Thursday, May 28, 2015


The Differences (Pressed Wafer, 2014) by Patrick Morrissey

        I believe in poetry because it is a refuge for the quiet aspect of awareness. It does not follow the rules of the rest of the spectacle. It does not dazzle in the conventional sense, and it has small and dubious traffic with that flip side of dazzle, money. “The peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener,” wrote John Stuart Mill in “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties.” This is a Romantic notion and, in our age of high dazzle, perhaps an anachronistically romantic one. But it still describes the poetry I find most potent: address so intimate it is no longer address, speech so intense its closest relative is silence.
           The tongue occupies                   
                   a silence at the heart
             of the sentence,

writes Patrick Morrissey in “Variable Songs.” Morrissey’s is the kind of utterance I favor—a strange variant of speech intent on articulating what speech normally withholds.
        Morrissey’s The Differences is a tiny book, smaller than the book I make with my palms if I place them side by side to open and close. Each cover bears a simple pattern of a grass-green circle and a half on a white field. Each poem occurs in small sections, rarely longer than nine lines, each on its own page and thus cut with bareness, whose wind whistles through. Here are the lines from “Variable Songs” again, because this book is full of stanzas I want to read twice:

          The tongue occupies
             a silence at the heart
        of the sentence. If I

           look long enough my mouth
            opens to expose a sung
        negative: if I, if I. Syll-

        ables fall into a small
            heap of conditionals,
        so many attempts to see.

The lovely “l” and varying “o” sounds of “look long enough” constitute an imperative important to this poem. “Looking long enough” is not only a visual endeavor but also a sonic one, and, further, an embodied one—its “attempt to see” is the attempt to bring the wholeness of being into the present space of attention. When the second stanza catches up the hanging “if I” from the end of the first, the poem opens itself willingly to the uncertainties integral to any moment.

        How much can happen in
        a given room during any       
        one hour of a particular

begins the book’s first poem. Its title, “In a Room,” suggests the book itself as the offered room. By way of welcome, Morrissey reminds us how an instant in lyric work can attune us to life’s infinite and minute transactions. Thus the first page is a passage of white space that leads us into a chain of moments—of disparate locations and characters connected by the diaphanous fabric of attention. We spend one flicker of time with a painter leaning toward a canvas:

        ... A series of
        proposals and refusals—thus
        he bears down on the surface.
        A form surfaces, a momentary
        declaration trembles there.

After that, we don’t know where we are except that we are inside the trembling of the moment’s declaration, inside a scene of hesitation.

        Moving the furniture, taking
        a walk—ongoing doubt
            and then the fact of going
            on at all. There is always
            someone saying no. The sheer       
            materials as real as a stranger.

The existential looming in these lines turns a moment of consciousness into a shared terrain. In doing so, it undoes the strange, intense fact central to Western existence: that consciousness is experienced in solitude, that each person’s experience of the world takes place within the boundaries of an individual mind and body. It makes palpable a portion of the poet’s interior—and, by extension, of my interior—that was previously not knowable. In the poem’s space of heightened feeling and perception, I experience subjectivity as if it is interchangeable, as if there is, at least temporarily, no difference between self and other. “We stutter us into it,” writes Morrissey in a love poem.

        We stutter us into it
        this place we make and make.

     (Shamala Gallagher)