1960s and 70s, when Morrissey was a university student and actively part of Vehicule Art gallery; it's when the form and craft seem more important than the content but as you go on with Morrissey's work it's really the content that is more important to him as a poet. After Divisions form begins to follow content and not the other way around, whereas in The Trees Of Unknowing he imposes the form on the content.

After Divisions, after Morrissey has given birth to himself and his own poetic persona and voice, the emotional content becomes what informs his poetry with cadence, with rhythm and language, with density of image, with images and ideas juxtaposed. His poems become less overtly crafted and more built up brick-by-brick through idea, image, the lines: one of the special abilities he has in his writing is a non-discursive juxtaposition of idea and image, so that the idea isn't necessarily informed by the image but is taken in a new direction. You have a piling of image on image or a juxtaposing of one image against another, like the family tree, suddenly you're shaking it upside down and there is a sort of cosmic joke going through it as family members float through the air saying "oh" and landing on their heads. Morrissey takes a conventional kind of image—the family tree—and juxtaposes it with an unexpected or unconventional one. This gives Morrissey's poetry a sense of drama and excitement and this is his originality, this is what makes his voice unique and takes him beyond the straight confessional mode and into a more visionary sensibility; it's that juxtaposing of image on image that then pushes things in an entirely different direction than you think the line or the poem is going to go in.

Morrissey has a keen eye for detail, for the sensual image, for the intimate touch; you can see a lot of his poems as a quest for individuation, for spiritual redemption—a version of the hero's journey, voicing a masculine persona. In The Compass he goes through the underworld; much of his work takes you through the psychic content of dream, through the journey into the unconscious and out again. Individual poems often take you down into their psychological content and then out again into a more enlightened state. Morrissey is a philosophical poet, he uses the confessional mode to carry him into psychological revelation, i.e. the revealing of self through life's experiences, but the ending isn't just an existential notion of self but is really to create a philosophy for living.

Morrissey is a moralist, a philosopher, and his main subject matter is spiritual redemption; that is his main recurring theme, and the theme of family is a sub-subject within the larger subject of spiritual redemption. What becomes the only fortification against the suffering of life and the inescapability of death is to try to build a philosophy of life that includes, and brings one, to spiritual redemption.

Although Morrissey is a moralist he enters the moral universe only through the imagination and through imaginative vision and a poetic leap of faith. He doesn't enter the moral universe through a religious sensibility or a narrative perspective but through a poetic one. He sees the individual's experience as the primary building block to consciousness; he sees geography of place and family and history as being intertwined; he sees life as an exploration of self through the events of one's life and poetry as a vehicle for expressing emotion and as an avenue for perception. Morrissey has a physical apprehension of the world of the senses that informs his poetry; the natural world, via landscape, also comes into his poetry. He is sensitive to the genealogy of life and death and generations, with a strong moral sensibility that affirms life. But all of the above are perceived poetically, non-sequentially, non-linearly, and non-discursively—directly, through poetic apprehension. There is at times a stoical attitude to his philosophy as well as existential.

There is one, easily identifiable, central image that runs through Morrissey's writing. This is the image of the tree, which is of course the family tree—Grandmother on the tree branch, the tree outside Grandmother's window, "The Trees of Unknowing." This tree is also the tree of life, the Cross, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; it is a universal symbol for the ever-renewable human spirit, for growth and rebirth but also for the Fall from Eden and the loss of innocence.

Stephen Morrissey is a romantic humanist; his is essentially a romantic vision, with a belief in imagination and poetic apprehension. Morrissey began writing when still a teenager in high school; in his work he has always combined a romantic vision and its belief in the imagination, with personal soul-searching. As his work gains in maturity it becomes more universal in outlook; he has been influenced by the teachings of J. Krishnamurti, by the poetry and art of William Blake, by the psychology of C.G. Jung, by the Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence, by his former teacher Louis Dudek, as well as by his contemporaries, including the other Vehicule Poets. He has always attempted to be honest about his own experience, affirming the value of the individual, and defining the poet as one who reaches for and attains higher perception and spiritual redemption.

Carolyn Zonailo September 16, 1992

Copyright © Carolyn Zonailo 2008