Review of The Death Mother and Other Poems, by Frederick Morgan (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1979). Excerpt from “Three Poets in Mid Career” by Dana Gioia, published in The Southern Review.
At the age of fifty-eight Frederick Morgan has become one of the most interesting young poets in America. With the publication of his first collection, A Book of Change, in 1972, Morgan, who for the past thirty years had been shaping American literary taste as the editor of The Hudson Review, suddenly emerged as an ambitious and serious new poet. Having made his literary debut at fifty, Morgan lost no time in catching up to his contemporaries. He published widely, and like a young poet trying to define his personal voice, he tested many themes and styles with an energy and audaciousness that has characterized his work ever since. Like a young poet too, Morgan published many unsuccessful attempts in the process of discovering himself, but he never stopped to count his losses. He was always at hand with something new. “One must shoot the works and not hold back” he commented in a poem, and he has stayed true to his word. His second book, Poems of the Two Worlds, appeared in 1977 immediately followed in 1978 by a remarkable collection of prose parables, The Tarot of Cornelius Agrippa. Now two years later, a third book of poems, Death Mother and Other Poems, has appeared, and for the first time it is possible to get some perspective on Morgan’s ten year transformation from editor to poet.
What distinguishes Morgan’s poetry is the serious quality of his imagination, his severe vision of life.Death Mother and Other Poems is Morgan’s best collection to date and confirms that he has become a stronger poet with each succeeding volume. More importantly, Death Mother is the first collection in which Morgan has fully realized himself as a poet. He has discovered his real subject matter, and this vision has given his work a focus it sometimes lacked in his earlier books. Each new book an author publishes can retrospectively change the earlier work. Poems of the Two Worlds contained many excellent pieces, but judged from the perspective of this new book, the older collection now seems like a brilliant miscellany. A few early poems like “From a Forgotten Book” or “The Door” from Poems of the Two Worlds now acquire an additional resonance while other pieces which at the time seemed equally impressive now sound uncharacteristic and a little off-key. What is most surprising is how much of Morgan’s eclectic background he has been able to bring together defining his real voice. He is not limited to one style or tone. He can work as easily in metered verse as free. What defines his voice is not merely formal principles – although one can point to certain formal characteristics in his best work – simplicity of diction, dramatic shifts of tone between stanzas, a strong sense of the line. Instead, what distinguishes Morgan’s poetry is the serious quality of his imagination, his severe vision of life.
The clarity of this underlying vision is why Death Mother succeeds more than Morgan’s earlier collections, for success here is not a matter of which volume contains the most good poems but rather of which book creates the most supportive context. Morgan is trying to articulate a vision of existence, and the immediacy and authenticity of this vision must be communicated before the individual poems can acquire their full importance. In retrospect, one can see how his early poems do not gain the force and clarity from their context that the poems in Death Mother do, and in Morgan’s case this integrity is crucial. The surface simplicity of his best work hides a complex harmony of images and ideas that need a larger structure in which to operate. This need for a larger structure may explain why the best of Morgan’s first three books was The Tarot of Cornelius Agrippa (which unfortunately was also the least well known). This sequence of mysterious prose parables inspired by a deck of seventeenth century Tarot cards marked Morgan’s full maturity as a writer. Somehow the demands of the parable form, the set interplay between his words and the illustrations of the cards, perhaps the very notion of a finite set of variations around a given theme all focused Morgan’s imagination into creating an original and nearly perfect book. Now in Death Mother Morgan transfers the control he learned in prose to his poetry, and the results are an equally original and distinctive book.
Morgan’s new book is organized around three longer poems. The first of these poems is the title sequence which sets out the questions which the rest of the book tries to answer. “Death Mother” explores the myths of death, not only classical myths like the Hindu death goddess, Kali, but also mythic confrontations with death on a personal level – inexplicable experiences that linger obsessively in the memory. Biography mixes with history and dream, and the reader is not always sure whether Morgan is speaking from personal experience or in a persona. Yet the ambiguity points out the underlying theme of the poem – man’s inability to come to terms with death. The ambiguity is also part of the reason why “Death Mother” is such an effective poem, even if the reader tries to resist it (for it is an uncomfortable poem to read). Like Eliot in “The Waste Land” Morgan creates a chorus of voices that switch back and forth, and no sooner does the reader hear and understand one voice than another comes into play surprising us with something new. For example, one sections begins:
Death is the least of things to be feared
because while we are it is not
and when it comes we are not
and so we never meet it at all.
These lines register immediately as familiar, comfortable philosophy or as poetry of a very minor sort. Then suddenly Morgan catches us off guard in the next stanza:
That was a Greek way of avoiding the issue –
which is, that ever since the blood-drenched moment
of primal recognition,
death has lived all times in us
and we in her, commingled . . .
The quick change of perspectives in which the reader realizes that the first lines which sounded so trustworthy were totally ironic and the dramatic juxtaposition of a violent alternative gives these two stanzas a cumulative power they could never achieve separately. Morgan cuts between moods and scenes in an almost cinematic way giving the poem a speed and power that breaks down any resistance the reader may offer to its bitter vision of existence.
“Death Mother” is the best of the three sequences Morgan includes in the book, but “Orpheus to Eurydice,” which comes midway, also deserves close attention. This gentle, ambiguous sequence of love poems marks the point in the book where Morgan modulates into quieter, more affirmative poems. These poems address an ambiguous “you” which seems simultaneously to be a dead lover, the Muse (both in the aspect of a creator and destroyer), and the poet himself, but on at least one level the sequence is a problematic reworking of the Orpheus legend from a poet who believes in the impossibility of an afterlife:
How to make the descent, then,
to your silent mirror?
The old paths are blocked by
and we find we dislike the new ones . . .
The situation of the poet in “Orpheus to Eurydice” is the central clue in understanding what Morgan is trying to accomplish in Death Mother. In their own way most of the important poems in this new book are one-way conversations with the dead. For Morgan poetry has become his only avenue to the underworld, and the lonely act of writing without any assurance of success has become his form of prayer. In an interview with Peter Brazeau in New England Review, Morgan confessed that he had tried to write poetry for thirty years without ever being able to finish a poem to his satisfaction. It took a tragic event to loosen his thirty year writer’s block – the suicide of his son, John. This shocking death plus the break-up of his second marriage forced Morgan to release his energy in poetry. In a sense Death Mother is the book he has been trying to write ever since, and the pain, courage, and vision of his experience give the book its power and integrity.
Having discovered himself as a poet in the pain of his son’s death, it is not surprising that Morgan’s particular strengths as a writer all come together in “February 11, 1977,” a poem which commemorates the anniversary of that death.
February 11, 1977
-to my son John
You died nine years ago today.
I see you still sometimes in dreams
in white track-shirt and shorts, running,
against a drop of tropic green.
It seems to be a meadow, lying
open to early morning sun:
no other person is in view,
a quiet forest waits beyond.
Why do you hurry? What’s the need?
Poor eager boy, why can’t you see
once and for all you’ve lost this race
though you run for all eternity?
Your youngest brother’s passed you by
at last: he’s older now than you—
and all our lives have ramified
in meanings which you never knew.
And yet, your eyes still burn with joy,
your body’s splendor never fades—
sometimes I seek to follow you
across the greenness, into the shade
of that great forest in whose depths
houses await and lives are lived,
where you haste in gleeful search of me
bearing a message I must have—
but I, before I change, must bide
the “days of my appointed time,”
and so I age from self to self
while you await me, always young.
How many contemporary poems can hold that much straight-forward emotion so successfully? Morgan doesn’t talk around his subjects. He addresses them with a directness we are unaccustomed to seeing.
First published as part of “Three Poets in Mid Career,” The Southern Review (Summer 1981, Vol. 17, No. 3)