The Moving Out: Collected Early Poems
By John Morgan. Salmon Poetry, 2019. 203 pages. $20
Tracy K. Smith, the United States Poet Laureate from 2017 until earlier this year, has said, “A poem gives me a chance to have an encounter with a feeling, with an experience, with a wish, with an idea.” This is true for both writers and readers of poetry, and is certainly the case in reading John Morgan’s latest collection, “The Moving Out.”
With a writer as respected and prolific as Morgan, a long-time creative writing professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who now splits his time between Fairbanks and Bellingham, Washington, the opportunity to appreciate a fresh volume of his early poems is a great gift. This beautifully arranged collection, with a stunning cover by Fairbanks artist David Mollett, gives fans a retrospective of Morgan’s early work while serving as an introduction to new readers. Moreover, it provides an opportunity to trace the poet’s development over the course of years. While the earliest work sometimes seems effortful, straining after images, the somewhat later work feels more natural and authentic. Taken all together, it’s a showcase of Morgan’s intellectual and emotional range.
Poems from four previous books or chapbooks are collected here. The earliest of the books, “The Bone-Duster," was published in 1980; its title poem, which first appeared in the The New Yorker, recalls the narrator’s youthful time literally dusting bones in a museum basement. “The Arctic Herd” and “Walking Past Midnight” followed in the mid- and late 1980s. The most recent work, “Spells and Auguries,” is a series of sonnet-style poems from 2000 that addresses a family medical crisis.
Certain subjects or themes emerge and repeat, as they might in a long choral work. From the start, there are numerous mentions of the poet’s wife and sons. A childhood accident in which Morgan apparently fell from a cliff is referenced several times in different ways, most directly in “The Endless Fall: El Morro, 1958.” Surreal dream sequences confront mortality. In one, “The Cyclist,” a bicyclist moves among “dusty ghosts.” A mysterious woman on the back of the bike “is old and brown.” “Her skin a drainage map, behind/which a candle burns, she’s like/a withering world. . . .”
Various poems draw upon the poet walking and pondering. In “Walking Past Midnight,” the narrator begins “Dust in the arctic whistles me/out of bed. I felt its feathers/brushing by. Moon pink in the west;” and then wanders among images of the night world of “watery light,” a friend’s ill child, and his own small son leaping. Another, “The Third Walk; McKinley Park Hotel to Mt. Healy Overlook,” details a walk among willows and monkshood flowers before moving into fears of falling and the memory of his childhood brush with death.
The title poem of the whole collection, “Moving Out,” seems to reference Morgan’s own leaving from the eastern “cities of the blind” where “the darkness gobbled me up and spat me out” to a place of opening light and “a pink and icy whisper,” the home he found in the north.
While many of Morgan’s poems speak of the poet’s own life, others present the personas of historical characters or imagine historical events, often related to war. In “The Siege of Leningrad, 1941-42,” the speaker is a 17-year-old witnessing the dying all around him. “I think of caviar, those salt-sweet/jellies, but this girl’s belly holds/only the melted snow/I tease the gnawing hours with.” Another, “Crossing the Rhine,” is in the voice of a soldier crossing a bridge as enemy fire rattles it and his fellow soldiers —“the groaners”— die.
Alaska readers might find greatest delight in those selections that speak of our shared northern landscape. In the sequence, “Above the Tanana,” the poet visits a ledge above the river to compose contemplative monthly poems that capture both season and thoughts about the individuals he addresses. “Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska: A Suite,” based on a visit to that region, might seem a little dated, with its use of the word “Eskimo” and simplistic cultural references —“snow is the Eskimo’s element ”— but also presents a perspective from that time (the late 1970s or early 1980s) and place.
Perhaps the most powerful poem sequence in the collection is the last, “Spells and Auguries.” In these 24 poems, Morgan responds to the events, beginning in 1993, when his younger son unexpectedly fell into a coma. These mostly narrative and very moving poems begin with sirens and flashing lights, take the reader into a world of hospitalizations and surgeries, and then resolve into later years of recovery and consequences. Morgan has said, and in fact writes this into the poem “At Snowmass,” that he intended to compose a memoir of the time before realizing that poetry would serve him, and the situation, best.
Salmon Poetry, the Ireland-based publisher of Morgan’s new collection as well as some of his earlier work, started as an alternative voice for Irish literature and later expanded to include cross-cultural and international work. It has been a friend to many Alaska poets, publishing, besides Morgan, current or former Alaskans Tom Sexton, Jerah Chadwick, Emily Wall, Cynthia Hardy, Joseph Enzweiler, and Patricia Monaghan. The press will be bringing out a volume of Morgan’s collected later poems next year.