Articles & Reviews

George Johnston, review of Family Album, The Antigonish Review. St. Francis Xavier University, Autumn 1990

Family Album is Stephen Morrissey's sixth collection of poems. They are all small books, yet together they represent a substantial poetic achievement for a man on the threshold of his forties. He is a teacher by profession, and family man, as well as being a poet, and for hobbies he has gardening, bee-keeping and water divining, and he runs as well; one is immediately struck by his appearance of physical fitness. Aside from his family, poetry is undoubtedly his first love. In the seventies he edited and published a modest periodical, what is , in Montreal, that concerned itself with concrete and experimental verse, and he was active in a lively group of younger poets there who were reading and publishing together, and trying out new forms in visual and aural poetry. Since then he has lived for over a decade in the countryside of the Chateauguay Valley, driving regularly into Montreal to teach. He is an assiduous reader of poetry, and careful in the composition of his own poems, working over them for months and sometimes years before he collects them for publication. The value of such care can be seen in all three of his recent collections, The Trees of Unknowing , Véhicule, 1978, Divisions , Coach House, 1983, and Family Album , the volume under review. He writes many reviews of Canadian books of poetry - of which there seems to be no lack requiring review -and puts much thought into this work. If he is often severe with the poetry he reviews he is not less so, in his way, with his own.

In his two most recent collections he has placed restrictions on his imagination and his style. These affect his choice of what to write about, the variety of his verse forms, and his rhythms, diction and punctuation. At the beginning of The Trees of Unknowing come five prose statements that set forth a poetic theory and opinions about art generally. These are given the collective title The Insecurity of Art . This implies a statement that perhaps accounts for the indecisive mood of the next two books, in which there are few resolutions and many questions. Here are two sentences from the beginning of the fifth statement, quoted with the punctuation and spelling of the original: "real art lies in the insecurity of life. as long as we live or create by formulas or promote some ideology or point of view, a set of beliefs or opinions from which we interpret, analyse or speculate abt life, then we continue the past in a modified form." This proclaims a poetry of the immediate present, and so it proves to be, not simply with respect to beliefs and opinions, but also to poetic traditions. I have detected no influences in Morrissey's poetry, either from the past or the present, and no echoes, unless some eccentricities of spelling, almost altogether in The Trees of Unknowing , come from bill bissett.

There are imaginative, not to say fanciful, touches in The Trees of Unknowing , and its rhythms are bright; they seem to have a lift in their step.

the evening
is a cool breeze

that enters
the room

on the wings
of the sound

of crickets

Divisions is a formally less adventurous book; what formal particularities it allows itself are now commonplaces of Canadian poetry. It has no concrete poems or eccentric spellings, and its rejection of capitals and virtually all punctuation is something one has come to expect. All poems but the first, which is a long meditation, are in short lines, some in very short lines. Rhythms are brisk and carry the thought forward bravely. The movement of the verse is swift and makes up for its lack of variety. In this respect the title poem is, to my ear, not so successful, I think because the irregular indentations and spacings of the lines break up the movement and give an emphasis to the line ends that from time to time become monotonous. I cannot resist saying here that a regular pattern of syllables or accents is less likely to result in monotony than such an irregular one. A poet who knows this has access to a fruitful paradox of art. Morrissey would probably not agree, and neither would most of his Canadian contemporaries. "Divisions" is a fine poem nevertheless; it is the most ambitious and moving poem in any of the three books. It is confessional without being burdensome, largely because its shifts of mood are humane and eloquent. It is a serious, thoughtful poem that will bear much re-reading.

In Family Album , verbal and poetic indulgences are still further restrained. The imaginative flights of The Trees of Unknowing and the narrative currents of Divisions have been all but given up. Line lengths and verse forms vary little. All but three of the poems are about the poet's immediate family - his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and his brother - or about his own loneliness in a world that offers no answers to his questions. There are fine touches of characterization and excellent bits of visualization. The many small dramas are well presented, though most are inconclusive, unless by death.

Masterful economy of means is a strength of this book.

we have abridged the dictionary
confined certain words to a handbook
of proscribed emotions arriving home
Graham smelling of breath-
freshening mint chewing gum
my brother in his room
the only hall light
is from beneath closed doors
my mother at the front door
muffled greeting words
rubbing against walls
Graham on the green love seat
a glass of beer at midnight
that was weeks before
he left for the hospital
dead three years later

The style is laconic and shows an almost excruciating restraint in its use of words. Such economy can also be witty, in a wry sort of way.

behind the sliding door her four year old daughter in darkness behind her my cousin is a refugee from what she's made of life

The whole book is an achievement in the unadorned, sparing use of language. Words say exactly what they have to say with few overtones, affectations or flourishes, no use of current catch phrases or slang, no ambiguities. Such lines as "the full moon overwhelms the night sky" and "even ground hogs feel alienated around here" show rare and uncharacteristic nods in the direction of the figurative and fashionable worlds of words. Whether or not he shares my affection for pre-Shakespearian English, this is very nearly what he writes. Moreover, he uses few adjectives or adverbs, and of those few, most are attributive. His style is paratactic, but lacking the coordinators: add a few ands, buts, withs and copulatives and many sentences would read as old-fashioned narratives.

I shall quote a poem from the last section of the book for its plain- spokenness and the well-earned note of serenity with which it ends. It is also unusual for its normal use of capital letters, coordinators and punctuation. By whatever means, it is beautiful.

The view from grandmother's dining room window:
a single tree, newspapers
blown against a wooden fence, sky grown black.
I return to these rooms
knowing the greyness against which they're set.
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-
Not grief or death
but life for life, love for love.

Copyright © 2003 The author