Migratory vernaculars

A review of Mark McMoriss's 'Entrepôt'



by Mark McMorris

Coffee House Press 2010, 90 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-56689-236-0

Once, we were told by word of mouth that Heraclitus of Ephesus spoke of a grotesque kind of order whereby he declared that: “War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen.” Rather than deploring the inequities of the world, he suggests that perpetual conflict is a way of life; it gives us meaning, much as our own history of recent memory has been shadowed by the thrust and force of war’s traumas. In Mark McMorris’s new book of poems, Entrepôt, we confront a like darkness where “The melodious waves / of grass promise no sanctuary / except to the beetle and cicada.” 

McMorris’s poems are capacious meditations, investigations, critiques, and queries on the weight of history’s wars and traumas as they seem to enscroll a poetics and ethics on ancient parchment — scrolling that reaches forward toward a future readership. In Entrepôt, war is a threshing ground, a rumbling echo in an olive grove, an acre of light stained by blood and the mark of a pen. The poems challenge in as much as they bring a revivified reading to bear on the present; the inquiry into civilization’s centuries old quest for meaning through art and conflict remains attuned to the need for the poem to be a space where one may cross borders and boundaries. If the poems in Entrepôt arise out of a lyric accretion and ordinary vernacular, it is toward a nomadic flight of probing and investigatory thought.

In the poem, “Dear Michael (2),” McMorris writes: “The wound cannot close; language is a formal exit / is what exits from the wound it documents.” Further on in the poem, we read: “It is the source that makes the wound, the wound / that makes a poem. / It is defeat that makes / a poem sing of the light and that means to sing / for a while.” To speak of a source that wounds, thus necessitating an act of language, infuses a much needed renewal of the lyric’s potential to address and ruminate on what a wound might disclose. Here, as McMorris tells us, “the wound is deaf to what it makes.” In other words, the poem brings us closer to something like revelation, allowing the sequence of words their order and shapeliness to congregate around a vector of its own making. The wound that he calls forth is personal, communal, and historical. It is also a trope for the occult music that arises within a poem. The wound is between something; it is extraterritorial.

The lyric utterance transmitted throughout Entrepôt offers a rich matrix of provisional grounds that can be trespassed and negated. We are properly placed between a formal and experiential arc as the poems remain unfixed, as if they are always at the point of vanishing. As McMorris writes in “Dear Michael (3),” Just so / in any case it is true that I must speak / not only of speaking but of things otherwise unsaid / things and not their names, not the mood of a text / but the text burgled and naked to the wind, at risk / of dissolving as the rain falls, as the sea washes over it.” In these lines, there is an inherent tenuousness to the prospect of speaking and naming; a nagging doubt that what language carries through might fall flat. To speak in such a way is to recognize the potential for a poem to be a dialogic form that sets out to address something.

As McMorris shows throughout his major poem sequence, “Letters To Michael,” the poem as an epistolary event proposes a space where a reader might interact or hover above the interlocutor’s positioning within the poem. It’s not one’s voice propelling the poem forward, but a voluminous echo of overlaying voices straining for a dialogue to take shape. However, looked at another way, on a formal level, a letter is usually addressed to someone. While McMorris samples Michael Palmer in “Dear Michael (14),” “anemone, and the plasma of mud,” a line from Palmer’s “Letters To Zanzotto,” the letter poems in Entrepôt seem to be of a larger structure in which to invoke heterogeneous voices, rather than a singular address to one receiver. At times, though, we might very readily infer that McMorris, as with many other poets, is writing not only forward to a potential reader, but backwards towards previous texts.

The poems of Entrepôt enact the very framework that the title calls forth. An entrepôt is an “intermediary center of trade and transshipment.” In an interview with Rain Taxi in their Winter 2008/2009 issue, McMorris spoke of an entrepôt as “a figure for a space of transition,” and “a place that is between other places.” In this way, beyond the ideational, the poem itself becomes the formal enactment of an entrepôt. If McMorris’s poems resist any defining or absolute location and origin, a place on the map as it were, it is not to dislocate or unsettle the reader, but to enact a language practice where what is said, propositioned, declared, or questioned can reverberate in a meeting place. In “Anaphora of Shadows (11x11+33),” McMorris brings us “ever closer to an entrepot / where signals cross and cancel, or cross and multiply / bands of dark and transitory splinters of light.”

 McMorris’s poems are truly a wonder of imagery, sound structure, and intellection; his poems make evident the fact that “the mind is bottomless.” There is a particular gravity to the lyric utterance weaving its way throughout Entrepôt that is of and beyond its moment. It is as much grounded in modern tradition (McMorris draws on Yeats, Stein, Hugo Ball, and others) as it is grounded in classical texts, history’s scholiasts, and the “tin-cup goliard.” From the poem “Three Aspects of the Name”:

The gospel tells us that tradition flows like a river
to irrigate the soul, from origin to the fringe
of reason. It is the thing you can’t avoid belonging to
just as the sea cannot escape mingling with water.
The voice of tradition is ours, or else we are empty
forms cast aside like husks from a coconut grove
able to lie in the sun but not to speak of the havoc
of hunger, or so the philosophers aver, in their moods.
The history of the tribe is fixed within the orbit
traced by the name in written records. Nothing else exists.

The tradition that McMorris is speaking of here can be read as a larger invocation of how identity is made up of a series of sedimentations from the past. Read in more local light, and in a closer reading of McMorris’s imagery, tradition as enounced in “Three Aspects of the Name,” involves a struggle as the speaker “encountered a ghost, my name.” The unspecified name is from “a violent clan of laborers, / men given to dance in the costume of underworld spirits / who took ship with the merchants from the Gold Coast, and blew / ashore in the Latitudes of Weeping.” The speaker’s recalling of the past is closely bound with “events best left to the whistle of tree frogs at night.” While tradition for McMorris is unavoidable, it is also fraught with the memory of colonialism and the challenges present in the act of salvaging a postcolonial identity free from the bonds of colonial rule. Rather than the poem being a site of critique or a potential utopian space, McMorris calls us into the song, where an “untethered polyphony” becomes the currency of the poem.

 In the magisterial poem, “Auditions For Utopia,” McMorris imagines the potential for a utopia that begins with a propositional setting within a room that is covered with a mural. On one wall “there is a scene of naked olive bodies / and giant ferns, bodies like ferns and ferns / with the aplomb of the forest.” To set up the imagery of opposition, the second wall shows the “polis in smoky industrial affray, the emblems / of feudal lord and banker and sea captain / in stately parade underneath the parchment heaven.” In order to reconcile these two competing images, the former image has to be dematerialized “to become the prehistory of advertising perfume: / languorous beaches kissed by a glittering sun / where industrialists repose in the elbow of a cove.” McMorris brings us to the very impossibility of there being any kind of utopia that might arise under these conditions. Further on in the poem, the notion of utopia is further expanded upon: it is not a place on a map that one can point to; it is not a place that one arrives at by conscious choice.

Threaded throughout this poem, there is a nameless African boy who dances on the shore of the beach where the “ancient dance of the waves and torchlight” embody the very negation of traditional life that was revealed in the first mural. The boy, who is described as a “miracle of teleported motion,” is also a countermeasure to the surrounding tensions inherent in the Caribbean setting the poem in situated within:

The boy was content to dance himself
bizarre and unreachable as he seemed
to us, almost invisible, in touch
with secret chords and the generations.
He did not have a name. The dance
passed through the slash of the waves
to become a visible present tense
wholly of action in that small frame.

Not only does this boy seem as if he has been transported to this location through a mental process, but through his fluid dance, there is something almost otherworldly about the way he carries himself through time and space. Perhaps there is an inherent innocence that can be attributed to the state of childhood, or conversely, the boy becomes a larger figure for a lost time and memory amid the island’s history of plantations and the chronic behavior that comes with such an oppressive social matrix. Echoing the impossibility of attaining a utopian state, the poem “Inescapable Country,” locates us within pastoral Jamaica. This is another site, rich with natural beauty that recalls a violent history. The speaker of the poem writes: “Something about pastoral calms / the violent heart, wherein desire / takes form in the visible world. // Bending a corner, you see it green / as it once was and will be then / and always with the mind’s deceit.”

Entrepôt as a whole presents a rigorous poetics, in terms of thinking about the formal concerns that might be imbedded in a poem. Again, from “Anaphora of Shadows (11x11+33),” we are told “the poem goes ahead of us and waits.” In “Dear K,” the closing poem of the book, the speaker says “The poem inclines / to restless thought: the night relentless / the heavens unimaginably vast.” In these lines, the poem becomes much more than a depository of materials in flux. Here, the poem is a bearing. It is not just a formal procedure, but a site where things that wouldn’t normally to be placed together are suddenly brought into a dialogic structure. If McMorris’s wielding of language recalls that of the mythmaker in an alchemist’s lab, it is because he finds a variety of forms to push the bounds of thought to a new lyric intensity.