Mon | Nov 19, 2018

Collected, concise excellence

Published:Thursday | September 28, 2017 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
‘Peelin Orange’, The Collected Poems of Mervyn Morris.

Peelin Orange, The Collected Poems of Mervyn Morris (Carcanet) does not lay claim to being 'ultimate', 'best of', 'definitive' or any other terminal point often (and just as often, mistakenly) used in writing or music. However, in the case of Mervyn Morris's writing for close to 60 years, 'collected' indicates much more than selections from a body of work pulled together.

The approach of subdividing the poems by category, rather than chronologically, works well not only because it has the reader paying attention from the get-go to what Morris has written, rather then when he wrote it, but the section names prepare us for the content's tone.

And there is a lot of content, as Morris famed conciseness is consistent.

The first segment's title is the storyteller's invitation to Draw Near, but, strikingly, it begins with Walk Good, which is often used as farewell. Reading the poem makes what seems incongruous logical as it advises "Teck time/walk good/Yu buck yu foot/an memory ketch yu/like a springe." And so the reader can choose his path through poems that provoke recall not by being written for a specific occasion, but by distillation of the human experience into pithy lines. (A springe is a trap for small animals such as birds.)




Section Two is Love Is, followed by On Holy Week (taken from an entire publication of that name), and Time Come, which has the highest volume of poems. That section - and the book - ends with Checking Out, a well-known poem in which Morris uses the closure of relocating from a residence to the reluctant finality of life's ending with ".... We never leave/we always have to go."

Love Is has the second-highest number of individual poems, indicating Morris's delight in the ephemeral emotion. True to form, he does not concentrate on the initial rush of feeling so much as its sustenance or is long-winded as a suitor who oversells his charms. Instead, Morris is practical.

Take the first poem in the section, West Indian Love Song, written from England. The second of three stanzas (each first line ending with 'love') says: "The sea frustrates our love/dissolves my life/The moon that spun our love/Sharpens the knife". Then there is the effort to try love once more, without giving guarantees (or maybe a caution upon entering a space of incendiary feelings), in Peacetime:


Combed the area

& declared it clean

but love i cannot


safe conduct

through the rubble

of my dreams"

On Holy Week has a singular focus on the last days of Christ on Earth, giving a voice to characters who are in the Bible story but may not receive extensive treatment in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So there are poems with the Centurion and the two thieves on either side of Jesus, here called Malefactor (Left) and Malefactor (Right). Then there are the inner thoughts of Mary (Mother), Judas, and Thomas, among others.

It is an excellent collection in which often simple language is used to compress, interrogate, and decipher the complex in everyday experiences.