by Morri Creech
(The Waywiser Press, 2018, 80pp., $17.00)
Poets, who should never read reviews, love nothing better than to read reviews. The risk, of course, is not that bad reviews can be stifling. Quite the contrary. As Flannery O’Connor said of universities, one fears they are not stifling enough. No, for poets, the danger does not lie in trusting bad reviews. It lies in not distrusting good ones. More respectable than quitting, becoming an alcoholic, or committing suicide, imitating one’s own most successful work ranks high on the list of time-honored methods for guaranteeing literary failure. This is why, as a reviewer, I am hardest on the poets I most admire. I worry that if I praise them, they will believe me. And I have reviewed no poet I admire more than Morri Creech, whose new book, Blue Rooms, is, sadly, very good.
Some self-imitation is inevitable. Even a very good poet cannot start again from scratch with every poem, or even with every book. A few have claimed to do so, but most of these were either bad or lying. Yet the alternatives to flailing experiment or numbing repetition grow fewer as one ages. Most successful poets just happen upon something that works nicely and then keep doing it until they are eventually silenced by senility or death, nominally varying their output from time to time by, say, ventriloquizing the odd historical anti-hero or taking up prose poetry. A much smaller number devote their lives to writing one exceedingly demanding kind of poem and then grow old in the endless pursuit of their goal. One thinks of A. E. Housman, Donald Justice, and, more recently, Joshua Mehigan. Others, fewer still, quietly preserve the skills and insights gained in each phase of their artistic development while continually reexamining their aims and forcing themselves not just to dabble in but wholly to adopt new modes of writing. Among this curious group one numbers Hayden Carruth, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and, maybe, Morri Creech.
Creech’s first book, Paper Cathedrals, won the 2000 Stan and Tom Wyck Poetry Prize. Though dreamier and less refined than the work that was to follow, the poems in Paper Cathedrals, mostly stichic free-verse numbers, reveal a lust for visual description and a knack for fitting theme to image. In a long poem about Judas, for instance, Creech calls the dead disciple’s body, hanging from the redbud tree, “the counterweight that hoisted the God / into heaven.” Tellingly, the collection was chosen by Li-Young Lee, whose lovely, fugue-like account of Paper Cathedrals might just as easily be a description of Lee’s own lovely, fugue-like poetry: “Each thing he holds up to the eye is lit from inside with the fire of its own passing away and its own eternity, whether it be a leaf, a spider web, or a memory.”
Field Knowledge, the follow-up to Paper Cathedrals, won the 2005 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. It is both a continuation of the first book and a departure from it. Like an old-fashioned sourdough baker, Creech leavens each new collection with a poem from an earlier one. Unlike the baker, though, he uses this device not to ensure consistency but to enlarge upon some quality that previously lay dormant. Only a handful of the poems in Paper Cathedrals made use of regular meter or rhyme. Field Knowledge begins with one of these, a memory piece in rhyming septets called “Engine Work: Variations.” The great majority of the poems that follow likewise adhere to regular meter, and many to regular rhyme.
This in itself is an unusual development. For a hundred years, the common course for American poets has run in the opposite direction. T. S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, James Wright, and Adrienne Rich, among others, have been celebrated (accurately or not) for breaking from their early devotion to traditional prosody, freeing themselves to let their mature work wander onto the mapless heath of free verse, or at least into the unchaperoned garden of vers libre. The only reason poets have lately stopped abandoning meter and rhyme is that they no longer learn them to begin with. And why would they? From form to freedom is the established path of the right-thinking modern American poet. Nobody goes the other way, or almost nobody.
Of course, Creech’s formal turn did not come all at once. A number of the poems in Field Knowledge are set in free verse, and even when they keep prosodic contracts, the meter is often loose and the rhyme slant: “although, oddly enough, the lines sound tame / now there is no one to explain them to. / Nor words to write. His own canticle of pain…” In retrospect, though, such laxity can be considered evidence of the ongoing counter-clockwise development in Creech’s work. But more on that later.
The poems in Field Knowledge can largely be divided into two types. The first is the loss-tinged landscape piece, reminiscent of Heaney or Walcott and frequently colored by Christian symbolism. (Creech’s poems express a personal skepticism toward religion, but he has long excelled at using the myths and images of Christianity to call up powerful feelings even in this faithless reader.) “Firstfruits,” probably the finest poem in the book, is an apocalyptic panorama of the first type. In it, Creech brings his gift for pastoral description to the nightmare of a storm-wrecked coastal town. Floods have crushed or washed out everything in sight, including the local cemetery. Creech reminds us of the resurrection promised in scripture just before he turns our gaze—with some help from St. Paul—to the cruelest consequences of the storm:
…..……………It was not the world
……….we hoped for. There they were,
the dead returned as we had never known them
in life, some kneeling against a fallen tree
…..…..or face down in the water,
washed from the graves to constitute their kingdom;
and, sun-touched near the pasture’s edge — O Death
…..…..where is thy victory,
thy sting? — an infant swaddled in coils of fence wire,
…..…..snagged on a harrow’s teeth.
The second type of poem that populates much of Field Knowledge is the snappy high-concept joke, which usually takes the form of either a wry Hechtian monologue or a glib Wilburish riddle. As a rule, the poems of this type feel more labored than the naturalist lyrics. But as with his delayed embrace of meter and rhyme, Creech is making a choice here to elaborate upon a prior impulse. In his first book, some of the poems were placed in the mouths of major religious figures, but their voices and preoccupations seemed to differ little from those of the speakers who resembled Creech himself. In Field Knowledge, however, Creech has continued tinkering with his version of the persona poem, and though the result is not always becoming, the speeches of his headline-grabbing characters (“The Wife of Job,” “His Coy Mistress,” “The Oracle”) carry perspectives and agendas more specific to their sources. Put more simply, between Paper Cathedrals and Field Knowledge, Creech not only perfects the quintessential Morri Creech poem, he also gets better at writing a different kind of poem entirely.
In 2013, Creech published The Sleep of Reason, which was shortlisted the following year for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. I have written about this book at some length elsewhere, so here I will say just that the collection represents a few more incremental turns in Creech’s development. The meter grows more taut and is more evenly applied. The religious motifs remain, but religion itself has been put at arm’s length, cited as a fact of history and largely confined to a few heavy-handed critiques of modern America. Newer to Creech’s work are two long sequences dedicated to Keats and several other poems addressing works of art outside the book itself. Notably, “Night Blooming Cereus,” the poem Creech reprints from Paper Cathedrals, only lightly revised, cites the photograph that served as cover image for his first collection. The poem, which in Paper Cathedrals seemed like naked religious metaphor, feels in The Sleep of Reason more like a portrait of artistic vanity: “Say these, then, are the flowers made in His image, / kings of the night that, raging in the dark, / shall suffer no light fiercer than their own.”
In Blue Rooms, as in all of his collections, Creech neither clings to nor discards the modes and matter of his previous work. Rather he turns them to new use. One sees this even in “The Language of Pastoral,” the poem that, more than any other in the book, would be readily identifiable in a dark alley as the work of Morri Creech. Here he takes up a familiar subject and vocabulary—the list is short of living poets who could credibly start a poem “I am halfway between the canebrake and the pines”—and gently unfolds their artifice:
It is dark as I write this. The fields are far away.
Maybe the pasture hums with midges, reeds
Teem at my grandfather’s fenceline, and a stray
Blackbird lifts toward the hill, beak full of seeds.
Maybe, for all the words I have had to say,
Someone sits alone in a room and reads
In silence a poem beginning with these lines:
I am halfway between the canebrake and the pines.
The Morri Creech of an earlier book—even of Field Knowledge or The Sleep of Reason—would never have flinched at the slight aural mismatch that would have resulted from the more factual “line” with the plural “pines.” But the Morri Creech of Blue Rooms opts for formal over denotative precision, hence the crisper if less accurate choice of “lines.” Just one more indication of the poet’s restless development. And perhaps a sign also of the cerebral territory of this book. The canebrake is not the poem’s only fabrication. Creech knows the poet, too, sitting alone in his dark stanza, is himself a lyric trope.
The better part of Blue Rooms is given over to explicitly ekphrastic work, including this collection’s leavening poem, taken from Field Knowledge. Both the first poem in the book and the second-to-last are numbered sequences addressing the work of a specific painter: “Self-Portrait as Magritte” and “Self-Portrait after Goya.” The former is a series of dry tetrameter koans spoken by a voice largely unfamiliar from Creech’s earlier work:
Where have all the shadows gone?
They crowd around the mirror frame.
I stare up at the fruit of dawn.
You look at me. We are the same.
The imagery and wit are recognizable, I suppose, as belonging in some way to Magritte. They just are not recognizable as belonging to Morri Creech. And maybe that is the point. This sequence, like a number of the poems in Blue Rooms, seems to be testing out a style Creech has not mastered yet. This, of course, is something he has been doing his whole career. The books of most middle-aged American poets are uneven because so much of them is filler. Creech’s books are uneven because he is always trying something new. And good for him. The poetry collection, as we seem often to forget, is a basically meaningless publishing convention. Paging through the Norton, who has ever found a poem he loved and said to himself Oooh, I wonder what collection that originally appeared in?
In contrast to the Magritte poem, “Self-Portrait after Goya” is, like the work of its namesake, bleary and dark and full of carnage. It is also agonizingly personal. Here is the seventh section in its entirety:
What Goya knew of suffering could fill
Ten volumes with material to spare.
I have known suffering. You sometimes speak
Of those long years the black dog rode my back
And mania would keep me up for weeks,
The raving speech and the rage that nearly broke us.
When I think about the nights I could not sleep,
How I paced the kitchen floor or punched the drywall
While you lay there alone upstairs in bed,
I think of Goya, deaf, trapped in his head,
The sleep of reason that produces monsters
Driving him to set down those images
Of leering lunatics I can still see.
I look at them with fear. They look at me.
Like some of Lowell’s balder confessions, this is almost not even poetry. If “Self-Portrait as Magritte” was more pith than juice, then this poem has it the other way around. Neither work is satisfying in itself. Both suggest the possibility of new things to come.
Late in Blue Rooms a poem appears that seems completely out of place. “The Confession” has seemingly nothing to do either with the history of painting or with Creech’s own interior landscape. Instead, I take it to be the elegant offspring of two gawky parents: the campy dramatic monologue of Field Knowledge and the stern political lecture of The Sleep of Reason. A twenty-line soliloquy in which the speaker recalls his boyhood participation in a lynching, “The Confession” is also heir to Robert Hayden’s gruesome marvel “Night, Death, Mississippi.” Like Hayden, Creech uses broken sentences and spare, arresting images to tell the story with brutal efficiency, and like Hayden he accentuates the savagery of the killing by observing the physical cost it exacts from the killers themselves:
The moon appeared and disappeared.
Headlights and whiskey. A tree on a hill.
We tied the knot and threw it over.
It took half an hour for his legs to go still.
Just boys, for all that, in December weather,
Settling a grievance, correcting a wrong.
I remember one shoe kicked off in the heather.
I remember my feet hurt from standing so long.
Creech is as adept at stealing from his predecessors as he is at stealing from himself. Here he does both, and well. But “The Confession” is also something all its own. Neither Robert Hayden nor a younger Morri Creech would have chosen to set this scene in—of all things—rhyming anapests. And yet it is exactly this jaunty form, so often associated with children’s poetry, that gives “The Confession” its curious power. Because this is also a story about the things boys do to win renown. And of course part of what makes the crime so horrifying is the speaker’s failure to recognize that it is a crime at all, that the hero of the story is not any one of the young friends gathered on a hill one night for the purpose of “correcting a wrong,” but rather the nameless, voiceless man whose life they pointlessly destroyed. As if sensing the boundaries of his own denial, the speaker ends the poem on a musing note, telling, again, more truth than he knows:
The place may be there. I could draw you a picture.
The moon in a cloud and a tree on the hill.
Damned if I know how I see it so clearly.
Don’t ask me to speak of it. Damned if I will.
One can almost feel the self-knowledge rising like a bubble in the throat, before he swallows it back down to be forgotten.
One of the stranger poems in Blue Rooms, and perhaps the most perfectly made, is “Tōhaku’s Folding Screen.” A slender piece of ekphrasis set in stanzas with the syllabics of haiku, the poem forms a kind of double Rubin’s vase. At a glance, it is a description of an antique painted screen that gives way to a meditation on the things the artist left out of the picture. On the screen: some pine trees. Off the screen: slaughter, fire, the wheel of history. In Creech’s treatment, Tōhaku’s screen works as a sort of obverse to Auden’s shield of Achilles. But for those of us living in the twenty-first-century, the poem also cannot help but call to mind a different kind of screen. The kind I am staring into as I write this, the kind you are staring into as you read it. The parallel is so painful, so inescapable, that Creech need not say anything to prompt our recognition of it. (It is more than enough that the repetition of “Elsewhere” toward the poem’s end recall another Auden poem in which the ancient world is used to illustrate the vulgar present.) The implied second meaning of “screen” lends additional weight to nearly every line of the poem. The painted screen’s “ghostly strew of pines” evokes not just the painter’s individual accomplishment but also the disembodied images that occupy so many of our waking thoughts. The “villages razed / To splinters” in the poem’s second half bring to mind not only the horror of tribal violence but also the queasy boredom distant suffering provokes when scrolled past rapidly in bulk. The lines “History is quiet here. / One can hardly think” become not just a sober reckoning but a smothered howl. And the loss of stillness at the poem’s end conjures not just the painting’s extraordinary delicacy but also our own extraordinary inability to be still in the absence of constant stimulation. Creech’s formal restraint, of course, is an imitation of Tōhaku’s own. By barely saying one thing, he succeeds in saying two. The painter knew as well as the poet what he was choosing not to paint:
…..Consider this screen
Whose ghostly strew of pine trees,
…..All shade and flourish
…..And slender line, fades
In a mist or fog implied
…..by the feathered strokes
…..Of the artist’s brush.
History is quiet here.
…..One can hardly think
…..Of villages razed
To splinters and seething ash,
…..Or crops set afire.
…..Elsewhere, of course, men
Slay each other for honor.
…..Elsewhere the jinkai
…..Blow on fields covered
With corpses. But here the pines
…..Leaning from the mist
…..Conjure a stillness
So delicate, when you fold
…..The screen it is gone.
In another life, Creech might have enjoyed a respectable career playing the part of the “Southern Orpheus” that he had already outgrown by the time J. D. McClatchy gave him the title in the foreword to Field Knowledge. One can imagine this other Morri Creech—more placid, more dependable, maybe even more content—returning endlessly to the same few themes and vistas he staked out in the God-haunted laments that won him a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship at the age of twenty-seven, back when they gave out just two a year. He would certainly be following a venerable precedent. If one read nothing but the poems, one might suppose that Seamus Heaney never left the fields of Tamniaran, that Philip Levine never stopped doing shift work in the factories of Detroit, and that after being discharged from the Air Force, James Dickey moved right back into the spooky Georgia farmhouse where of course he never actually lived. It should go without saying that all these men were wonderful poets, and I would not wish their poetry any different than it is. It should also go without saying that some other, significantly less wonderful poets have spent the last few decades lounging in the laps of various universities while rehearsing the same well-jawed complaints they first recorded in their college years. Creech himself is a professor now, though having attained a comparatively safe and stable life, he has forgone a parallel safety and stability in his poems. In “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” an essay of delicious relevance to American writers today, Jorge Luis Borges mocks the cultural authorities of his time, who “pretend to venerate the capacities of the Argentine mind but want to limit the poetic exercise of that mind to a few impoverished local themes, as if we Argentines could only speak of orillas and estancias and not of the universe.” (Trans. James E. Irby.) One likes to think Creech might agree.