by Benjamin Morris
49 pages, paperback, Letterpress (2011)
A first encounter with Benjamin Morris’ slender collection of tightly-composed sonnets feels like standing before a quiet stream as a gentle flow of lucid language sloops along before you. On a closer look the water reddens, until what appears before you is anatomy in words, sifting acutely through a strange body of flesh, time and memory.
Coronary is doubtless a journey through a troubled heart. A hospitalised father, after some severe (although unnamed) coronary disease, hovers somewhere between life and death; suspended, it seems, through the compassion of a son. This is a series of poems written by the son (Morris) to his father. We’re presented with a world of intimate breaths, semi-conscious murmurings of the father and anxious ruminations of the son, the small agonies of both who know that all that stands between being and not being is a panoply of life-support paraphernalia: catheters, “fluids whose names all end in –zine”, bleeping machines that sustain a fragile life.
Coronary is spoken deep from the heart, as much as it laments a failing one. It has an honesty of voice and an acuteness of observation for spaces where physical and metaphysical meet (“My anger hangs like powder in the air”, ‘Monologue’) that is reminiscent of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. Both poets offer a rigorous analysis of their own souls during the effort to reclaim what’s being lost through the act of writing. Like Lowell, we are given glimpses of life at the point where, for a brief second, its unending connections seem to be coming clear. In the end Lowell loses out to time, but Morris’ father (at the close of the cycle) returns home, as if all the devotions of the son had achieved some strange cardiovascular recovery. But in the case of Coronary the experience described is perhaps a little more uncanny, whereby the son seems to biologically inhabit the memory of the father, or at least discovers far more of the father in himself when the former is on the verge of extinction. The poems inhabit a strange place, perhaps that of the dreamscape, or some shared plain where the desires of the hospitalised patient and the doting vigilant seem to meet. Indeed, Coronary seems to articulate sensitively the restless experience felt when a loved one is in hospital:
My mind is like rat, you tell me –
It has to have something to gnaw on.
The very habit which Morris recalls his father describing is prevalent throughout the cycle, in which verse seems to be created out of the gnawing anxieties of the mind.
In contrast to Coronary’s somewhat neurotic vein, there is also a powerful tenderness in the writing; this is one of Morris’ strongest qualities. Perhaps this lyrical tenderness works because underlying it is the author’s grasp of the importance of speech in these strange meetings between him and his father:
I’ll keep this vigil by your side, holding on
To these flickering words, even when we’re gone.
Morris nurtures his words more than anything else, as if the son’s careful, caring act of speech could soften the absence of speech from his father (who remains inarticulate throughout, bar the occasional murmurings through tubes). This sense resonates most fully in ‘Cough’, where Morris asks his father for “a symphony of phlegm, a chorus / of sputum and blood’, anything to douse the “silence [that] has been killing us”. These poems are concisely, simply worded; it feels like the poet provides the right language dose in a chapbook that feels often like a series of bedside notes, in which all one can say has to be put in the most delicate, direct of ways.
To use a cruder metaphor, a good sonnet is like some kind of self-assembly light box: if you put all the parts in the right place it clicks and you get an incredible light. If you don’t quite manage to, it works at half-light and one becomes all too aware of the misplaced parts. Fortunately Morris is deft in his construction, and so this sonnet cycle a pleasure to read as the rhyme patterns light up throughout the chapbook. Crisply-woven sentences provide a fine lacquer for these vignettes of filial compassion, slipping down the avenues of memory, affection and place. Sonnets ‘Shroud’ and ‘Vent’ are notable examples where the rhyme seems to click perfectly, and only occasionally it feels as if the author has tried to wedge in line or a rhyme that doesn’t fit snugly (for instance, the homophone couplet rhyme of “auricle… / oracle” almost feels too constructed). The general impression is that these sonnets are tight vessels, carefully built. The poem ‘Punchdrunk’ begins:
Three days and your hand is swollen tight
Into a fist. The nurses call it third-spacing,
The body storing excess fluid in the places
That it can.
Just as the body survives through this act of ‘third-spacing’, there is a sense in which the sonnets themselves act as some literary-biological ‘third-space’, storing the swell of fluids, memories and pains shared between father and son. Morris’ reference to this third-space (echoing geographer Edward Soja’s concept of Third-Space as a space of real-and-imagined events) gives us the briefest hint of the geographical/environmental thread running through Coronary, reappearing in a similarly brief citation of Thoreau (“Distrust any enterprise that requires / a new set of clothes, Thoreau had said”, ‘Purchase’) . Perhaps these sonnets can perhaps be thought of psycho-geographically, layered as they are with references to Morris’ long car journeys back and forth from a hospital (“Driving / past the limit is the least that I could do”, ‘Call’) , followed by the even longer wanderings through his mind.
Nonetheless, for all the son’s wanderings, sonnet after sonnet he finds himself in vigil by the hospital bed within the ward. Coronary feels curiously like encountering a space which is simultaneously infinite yet tightly enclosed – a very open yet very intimate house. Creating and maintaining such a dynamic is perhaps Morris’ best achievement in these poems, and I look forward to encountering more such spaces from this rewarding American poet