Maria Sledmere

Marianne Morris Word/World (Boiler House Press, 2017)


If you add the letter ‘l’ to ‘word’ you get ‘world’. If you take the letter ‘l’, like really linger over it, you can curl your tongue around the nearly-tangible: love, allure, lambent, letter. If you hold the letter ‘l’ to the light you get a long thin shadow. If you hold it just so, you might get an ‘I’. Wordplay, in Marianne Morris’ recent collection of poems and prose poems, Word/World, is part of a movement towards possessing that physical bar of self, wresting its grace from the chaos of trauma: remoulding the flotsam of half-recalled strangeness into the image of language itself--its glossy echolalia of sound, instinct and sense, its needling of image and detail.

            Comprised of three registers (Alphabet Poems, Apples and Origins, Word/World), the collection is stitched together by the convoluted threads of its liminal settings, celestial epistemologies and references to gangster rap, conspiracy theories and clothing stores. From the first line of ‘Housekeeping’, ‘In a house is the silence of what is a home’, Morris invites us into a world that flickers between what seems and what describes, what is absent yet impossibly present. She draws us back upon language, exposing its searing effects on our perception, the way stop-motion photography shows up light trails from cars like the air’s own luminous, carbon scars. She often explores slippages in being from different levels, whether poetic or physical or decidedly virtual: ‘when I download the narrative / and insert it into my being’. Experience is sometimes refracted through fragmentary compounds of internet grammar, ‘periods in texts as passive aggressive’; sometimes, in the manner of CAConrad, bursting through pure grooves of shout like a scattering of crystals, fierce yet kitsch in junctures bewildering; sometimes, with all the razzle and hook of a pop song, perhaps turned sour. Take, for instance, this devious, bathetic wink at David Bowie: ‘Blue, blue, / Nothing tastes so sweet as you. / I’m gorging on my own corpse’.

            In ‘Envy’, Morris quotes Luce Irigaray’s thoughts on female desire beyond the reverse narcissism of ‘“penis-envy”’. In a sense, the whole collection is about shattering the mirror and wallowing around, Lana Del Rey-style, in the fractured, glittery bits of reflected self and society. Find yourself buoyed in plurality. I think of a line from Emily Berry’s poem, ‘Picnic’: ‘Watching the sea is like watching something in pieces / continually striving to be whole’. Reading Marianne Morris is a bit like this. In ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Hélène Cixous says, ‘we are ourselves sea [...] More or less wavily sea, earth, sky - what matter would rebuff us? We know how to speak them all’. It’s perhaps Morris’ textual fluidity, her elemental nuance, that asserts a sense of incremental strength. There’s a buffering against things, the odd splash of vitriol, the nip of tonic. Obliqueness is relief, ‘An afternoon tidal thing’, a movement that might be ‘open my head words come in’. The process of healing is opening yourself up to the flooding, the churns and cascade of emotional debris; a folding back upon writing itself as process-in-time: ‘WHAT IS TIME IF NOT A QUEST, A RIPENING, / A LIGHT THAT CONQUERS EVERY SHADOW, AND / REPETITION IS DULL’. In a sense, the sea is constancy in movement, in repetition. Morris draws process and possibility from the myriad glints, the long-enjambed tidelets.

              There’s a sense of the speaker looking for wholeness, sorting through her scrambled thoughts and desires, but struggling to find the medium for expression. A selfie, certainly, won’t do the trick: ‘There are no appropriate photos I feel / reflect my oneness now’. Nor is psychoanalysis the fashionable discourse, even in all its ironic invoking: ‘but what’s / Freud got to do with it’. Deflecting from total self-searching, Morris is attuned to the special meta effects of poetic distraction: a high-speed montage of ‘nothing, everything’, scrolling away like a blogroll we can’t keep up with, even if it’s our own fingers doing the scrolling. In the sections where you slow down, it’s important to reflect on the stasis: the allusions to the scene of writing, with all its traps and passageways. Is Word/World itself the house, the environment--the one that ‘makes wildness in the hair of women’? When considering periods and dashes and the veering from rhyme, whose windows are we trying to peek inside? Are we looking back at our own bright narcissism?

            In ‘Saint Teen’, Morris explores the kinship between reading and teenage shame, the former acquiring the mythological potential to ‘disintegrate’ knowledge into the speaker’s head. What do we peel away in the ‘strips of light’, where like Morris’ speaker we prise ‘lace off the page’, looking for truths beneath these poems’ embellishments? Among the pretty and tricksy lines, subjects feel spongy and honeycombed, only sometimes hardening into darkness. Being exists in Word/World through osmosis. I’m often unsure of who or what is speaking; parts of one thing flow and expand or shrink or snap in the next. Bombarded with an extravagant panoply of images, threads and stems and wires that shoot off in all directions, spilling off lengthening lines, the reader is faced with the task of a certain unravelling, a paring apart. Even tightly-packed prose poems like ‘Seed’ feel elaborately nested, circling around themselves in Steinian modulation: ‘There is a sun, there is a soft place, there is a soft wet place’. Intimacy blooms out of pain and drips from this ‘slit’ its hot new forms: a metamorphic, self-generation of self, a queer interaction with sparks of text and other objects. There is a lot of colour, an abundance of gold, a splitting of binaries and egos; fertility imagery kissing its way into every pore.  

There is a certain amount of reification, personification; a chiasmic disco of bodies and things, breathing in deep each other’s zones of time or feeling. Within this, a nerve-burning quiver of endless longing, expressed as a form of protective inception: ‘Every time I think I can get inside of you, it is this half-empty cave that coaxes, wood in the stove, just me in a dream curled around you in a dream’. Sometimes a line break is suggested mid-text, like maybe a stutter of thought, like maybe a glitch (a stitch?) in time. As I navigate this immersive, complicated collection of confessions and tellings, the sheer intricacy sometimes seems lossily compressed, the perfect setting for a glazed-over, ambient read. At other times, the text demands attention, its images at high-resolution, startling me with dashes of Selima Hill-style domestic surrealism: ‘My belly pops with stars when they put the needles in’. It’s at once exhilarating and exhausting, self-helping and sometimes screaming; a quilt of trauma whose patches and colours belie many more stories: the ones that twist out of their gilded lines and become ever more possible, performative--‘Entry was permissible by heart but not / paper’--and in such beats the healing tangibility.