Coffee House Press
Perfect Bound, 108 pages
Link to Purchase
Reviewed by Matthew Falk
The poems in Mark McMorris’ third full-length book are postmodern in the most literal sense of that over-used and imprecise word: conspicuously erudite, aware of their own belatedness, they grapple with the past while setting their sights on what’s next. The speaker of “Dear Michael (6)” sums it up:
The Modern! I agree, it was an exciting place
(if you were white and decently off)
automobiles for Mass Man, speeding trains
the Salon des Refusés, birth control devices
so women could freely love like gentlemen.
The Little Review and Shakespeare & Company.
A wary heir to the likes of Pound and Eliot, this ambitious poet creates complex, allusive, polyglot work that’s international in its outlook yet rooted in a specific time and place.
McMorris, who now lives and works in the US, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and the Caribbean continues to color his writing. Sunlight soaks these verses; tropical vegetation and coral reefs abound. The language, also, is lush, sensual. Long lines make their leisurely way down the page. Consider, for instance, this couple of sentences from “The Stream at Mavis Bank,” which is the second part of the sequence “Three Aspects of the Name”:
Deep or shallow, the water saturates the name
fetched from the city, together with the language
that cradles its previous owners, the planters
in high boots wading through guinea grass
toward a mill house, stolid in the morning dew.On the island, nothing is hidden; every surface
contains the whole of the pattern, like a fractal
shape reproducing an arabesque of error
sutured to integral gesture, the confident practice
In their elegance and stately poise, those lines are characteristic of this collection. Equally typical is their effortless conflation of past and present, concrete and abstract, to capture the way impersonal historical forces are enacted in the lives of contemporary individuals.
Given the themes contained in Entrepôt, it’s tempting to read the text through a postcolonial critics’ lens. This is especially so with pieces such as “Auditions for Utopia,” an extended meditation on identity and representation that slyly assimilates Noble Savage archetypes, or “Gadji Beri Bimba,” which calls out Hugo Ball, et al., for irresponsible exoticism. But McMorris’ protean poems resist pigeonholing. In the case of “Gadji Beri Bimba,” sympathetic regard for the Dadaists complicates criticism of their Eurocentric excesses; formally, the poem sets these conflicting attitudes in dialogue by juxtaposing orderly, metered stanzas on one page with hand-drawn squiggly lines or abstract shapes on the next.
It is probably worth noting that an entrepôt is a trading post, a locus of exchange, a place populated by transients. It is, as McMorris stated in an interview in Rain Taxi before this book was completed, “a place that is in between other places.” Fittingly, the overall mood herein is one of transition, of displacement. (And this mood is heightened by the fact that many of the poems are presented as epistles to a character named Michael, as if they were dispatches from an expedition.) In any such environment, affection and conflict inevitably arise. And so it is in these poems: love and war are the yin and yang of human interaction.
Like most poets, McMorris is eloquent on the subject of desire. But when he writes of war, he comes undeniably into his own as a fierce and vatic bard. The narrator of “(a poem)”—the second of three pieces in a row to share that non-title—decries “continuous combat since Helen gave Paris a flower / at least since the Bronze Age of Agamemnon’s armada.” And again, a few pages later: “at no time does the war cease from thunder and the crack / of a rifle, and the book of your labyrinth has no beginning / or foreseeable respite, and I must retreat as I approach.” Like much of McMorris’ material, those lines do double duty, both commenting on current events and indicting the universal human condition.
In this Entrepôt, the world’s default setting is strife. The politically sensitive poet must sadly sigh and do his best to bear witness. “Dear Michael (2)” philosophizes thus:
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. The soldier leans on his spear.
He sings a song of leaning….
Nevertheless there is resistance. There are disruptions, moments of tenderness, of immediacy and intimacy. Above all, there is poetry itself, which, as Shelley asserted, trumps time. Although no Romantic—he’s far too Stoic and austere for that—McMorris does have a similar faith in art’s power to endure and to heal. As he writes in “Vanishing Point,” the final section of “Anaphora of Shadows”: “…and knowledge of death / and artifice give way to the geometry of music / which survives the dust of migration to come again.”