SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
Review | Without a Philosophy, by Elizabeth Seydel Morgan
Elizabeth Seydel Morgan may be managing—just fine, thank you—without a philosophy, as the title of her fourth poetry collection asserts, but she is well supplied with strong emotion. Pain, grief, and, particularly, a scalding anger brewed in the cauldron of that pain and grief, drive this new book more successfully than any intellectually derived agenda could, although these forces often hide behind the gloss of polished technique and wit.
The anger makes itself felt most strongly in the first section of the book, which essentially constitutes an extended elegy for a dead lover. Elegies as a class (although with some notable exceptions) are a quiet and solemn lot; one of my reference books calls them “dignified.” Restraint, sorrow, a few tender personal touches, a final consolation, often too easily reached—those are the ingredients if you write to formula. Morgan, however, eschews formulae and quick fixes. Her speaker deeply resents this death and the way that the world continues blindly on. In “The Well,” she accuses the healthy and oblivious of “lack of decorum”: “Unfazed by fact, they go about / their suspicious business” without ever looking up “here to the hospital window.” In another poem, Morgan equates the loneliness of bereavement to a schoolgirl’s sense of being “left out” when snubbed by her classmates. She gets “hurt by the birds on a wire, / their heads all bent in the same direction,” weeps when she sees “a perfectly tilled red rectangle of garden / because I don’t know how it was plowed / or who worked it. Or where he is now.” One suspects that the “he” in the last line is not the gardener.
In another poem she marvels and complains in the same breath that a snow-covered car is able to start: “It blows its own cold breath. / Why couldn’t you?” Morgan does not spare even her speaker. She recalls the dying man insisting on walking across the border to Tijuana “on the arm of his spoiled woman,” a woman later explicitly identified with the “I” of the poem. These unsettling and sometimes caustic laments strike me as truer than conventional elegies of philosophic regret to the real experience of grief. But then Morgan acknowledges that she is “without a philosophy.”
Morgan does, however, pay lip service to convention. Many of her poems, if read too quickly, can be taken for the sort of backyard pastorals that fill the less cutting-edge literary journals. One poem is populated by goldfinches, cardinals, a groundhog, poison ivy. If not for the give-away title (“Bombing Yugoslavia,” which, on a first reading, is merely bewildering), you might not notice for most of the poem that the finches “squabble,” the cardinals are “blood red” and “fight for territory,” the groundhog is “undermining everything,” and the poison ivy’s persistent growth amounts to an invasion. Even while gardening, the speaker is “struck by blood / along the blue vein of my wrist,” an injury that may have come from a “barb or buried wire” evocative of battlefields, and she finally, ruefully acknowledges, “It’s blood I’ve come here to forget, fought / the thoughts all day: your open chest in Boston, / the roadsides out of Kosovo.” The shock of those final images mandates recognition of the violence concealed in the rest of the poem.
Although the rest of the book moves beyond the raw grief of the first section, Morgan remains sharply aware of the relentlessness of death and its forerunner, growing old. Winter approaches, and small animals invade the speaker’s country home because they “know it’s time, know it’s time, know it’s time / to come in.” (Hurry up, please.) Spring, when it arrives, is “stingy.” In “Seven Ages of Man: Saturday, Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles,” Morgan presents her sixty-year-old speaker as the oldest of the types waiting to get their drivers’ licenses, “scared of the vision test / as that kid who goes over and over the rules.” In “How Space Travel Affects the Aging,” a sometimes playful sequence of the possibilities, she notes, “how space travel affects the aging / is a question that makes them laugh. / They know where they’re going next.”
Occasionally, Morgan expresses her sense of loss in terms of space rather than time. In “Drawing Lesson: Outline and Edge,” she takes as her epigraph a quote from the painter Eleanor Rufty, “An outline surrounds a form that is no longer there,” and applies it to the dying lover:
In a later poem, the empty outline reappears in the image of a hollow log set alight: “Flames to the inmost edge of surface, / defines the core of nothing / in burning circumference.”
For much of Without a Philosophy, Morgan employs as a speaker a middle-aged Southern woman who might be taken for Morgan herself. If so, Morgan isn’t easy on herself. In “Make Yourself at Home,” the woman finds herself alone in the home of friends and snoops for “clues” to their secret weaknesses, even crawling under their bed until aware of “sudden shame at the naked legs / that are mine sticking out / through the tassels of the spread.” This is hardly the sort of horrific admission that amounts to Confessionalism, but it conveys a certain intimacy, as if the reader were a trusted friend receiving confidences over late drinks at the kitchen table. It works effectively to make not just the speaker, but also the poet behind her (and the book around her) into a credible and quirky personality, one perhaps more memorable than any of the individual poems.
On the other hand, later in the collection, character portraits like “Euripides’ Cave,” and “The Caretaker” provide a needed look beyond the Morgan-persona into other sensibilities. “The Melancholy Tailor” is a seer who, while fitting the bridesmaids and groomsmen for a wedding, knows “which of the aqua / dresses would flow down like a wave / to the feet of the kissing couple.” When a businessman has his suits taken up because of sudden weight-loss, the tailor tries “not to wonder” if the man is in love or ill but knows that “either way, it wouldn’t work out.” There is an aura of Magical Realism about these insights, both the tailor’s and Morgan’s on his behalf.
Indeed, despite its overall sense of being at the mercy of unforgiving grief, Without a Philosophy offers several surprising epiphanies—not comforts, heaven forbid!, but glimpses of something beyond the pain, perhaps of grace. In one poem, the awkward speaker is caught trying to steal “grace” from the “library stacks under G” and has to leave, “emptyhanded but hopeful,” recalling certain moments “in absolute solitude / when, for no discernible reason / my body has stepped out and danced.” The final poem, “Blessing the Watersnakes,” riffs on the Ancient Mariner, stranded in the Doldrums, “Alone, / Alone, all, all alone” (like the woman who resents birds flocking together on a wire) and asks, “Who could believe in anything?” But, just as the Mariner blessed the beauty of the watersnakes “unaware,” so the contemporary speaker finds herself “eye level with a coppery snake” and
Death and aging and the pain that goes with them cannot be slowed by intellectualizing, but an ear for the cry of protest and a touch for those moments of light air offer consolations not of philosophy.
Elizabeth Seydel Morgan is the author of four books of poetry from Louisiana State University Press: Parties (1988) , The Governor of Desire (1993), On Long Mountain (1998), and Without a Philosophy (Spring 2007) which received the L.E. Phillabaum Poetry Award. Morgan’s poems have appeared in Blackbird, Poetry, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, and The Iowa Review. In 2005 she was the first winner (with Ron Smith) of the Carole Weinstein Prize in Poetry, given to a central Virginia poet for contributions to the art of poetry.