Soft Conquest: Poems by Mark McMorris

By Kadlec, David | Chicago Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Soft Conquest: Poems by Mark McMorris


Kadlec, David, Chicago Review


For more than a decade, Mark McMorris has been publishing his dense and eloquent poems in leading electronic and print venues including Callaloo, Conjunctions, Fence, Hambone, and Tripwire. In addition to three tightly conceived chapbooks released during the early-to mid- 1990s, he published his first full-length poetry collection, The Black Reeds, in 1997. A second book, The Blaze of the Poui, has just been published by The University of Georgia Press.

As the Jamaican-born author of poems, prose pieces, and critical essays, McMorris has been situated among other black Atlantic writers who work to square "race matters" with formal poetic innovations that sometimes find their roots in "raceless" or normative white poetic traditions; questions about race, nation, and language have long been central to his work. And of all of his published writings, none addresses these key questions with the unsettling power and clarity of his newest book, The Blaze of the Poui. As a collection of poems, The Blaze of the Poui pours a startling array of voices into an ongoing investigation of eros and exploration in the European and African settlement of the New World. Filled with sifting allusive stanzas and sudden zero-tipped lines, this book also signals the emergence of a new variety of experimental poetry, one in which contemporary poetics combine with postcolonialist theory to re-embody and hence to imagine anew classical and formalist as well as avant-garde literary traditions.

McMorris is singular as a writer who possesses an extensive knowledge not only of innovative movements in twentieth-century American poetry (Objectivism, Black Mountain, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E), but also of the Greek and Latin classics (Homer, Virgil, Catullus) and contemporary Caribbean writing, especially writing of the experimental variety (Kamau Brathwaite, Nourbese Philip). For his wide-ranging poems, essays, and fiction writings, he is gaining attention not only in the U.S., where he teaches and writes, but also in other countries that follow new currents in poetry in English. This is a good moment for poets and scholars alike to pause and take notice of McMorris's newest writings about eros and exploration, and about efflorescence and decay in language and in identity. And one of the best ways to approach The Blaze of the Poui lies through the challenges and pleasures of its author's earlier poems.

1. The Black Reeds and the chapbooks

The poems in McMorris's three chapbooks and in his first full-length book, The Black Reeds, merit their own kind of careful attention. Here, however, they can be touched upon in a manner that helps us to grasp the increasingly subtle and complex poems that make up The Blaze of the Poui. McMorris's first chapbook, "Palinurus Suite" (1992), takes Aeneas's fallen helmsman, Palinurus, as its subject. At the extreme edges of this firmly turned poem are passages in Latin and passages that display McMorris's debt to contemporary experimental writers, especially poets affiliated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement. In "Palinurus Suite," the dead helmsman is ritually and linguistically summoned through words and images at once quotidian and unearthly:

   Colors dawn on the bench
   white flour for the meal
   honey in discard
   cast of an iron shadow
   on pleat, peat, peath, plinth (np)

In the last line of this stanza, sounds and meanings drift and bend into patterns that seem almost genetically determined. Here McMorris takes Susan Howe as his model. At her best, as she is in the long poem, "Thorow" (in the 1990 book, Singularities), Howe lets us feel the rich complexity of word play, and makes us think in new ways about the forces that drive language. In "Palinurus Suite," McMorris uses similar techniques of defamiliarization to dramatize the release of historically suppressed voices.

In McMorris's other chapbooks, "Figures for a Hypothesis (Suite)" (1995) and "Moth-Wings" (1996), the markers of the poet's own schooling recede in favor of a more plainspoken investigation of language, exile, and identity. …

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