Morgan pens psalms of clods and the cosmos
by Rob Neufeld
Morgan had just published “Green River,” his 11th book and tenth volume of poems. I, in my greenness, answered, “I haven’t heard of him.”
I read up. He was from Henderson County. He taught at Cornell. One of his books, “Zirconia Poems,” was named after his home town, and included such visionary local imagery as “the millpond is a brain of mud” and “the moon lights the country like a TV screen.”
In 1994, he came out with “The Hinterlands,” a trio of novellas based on regional history—and a favorite book of mine. The next year, he produced his first novel, “The Truest Pleasure”; and four years later, “Gap Creek,” the book that made him a household name.
For “The Strange Attractor: New and Selected Poems” (2004), he sifted gems from nine of his volumes, and added new works, including the title poem, in which he incorporated cosmic science into his bucolic mythosphere.
Clod to cloud
Now, with his 15th volume of poems, and 27th book, Morgan applies his mastery to create beautiful little artworks that link the momentary with the mystical.
Let me give you one example, the poem, “Drag Harrow.” It’s about a drag harrow.
It starts with a definition: “A frame with teeth to comb the dirt.” Describing its function, Morgan limbers up his imagination. The harrow “wears away” the clods and “curries soil to look as groomed and soft as corduroy.”
There’s something classical about Morgan’s designs. The meter is as measured as a Blake “Song of Innocence” (“Tyger Tyger, burning bright” is echoed, in beats, by “A frame with teeth to comb the dirt”); and the imagery is as un-abstract as a haiku.
Meanwhile, Morgan draws us into a more-than-routine engagement with a farm chore. That vision of corduroy—with hints of soil and curry and wearing away—sounds out words that are fun to repeat for their sensuality.
Such a lyrical mindset might lead us to find transcendence in all daily activities: shuffling in slippers to get the paper (Hello, world!); cleaning the dishes left behind from the night before (a forensic investigation); getting an ornery child or roommate out of bed (a study of the sleep patterns of the young and restless).
“And if you stand upon the bars,” Morgan writes, continuing with his farm ride, “the spikes cut even deeper.” “Around you go,” he croons, pulled by a horse “rusty from his winter’s rest.” Now, see how “worms glisten in/ the furrows, birds swoop down to feast.”
It’s not customary for speech to have vowels sing so much, nor to have so many half-rhymes, as in the closing four lines of the poem:
The field will shine with its new brushing.
the oaks electric gold with budding,
the sky above both cool and wide
as you glance up from clod to cloud.
Poem of the day
When I say that Morgan creates many masterful little artworks, I’m also saying you don’t want to gobble this stuff down. The book’s only about 80 pages long—an airplane flight’s worth of reading, one might think; but you’ll want to step into a different time frame for the consumption experience.
A page a day would be good.
If you read too much at a time, a sameness gluts your mind, like reading 150 Psalms of the Bible in one sitting.
The comparison to psalms fits because Morgan has an oratorio of themes and tones coursing through his subjects of meditation, the reassuring nature of which includes potential despair.
“At Big Bone Lick the first explorer/ found...tusks of mastodons and ribs of sloths/ that lurched across Kentucky once,” the second poem in the book reports.
Up front, Morgan clues us into his frames of reference.
He’s in his home territory. Kentucky is the Promised Land in his 2007 biography of Daniel Boone, to whom he is probably related. Also, Morgan embraces modern science into his religious thinking, as the title of the volume makes cosmically clear.
Listen to this thematic transition in the last five lines of “Big Bone Lick,” as the explorers try to comprehend the “killing ground of titans”:
they saw the ruins of a world
survived by its diminutives,
where Eden once gave way and shrank
to just a regular promised land
to fit our deadly, human scale
Let’s leap ahead to the last poem in “Dark Energy” to reveal humility that surpasses insignificance; and religiosity that surpasses understanding.
The poem is titled, “Silence,” and it sings of various ways in which one might describe “the stillness at the heart of matter.”
“The pitch of poise...the carol of immanence...the thrill of the neutrino...the idiom of promised rest.”
There is a progression in “Dark Energy.” The last section, Part Four, considers atomic physics and astronomy. Part One, the “Big Bone Lick” section, touches base with geography; and Part Two, which includes “Drag Harrow,” speaks first person about childhood experiences.
Part Three comprises odes to small subjects, such as katydids, chinquapins, maple galls, and spit bugs.
You might think of Robert Burns’ ode, “To a Mouse.” Morgan’s mouse plays second fiddle to his main character, a hawk, in the poem, “Ascent,” also notable for having each of 17 lines end in a long “o” sound.
Morgan is like Robert Frost in a couple of ways, including how he lets a poem invent its own rhyme scheme. If it becomes clear that the long o’s are vocalizing, he exploits it. Also, like Frost, he likes to wrap up with seemingly pat but elusively wry aphorisms.
“Some say the world will end in fire,/ Some say in ice,” Frost began “Fire and Ice.” Frost’s poem, “Birches,” concludes with a wonderful poke at those who look down on occasional verse: “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
In his poem “Aspen Song,” Morgan takes a similar poke at high-mindedness: “The breeze plays leaves in sweetest treble/ and never tires of its long fable,/ in counterpoint to human foible.”
Only in rare instances does Morgan delight in stretching the metaphysics too far for his chosen subject, such as in his poem, “Engine,” in which a motor is called “a kind of god/ with blood of grease and oil upon/ its altar.”
For the most part, over and over with consistent balance of foot and flourish, Morgan produces specimens of art that make small and disturbing things wondrous—such as the maple gall.
“When you look at all the gross/ disfigurements at closer range/ you see the beauty of distortion,” he writes plainly. The afflicted tree is made memorable “by virtue of/ its suffering swollen sores and scars/ the warts that are its finest art.”
I can’t help thinking that Morgan’s maple tree is Christlike, especially because of that next-to-last line, with its keening alliteration. Then Morgan jabs you out of your reverie with a farmer’s unpretentiousness.