Morse Code

A review of 'After Jack'

After Jack

After Jack

by Garry Thomas Morse

Talonbooks 2010, 184 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-88922-630-2

Many young poets tend to reveal the love affairs they have had with their ancestors to greater or lesser degree in their work. Ezra Pound’s early poetry, to take just one example, is full of bent knees and kissed cheeks for a variety of influential predecessors, from Rossetti and Browning to Swinburne and Ernest Dowson, not to mention the trouvères and troubadours. This is a wholly natural phenomenon, and not to be tut-tutted by anyone unless the obeisance turns into a lifelong devotion that prevents the poet from developing into something sui generis. At a completely different level, poets among and since the high modernists have often used another text or writer, as Joyce did Homer and Pound did Propertius, for a purpose far beyond influence or imitation. Duncan and Stein, Spicer and Lorca, even the Zukofskys and Catullus, comprise writerly doublings that produced highly original and compelling texts that are, in fact, about love before they are about anything else. (“Miss her, Catullus? Don’t be so inept to rail / at what you see perish when perished is the case.”) But then influence is about love too (“an affect, wild often / That is so proud he hath Love for a name / Who denys it can hear the truth now.” That’s Pound in Canto XXXVI of course, imitating and reimagining Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi prega.”) 

Garry Thomas Morse’s After Jack exists somewhere in this territory — part homage, part rewrite of older texts, part confession of love and influence. Like all confessions it is a bit embarrassing at times, a bit sacramental in a gushy sort of way. (Those readers who know their literary history know Spicer’s connection to the British Columbia poetry world. He gave a series of lectures at Warren Tallman’s house during the 1965 Vancouver Poetry Conference (since published), not long before his death — and his “great companion” Robin Blaser emigrated to Canada in 1966 to teach at Simon Fraser University, bringing with him the aesthetics of the Berkeley Renaissance and the cult of the serial poem.) After Jack follows The Collected Books of Jack Spicer relatively closely, transforming and translating Spicer’s actual words at times, riffing on and dancing outside the source text at other times. Just as Spicer used, abused, and transfused poems by Lorca for his book After Lorca (1957), Morse takes Spicer’s own work in the same spirit of alchemical transformation, conversing with his source texts in a number of different ways. The base text is sometimes very much in evidence, as for example in the opening poem. Spicer’s was called “Juan Ramón Jimenez” and began:

In the white endlessness
Snow, seaweed, and salt
He lost his imagination.

The color white. He walks
Upon a soundless carpet made
Of pigeon feathers.

Morse’s is entitled “Clarence Malcolm Lowry,” and begins thus:

Ecstasy in the white
pages of nards, salt
& spunk unlimited

White, the sheet
is moulting black
bird feathers

The “Jimenez” piece is one of the genuine Lorca poems in Spicer’s text (others were made up or combined genuine translation with Spicerian originals), so by turns the “Lowry” poem is Morse transforming Spicer translating Lorca addressing Jiménez (Spicer did not put the accent in the Spanish poet’s surname, but Lorca did), with the additional reference to the author — British by birth, but British Columbian by adoption — of Under the Volcano. This manner of reading, with the Spicer (at least) open on one’s desk, helps one to follow Morse’s process. All the same, Morse has pointed out in an interview with Ken Norris, that Spicer himself was anxious to emphasize that his Lorca workings were “transformations” and not “translations,” and this applies equally to Morse’s own work, mutatis mutandis. Having the base text immediately to hand will nevertheless help one to a certain degree with the poems in After Jack.

The Orphic was Mallarmé’s coefficient for poetry’s future (“The orphic explanation of the earth, which is the poet’s only duty and the literary mechanism par excellence”), and one can sense its presence in Yeats, D. H. Lawrence (“The earth’s long conical shadow is full of souls / that cannot find the way across the sea of change”), Pound, and others, including of course Jack Spicer. That which is Orphic in Spicer — what the critic Catherine Imbriglio has categorized as “descent, lament, dismemberment” — sometimes becomes more obscure in Morse’s transmutations. Lorca’s “Debussy,” for example, which Spicer translated fairly literally, becomes “Wagner” in Morse’s reimagining (a seemingly odd transmigration of composers if the reader doesn’t know music history, and a complicated one if he/she does), with other correspondences being equally strange. For example, where Lorca’s/Spicer’s shadow came between the frogs and the stars, Morse’s is “ack- / nowledged master of stars” (the syllabification itself is unusual), and where Lorca’s/Spicer’s shadow moves over the water “like a huge / violet-colored mosquito,” Morse’s “moves / like a violet knish.” “Knish” seems like a typical out-of-left-field LangPo word choice, strange and annoying, although Morse is likely taking a swipe at Wagner’s anti-Semitism. The following pair of lines (“A hundred crickets / want gold to go up”) could also refer to Wagner, gold being the central issue of contestation in The Ring of the Nibelungs, though it’s still a peculiar sentence taken literally. A lot of the sentences in these poems, taken literally, strike me as odd, although often they are tied back to Spicer or Lorca and the linguistic context mitigates their weirdness. Whether poetry has any responsibility to be literal is in any case not a question that concerns Morse in the least. (“Feeling goes on behind the words  Were /  the naked words enough for you”). In his conversation with Ken Norris, Morse says that poetry largely is esotericism in his view.

Morse’s transformation of After Lorca includes letters from him to Spicer, unpunctuated (apart from commas) pieces of an aesthetics presented as the words of a lonely poet writing to a dead master (“that beautiful loneliness so necessary to poetry”). He worries at the relationship between the real and the poem, as Spicer did (“the poet’s whole universe is just a merle blanc, a snowy raven, a nonexistent thing which strives to live”), but he worries also about criticism’s tendency to “murder to dissect” (“I can’t bear to see them dissect you”). The poems and letters as a whole comprise not so much a critique of Spicer as a recontextualization of his concerns and, only sometimes, his actual words. The fifth poem in “The Book of Percival,” for example, bears no relationship to the Spicer equivalent and is clearly composed in twenty-first century-speak, despite its Poundian allusion (“bitch” and “slut” surely come from the opening lines of Canto VIII):

What are you doing here
I have never seen you so
Lucid. Are you going to
Get smashed. This is a
New program. Translation
“Bitch” “slut” “fierce”
Can confuse the
Lucid. And they
Suck the fucken
Life outta ya

Spicer’s “Letters to James Alexander” by contrast sit visibly in the control room behind Morse’s “Letters West,” which, he has said, were written as he was moving back to the West Coast from Ottawa and are addressed to no one. These poems still contain examples of self-conscious overreaching — eg. a line like “I hang around like a favorite mug and try to avoid the chicanery of faux-Delftware” — but in many ways they are the most accessible and most moving pieces in the book. Instead of brittle propositions like “Language / Is / Immediate / Heat / Loss” or “taste me for the itinerary of eternity,” Morse speaks more directly in sentences such as “I am returning to spring and rain and fog and shiny new trains. I am returning under a layer of exquisite ignominy. I am returning to bright hues and the tuberlike promise of regeneration.” (“Exquisite” is a little too self-absorbed, but still…) When Morse cuts off the sentence in section 14 that begins “No one knows better than I do how lonely,” you trust that he deserves the deep feeling in a way that is not always true in After Jack. The conventions of Language Poetry sometimes tend to turn every bit of language into an example of the egotistical sublime, and it is good to finish Morse’s book with the sense that he has extended his work beyond such self-conscious invention.