Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Beyond, between, and Otherwise: Mark McMorris's Postcolonial Poethics

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Beyond, between, and Otherwise: Mark McMorris's Postcolonial Poethics

Article excerpt

I read Mark McMorris's experimental poetry in the historical context that conditioned it. In the 1970s, his native Jamaica underwent profound political change after colonial rule, and McMorris draws intertextually on public discourse involving an ethics of responsibility towards others, which I highlight through the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.

Born in Jamaica, poet Mark McMorris now lives, writes, and teaches in Washington, D.C. His education, upbringing, and experience traverse national and linguistic boundaries and mark him as a cross-cultural hybrid who, like his work, defies easy categorization. Raised in a middle-class home with mixed African and European ancestry, McMorris lived in Jamaica through high school, leaving in 1979 to attend university at Columbia in New York City. Along with his cultural background, his poetic sources and influences can also be classified as "hybrid." Drawing on a modernist avant-garde tradition stretching from Andre Breton and Gertrude Stein to Language Poetry, McMorris's writing often does not contain the usual thematic or vernacular clues that mark the verse of anthologies of "black" poetry. Furthermore, his interest in European and American avant-gardes distinguishes his writing from many contemporary Caribbean writers like Derek Walcott and Mervyn Morris, who write in a much more direct and self-expressive style. At the same time, McMorris draws on a long tradition of ground-breaking black writers such as Aime Cesaire, Edouard Glissant, Amiri Baraka, and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. This melange results in writing that defies the easy ethnic identification that African-American poetry anthology editors and slam organizers seek. Through this markedly black though obscure tradition, then, McMorris launches from the metropole his formally innovative rendition of the many linguistic strands of life in the Americas.

Reading McMorris's work as an extension and complication of these roots, my essay focuses on the formal experiments of The Black Reeds, The Blaze of the Poui, and The Cafe at Light that thoroughly engage with the disruptive and elusive elements of (black) literary tradition, language, and identity. In fact, this disruption for McMorris involves not merely self-definition but right-relations with other people. To elucidate the ethics in his writing, my essay takes two steps. First, I justify my use of postcolonial and continental ethical philosophy, particularly the work of Emmanuel Levinas, which can help explain how "right relations" are figured within the poetry. Second, I situate McMorris's writing within the historically postcolonial context of Jamaica's experiments in the 1970s with democratic socialism because the public discourse of the time is pervaded by the idea of responsibilities to others, and in some way this context can help reveal the full extent of the ethics of his poetry.

However, prevailing understandings of otherness present a limitation in reading McMorris's work. The typical assumption is that otherness is bad because colonized people had been labelled as "other" by their oppressors, but this definition proves inadequate to explain the ethics of his writing, which does not eschew the Other as a colonial fantasy or the state of otherness as a sign of slavery. (1) Instead, McMorris seeks out and respects otherness as a relation with infinity: "know the conduct of infinity, although / it stay only in desire" (Blaze 70). "To let being loose there--" McMorris writes in "Separate Coasts," "oblique to what the radio plays in a direct sense, directly going to Other" (Black 64). This "directly going to Other" is not for him merely a matter of words. He seeks otherness as an "unsayable" source of what is ethical. "I must learn how to say the unsayable," he writes in "Too Far Along" from The Black Reeds, "to speak of a zone that has no mooring" (30). This impossible unsayable, which he nevertheless must learn to speak, is the kind of otherness or alterity that concerns McMorris. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.