Nature shines in Morgan poetry collectionWritten by Gary Carden
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To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
â€” â€śAuguries of Innocenceâ€ť by William Blake
The stanza above, from William Blakeâ€™s â€śAuguries of Innocenceâ€ť serves as an apt introduction to Robert Morganâ€™s latest collection of poetry. Here, the reader will find a catalog of vivid images from the natural world: a spiderâ€™s web spangled with dew drops; mountain pools pierced by sun beams; a wind-blown thistle and the husk of a jar fly â€” all transformed by Morganâ€™s elegant words â€” words which have the power to render these images â€śnuminousâ€ť (possessing a religious or spiritual quality).
In conjunction with Morganâ€™s skill in capturing vibrant images is his ability to describe those images with magical language. For example, the title of this collection, Terroir, is a word (French in origin) used to denote the special characteristics that geography, geology and climate bestow upon crops and/or produce. Just as the quality of a vintage wine may be determined by the combined effects of a particular regionâ€™s rivers, the mineral content of the soil and the length of the growing season, Morgan suggests a parallel in the natural world of Appalachia. In effect, the inhabitants of the coves and ridges of the Southern Highlands are what they are because of the same factors. We (and all living things) are molded and shaped by the same forces that might render/produce something original ... a rare wine with its unique taste or a mountain family, surviving against all odds and steeped in tradition.
Terroir contains a number of recurring themes: rituals, folk beliefs, superstitions and the subtle and orderly design of the natural world.
â€śOctober Crossingâ€ť celebrates the annual orange and black, woolly worm migration which, in mountain folklore will determine how hard the winter will be. However, in Morganâ€™s imaginative description, this events merges with classical mythology. The woolly worms migration must cross a highway â€ślike a hard Styx or Jordanâ€ť to reach the refuge of the woods. In â€śApple Howling,â€ť there is a comparison of the Anglo-Saxon â€ścome forthâ€ť ritual in apple orchards (beseeching the trees to produce a generous crop), to the â€ścome, butter, comeâ€ť incantations that my own grandmother chanted to transform clabbered milk to butter. â€śSinging to the Cornâ€ť recounts yet another ritual to encourage fertility and â€śImmuneâ€ť celebrates an old superstition about going barefoot in the first snowfall as a means of preventing winter ailments.
Beneath all of these poems, like a quiet, but ever-present stream, is a series of affirmative verses regarding Natureâ€™s â€śsilent design.â€ť â€śLoaves and Fishesâ€ť celebrates the slow decay of a deer on the highway, noting the process by which every bit of flesh â€śis sorted, hauled/ away by scavenging coyotes,/ by maggots, worms, bacteria, /each bite sent to its proper place/ to feed the needy multitudes.â€ť â€śTranslationâ€ť finds a striking example of rebirth in the way that trees die â€śand lean into the arms/ of neighborsâ€ť where they gradually disintegrate and â€ś... eed the the roots/ of soaring youth.â€ť
There are also frequent allusions to Natureâ€™s tendency to â€śmimicâ€ť cosmic design. For example, the sprouts of potatoes struggling toward the light in â€śHomesicknessâ€ť resembles genetic memory struggling â€śacross the gulf of history.â€ť In another poem, In â€śCountry of the Sun,â€ť Morgan finds a poignant parallel in the struggles of a neighbor stricken with an eye cancer who moves down a road in the sunlight of a spring day with the same yearning towards the light. In â€śThe Big One,â€ť the explosion of seeds from a winter thistle resembles that outward rush of matter that created the universe. Again, in â€śLone Eagle,â€ť the fall of snow flakes in a pine forest suggests â€śa ticker tape paradeâ€ť witnessed by â€śsnow bird, mouse and solo wren.â€ť The spiraling flight of sulfur butterflies in â€śConvocation,â€ť suggest the â€śswing and riseâ€ť of planets and â€śfar quasar.â€ť
Many of Morganâ€™s most affecting poems describe an embattled natural world where corrupting forces contaminate beauty. â€śBrownfieldâ€ť describes a field filled with â€śindustrial swill,â€ť tatters of asbestos and rusting nails, styrofoam, grease and garbage bags; yet even here, Nature struggles stubbornly to reassert itself with a thriving patch of ironweed. In â€śExpulsionâ€ť Morgan compares humanityâ€™s withdrawal from polluted tracts of land to the loss of Eden. We are forced to leave because our eyes are â€śswollen redâ€ť by a corrupting dust. Yet, even here, the stubborn persistence of â€śPoison Oakâ€ť demonstrates Natureâ€™s survival instinct â€śthat will cross a meadowâ€ť to claim a spot at the base of a tree.
My favorite poem in this collection is â€śGo Gentle,â€ť a reasoned rebuff to the poet, Dylan Thomas who is remembered for his advice to the elderly: â€śrage against the dying of the light.â€ť For Morgan, such a recommendation seems a bit melodramaic. After witnessing the death of relatives and friends, Morgan concludes that both those who watch and those who die â€świll plead for nothing but the right/ and gentle passage of the night.â€ť There seems little point in delivering a death rant.
This is a gratifying collection. Although Robert Morgan is attracting national attention for his novels and historic biographies, I feel that his greatest strength lies in his poetry.
Terroir by Robert Morgan. Penguin Books, 2011. 95 pages.