Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mark McMorris: Entrepôt

Say then that it is true that I play chess
to spend my life between two parts of a word
the son and the sens, the hesitation of a cleft
palate with orchids singing in the cracks.
These lines resonate throughout Mark McMorris' new book Entrepôt, exploring the ethics of poetry as a deformed sort of speaking ("cleft / palate") with what the last section of the book calls the "Zero Orchid"* growing in the space between music and meaning, signifier and signified. As characteristic are sentences beginning "Say then" or "Say that"; these poems constantly circle back on and call attention to the idea of poetry as saying, as language that performs and stipulates. Calls attention, too, to poetry's provisionality, to its remnant aura of the sacred, of shamanistic saying. This poetry proposes worlds, as Stevens' does, and as with Stevens the world and the poem that evokes it depend on each other, are balanced precariously. (Q.v. "Connoisseur of Chaos.")

The other poetic presence that hovers its wings over this book is Michael Palmer, who provides a blurb and seems a likely candidate for the book's chief interlocutor: a series of poems throughout it bear the title "Letters to Michael." Much of Palmer, too, comes out of Stevens, though he's a Stevens for whom imagination owes an unpayable debt to reality, rather than the other way around. There's a similar ethical rigor on display in McMorris' book, along with a dazzling range of classical references that heighten the Classic feeling of the poetry itself—another quality I associate with Palmer and with the late, "philosophical," Apollonian Stevens.

The imagery is light-filled, of an Attic grace, but stained by more recent, New World history—of Jamaica and the Caribbean, and of this decade's wars. An untitled poem in the book's first section, "The Mirror Says," is one of the most powerful and moving poems on war and the civilian-poet's stance toward that war that I've ever read. But the speaker of the next poem imagines himself a soldier, who is ambivalently involved in the work of empire. A postcolonial poet like McMorris must surely be more skeptical of utopia than the next poet—after all, he's from there, an island permanently marked by lethal nostalgia (Wikipedia tells me that Jamaica has three "counties," Cornwall, Middlesex, and Surrey, and that when Elizabeth Windsor says or does anything on behalf of her dominion she's to be referred to as the Queen of Jamaica).

But McMorris is up to something more complex than critique of empire. It's not so easy, after all, for any poet to ban utopia from his lexicon. And so one of the book's sections, and one of its longer poems, is titled "Auditions for Utopia," and in one part riffs off of the fantasies elaborated by Gonzalo in Act II of The Tempest (a central reference point for any Anglo-Caribbean writer). "The thing about utopia is that you can't / decide to live there, and if you're there, / you're still on the other side of a barrier" (55). This follows a description of a spontaneous dance by a young boy, which seems to me another Stevens allusion, this time to "The Idea of Order at Key West." Whereas the singer in the Stevens poem enacts the poet-utopian's "rage for order," her song "arranging, deepening, enchanting night," the dancer is deliberately separated from the poet—as much, one suspects, by the poet's education and his condition as visiting exile as by the boy's refusal of "order":

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. (56)
This book is aware of a possible relationship between the utopian yearnings of poetry and those of George W. Bush, and that both forms of utopianism have the power to do harm. "The mind is an emperor. Or the mind is subject / to decree from obscure parliaments of language" (50). Whence legitimacy then? Those "obscure parliaments" are surely a nod to Shelley's "unacknowledged legislators," but one might as well say "unelected." Stevens told us that the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream, King Death, finale of seem. Like Derek Walcott, McMorris has had "a sound colonial education"—that's from Walcott's great early poem "The Schooner Flight"), but unlike Walcott, McMorris doesn't confidently declare that "either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation." Poetry itself is as much or more McMorris' subject as politics, and he makes the reader aware of that on a formal level, compiling rich and strange abstractions with lines like "orchid in the hair of the wave," "Plethora of polis miasma," and by a characteristic trick of enjambment that there ought to be a name for. I'm speaking of lines that break the syntax radically at the end of an enjambed line, even as other lines function more normatively, with enjambment a hiccup rather than an encounter with the void. Here's an example:
Like touching a girl you've been in love with
forever, and having her touch you back
the mind-body problem succumbed to delirium. (28)

Sometimes he capitalizes the beginning of the line following the enjambment but just as often, as here, he doesn't—it's as though a bit of ghost punctuation floats between "back" and "the mind-body problem" (an em-dash, maybe). It's hyper-enjambment, a double insistence on the integrity of the line, that functions as a kind of tribute to what can seem an almost untimely faith in poetry, and in eloquence. I've chosen the next passage almost at random to demonstrate McMorris' capacity for sheerly beautiful writing:

The tongue imitates the leaf. It falls
like rain over the garden, like a wound
of wings beating sunlight, or a swan
climbing to the sky's blue pages, to write
an elegy for withered things, falling
like nothing to blossoms, porous to sunlight.
("Gadji Beri Bimba," 67)
Writing like this is so luminous—or dazzling, pellucid, shimmering, stunning, choose your own back-of-the-book cliché—that it's almost a parody of itself. McMorris tries to salvage the merely beautiful by putting it in tension with other forces: in many of the poems that means politics, but in this case, the title of the poem comes from Hugo Ball and one of its epigraphs comes from Baudelaire, so that the Apollonian register McMorris seems most at home in is contextualized with the Dionysian spirts of dada and the poete maudit. The poem touches ground again in the political, where the nonsense syllables of Ball become the backdrop for the dance of Josephine Baker, and then is beautifully broken, twice, by visual collages of words traced with actual marks and lines, creating some much-needed friction with words like "lemon," "cathedral," "salt, "hiatus," "orchid," "flaneur," "syllable." Still: so beautiful! So pure! So irrelevant? Or is this beauty useful after all as beauty always has been, as a line of flight that curves us out from and back to a world of injustice and terror?

McMorris enters more territory more congenial to our cynical age with a sequence of sonnet-like poems that again collides the poet's utopia (this time, the utopia of Modernism) with the realities of colonial life: "Little Dog with Bananas." That's Gertrude Stein's dog, of course: "I am I because my little dog knows me." But the speaker of these poems turns that around, beginning each poem in the sequence with, "In fact, the little dog knows me not at all." The speaker of this poem (which is the only poem in a section titled "Collage") remains conscious, in spite of his obvious mastery of the scope and depth of European modernism (Apollinaire is another presiding spirit), of his otherness to the Modernist project: an African face is an instrument and not a subject to the likes of Stein and Picasso.

If your little dog doesn't know you, does that constitute a refusal of mastery, or just the inability to access it? And yet McMorris writes masterfully, is a master, a classicist at heart, a Modernist after all, if après le lettre; less sentimental than Derek Walcott and certainly less romantic, yet for all that a striver after the main chance, a Great Poet. And my heart leaps to discover him (this is the first book of his I've encountered), and yet I wonder if there isn't something fundamentally anachronistic about the whole project. And then I wonder if that anachronism, like all that useless beauty, isn't in fact the book's cunning, and its way of answering a desperate need harbored by the distracted and scattered readers of poetry.

* Any talk of orchids reminds me of this little exchange between General Sternwood and Philip Marlowe in the 1946 version of The Big Sleep: "Do you like orchids, Mr. Marlowe?" "Not particularly." "Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption." The failed patriarch Sternwood rails against the excessive sexuality of his youngest daughter; Marlowe/Bogart is slower to commit himself, unable to resist the sexual excesses of meaning that flower between himself and Lauren Bacall—though for my money, the sexiest part of the film comes in a seeming digression, the abbreviated seduction of what IMBD names only as "Acme Book shop Proprietress" played by the astonishingly gorgeous Dorothy Malone, last seen on screen as a buddy of Sharon Stone's in Basic Instinct.) What's this got to do with McMorris? Only, I think, that the orchid, that excessive flower, that petit objet a, represents something like McMorris' strike zone: the perfect pitch between sexy son and the conceptual burden of sens that he tries to steer his words between. In other words, that he might in spite of all his Apollonian and masterful tendencies be a writer of the baroque after all.

Popular Posts