A Private Mythology
Ekstasis Editions, 2014.
Reviewed by David R. Pitt
Some fans of Stephen Morrissey may recognize the previously published poems in A Private Mythology; this compilation of new and old works is carefully organized into a fabric of repeating images. Although Morrissey did not christen his own collection—his editor titled it for him—the subdued narratives and recurring words and ideas comprise a personal mythology with recurring icons and consistent touchstones. The subject matter ranges from the cosmic to the personal, and there is no evident contention, no perceivable break, between the cosmic and the mundane in A Private Mythology. Morrissey is a Jungian—the “collective/ unconscious” appears in a poem (55)—and it is therefore no surprise that he collapses the personal and the universal in his verse. Sweeping observations about the human soul, what injuries can be healed and what can only be managed, the free dance of the imagination are interspersed with autobiographical glimpses of the poet’s family, past homes, and personal journeys.
Morrissey’s first section opens with an inventory of poetic coats, and these interpenetrative poems constitute a thoughtful treatment of the relationship between the surface and the subcutaneous. This section is an interesting response to Yeats’s coat, but Morrissey weaves his own mythologies instead of walking naked. When the inventory of personal and family objects is finished, he turns to Jungian, dreamlike poems, and seamlessly returns to autobiographical subjects like the aching portrait of the loveless home he shared with his ex-wife, or the quiet meditation on his father’s early death.
Part Two opens with a sweeping set of astrological poems, “The Great Year.” Their primary impressions are not mystic or occultic, but delicately personal: “we find ourselves/ always searching,” Morrissey writes in “Age of Gemini,” with “our memories/ held together/ by darkness” (41). “Age of Aquarius” ends in a prophecy of humanity as Odysseus exploring the swirling void of the future. This section finishes with surrealist personal poems called “Lines from Magritte”: these poems explore most thoroughly the net of personal values that inform Morrissey’s verse and what it is like for the person who refuses to transform himself, instead choosing to remain a tumour on his own spirit—withdrawn but not introspective. “The Listening Room,” inspired by the eponymous Magritte painting, depicts the spiritual therapy of silence, listening, and writing in a way that speaks powerfully but never preaches.
Part Three opens with a series of love poems about the speaker’s second wife. The poem “My Wife” is a mystifying little prayer, precious and perhaps sarcastic-sounding if not for the supporting sentiments found in the poems that follow it. “The Well of Love” and “Waking My Love” equally beg the reader to find something insincere or menacing, but they are in such contrast with the speaker’s unloving first wife that it quickly becomes evident that the speaker is honestly grateful to be in an affectionate relationship. While more jaded readers will laugh at precious lines like, “oh come and see her hair,/ her darling hair” (62), only the most insensitive will resist succumbing to Morrissey’s powerful “Anniversary,” which depicts beautiful, simple images of synchrony that are haunted by the lines,
to be held in your arms
feels like a return to childhood,
but I have no memories of being held
like this, close and tight
in a woman’s arms (69)
These lines make the autobiographical details much more menacing and the speaker’s losses that much deeper. The reader must confront the aching sincerity of the sentimentalism that frames these verses. The urgency of affection introduced in “Anniversary” is reiterated in the final poem—magnificent and terrifying—“Hanging by a Thread”: without love, the domestic rituals that seemingly bind a person to his spouse and family mean nothing. “Former families/ we said we loved” (87) fall into darkness, and the lethal threat of detachment looms despondently over every relationship explored in this collection. This powerful ending is purely wide-eyed and descriptive, and contains no didactic warning. Morrissey writes like a child who cannot help but be honest.
Honesty is the hallmark of A Private Mythology. Morrissey’s writing is almost minimalist at times, and the conversational, unadorned quality of his verse gives his voice the sincerity of an eyewitness. There is nothing wry or sardonic in this entire book; the verse is direct and makes no attempts to hide. Readers who generally prefer more elegant poetry, myself included, will not be able to ignore the quiet beauty of these spare poems. While the collection does not strike me as anything particularly new or groundbreaking, it succeeds because it is emotive with no melodrama, quietly powerful without ever demanding a passionate response outright. These poems are rich in beauty and soft in voice, and it is their carefully muted splendour that gives Morrissey’s poetry its surprising power.
David R. Pitt was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland and currently lives in Montreal with his beautiful wife. He is an English MA student at McGill University, his main areas being Early Modern English literature and Milton studies.