Entrepôt by Mark McMorris. Coffee House Press. 108 pp., $16.00.
To say that Mark McMorris’s Entrepôt is about writing poetry is to do a huge disservice to this beautiful and penetrating book, whose ostensible subject of contemplation is how to live, love, and make do in a time of war, if not cultural crisis. On the other hand, the book’s greatest service, at least to my eye, is in its exploration of just what it means to be a poet—I should be more specific and say a lyric poet—amid our contemporary terrors.
While the scope of the book’s vision is epic—it is in many ways a “tale of the tribe,” as Ezra Pound described his Cantos—the poems here seem to hold within themselves the very history of lyric. They are simultaneously political, erotic, critical, didactic, investigatory, prophetic, and linguistically experimental; they are somehow at once Shakespearean, Poundian, Surrealist, Biblical—Yeatsian, perhaps?—and in touch with the avant-garde. And while it may be too obvious to compare McMorris’s work to another, rather more famous poet from the Caribbean (McMorris was born in Jamaica), most often the poet’s language reminds me of the rich and oblique quasi-sonnets of Derek Walcott’s Midsummer. “The larks punctuate the morning with their signals / to each other that I overhear and cannot decode,” McMorris writes in the first series of Entrepôt, “Letter for K & Poems for Someone Else.” “[D]raw me from the doorway to the street, to be one / among several musics that score the city I love.”
McMorris’s poems sing in way that doesn’t dilute their commitment to political critique or to an experimental mindset, but in a way that ties them—and political critique, and an experimental mindset—to the heart of the lyric tradition, one that privileges musicality as well as a personal relationship with the world. They sing with a lyricism whose moments of excess exemplify the need for an alternative logic to what McMorris calls “continuous combat.” The poems of Entrepôt, are, in short, not only exemplars of Pound’s notion of melopoeia, with its emphasis on language’s musical properties, but also of his notion of logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect.” They posit poetry as both a consideration of history and as a critical witness—and foil—to history’s violent excesses, delineated here in “a poem”:
[T]he war was pictures and absence, and folks ran up the flags
over the middle country, the coasts and the South, bewildered
and yet relieved to see all that power, that certainty of might.
Some said that night would never end, had been a war
since 1453 or 1097 / or 410 or 336 BC
had been continuous combat since Helen gave Paris a flower
at least since the Bronze Age of Agamemnon’s armada.
Like our present conflicts, which are but the current manifestations of this ancient and unending war, these poems are—like many works of a so-called “hybrid” poetics—participating in a long lineage, though that participation seems closer to the surface in McMorris’s work than in much of the work in the American Hybrid anthology (in which McMorris is included). Like Pound’s work, the poems here are both new and old, in the present and arising from the background radiation of history. Like Pound, and like their common forebear Whitman, the voice here seems excited at the possibility of being that visionary, poetic voice the world not only needs, but listens to at a time of crisis:
The nation cries out for a stern-
voiced Hippocrates, and perhaps he’s out there
in an oily garage supine in the Dakotas, building a car
before wandering in to diagram and diagnose
building a notebook with spidery script
that the future will decompose, or a scholiast,
or I will in the dream where I’m a bearded
lunatic and master of lunar tongues
the tongues of all the ziggurats and the cyclonic
whirl of pictograms that leave no mark. (“Dear Michael (4)”)
Unlike either Pound or Whitman, McMorris quickly dispenses with the idea that he, or, it seems, anyone, is up to the task. Though “the nation cries out” for the visionary, the wisdom he writes in his notebook decomposes, apparently unread, and the poet is labeled a lunatic, whose “whirl of pictograms . . . leave no mark.” In a similar way, McMorris critiques the utopian impulses that underlie this dream of the “stern- / voiced Hippocrates” diagnosing the nation’s ills—and, one assumes, writing out a prescription for our panacea. “The thing about utopia is that you can’t / decide to live there,” the poet writes in “Auditions for Utopia.” “[A]nd if you’re there, / you’re still on the other side of a barrier.”
“Entrepôt” means, according to the jacket copy, “port city,” and the word’s liminal, cosmopolitan connotations ring true in the appropriately global breadth of the book’s topics and motifs. But more importantly to my mind, the word can ultimately be traced back to the Latin for “that which is placed between,” and the most salient technique at work in the book—besides the serial poem—is the letter poem, the form that may best give voice to the poem’s in-between-ness, and to the poet’s concerns throughout the book.
McMorris employs the letter form in the first section and in the intermittent series “Letters to Michael,” which, like Robert Duncan’s similarly intermittent “Structure of Rime” series, takes as its topic the poems’ own unfolding. And, the series reminds us, this poetic coming-to-be takes place not only on the page, but between people, whether a friend, Michael, or a lover, K. :
There is a way of thinking, of being
involved across the counter of a
Chinese shop, with the smell of cod fish
watering the eyes, and burlap sacks.
And thus begins an exchange of senses
eye for touch, and ear for ear-of-corn
fractal thought as in a net of nouns
finding a near mis(take) chicken backs
cow tongue and a dish heaped with fudge—
recalling a subject inside the shop
buying and looking at tins of sardines. (“Dear Michael (13)”)
Here, this transit of the gap between people—exemplified by the letter poem—is “a way of thinking, of being / involved” that stands in clear defiance of continuous war; it is the answer—or at least a possible answer—to the “practical dilemma / of how-to, not what-is, or when-will.” But this way of thinking and being is not only an involvement with another, and it is not merely a utopian notion of peace-and-love. It is an empathetic involvement, “an exchange of senses” that ultimately weaves the physical realm of cod fish and burlap sacks in with the linguistic system of description and communication: a clearly interconnected world antithetical to violence, “fractal thought as in a net of nouns.”
All letter poems place the reader in the position of overhearing, and yet in this book, they model the relation between the personal and the public. The lyrics themselves perform the enfolding or opening up of the personal into the political, the reader/stranger “overhearing,” as one does the otherwise private conversations of others in public space. Yet here the overhearing is not intrusive, but intimate: we, of course, are invited into the space between the poet and his addressee. And in some way, that person across the Chinese shop counter is always us—the inevitable other of social life:
The poem inclines
to restless thought: the night relentless
the heavens unimaginably vast. I cannot speak
of else that troubles me but that this
appears, needs to be worded, to you, to someone
In this last poem of the book, “Dear K,” we are the “someone” who, in a last-second revision of the poem’s address, becomes the personal recipient of the message, the end-point of community. Whatever poetry may be, in Entrepôt it is “like a war that never ends,” a war for community—a war, indeed, with unending war. We are lucky that Mark McMorris is fighting it.
Andy Frazee’s book reviews and criticism appear in the Boston Review, Jacket, Verse, and elsewhere. His chapbook of poetry, That the World Should Never Again Be Destroyed by Flood, is available from New American Press. He lives in Athens, Georgia.
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