Frederick Morgan

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Dana Gioia

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Having made his literary debut at fifty, Morgan lost no time in catching up to his contemporaries. He published widely, and like a young poet trying to define his personal voice, he tested many themes and styles with an energy and audaciousness that has characterized his work ever since. Like a young poet too, Morgan published many unsuccessful attempts in the process of discovering himself, but he never stopped to count his losses. He was always at hand with something new. (p. 667)

Death Mother and Other Poems is Morgan's best collection to date and confirms that he has become a stronger poet with each succeeding volume. More importantly, Death Mother is the first collection in which Morgan has fully realized himself as a poet. He has discovered his real subject matter, and this vision has given his work a consistency and focus it sometimes lacked in his earlier books. Poems of the Two Worlds contained many excellent pieces, but from the perspective of this new book the older collection now seems like a brilliant miscellany…. What is most surprising is how much of his eclectic background Morgan has been able to bring together, defining his real voice. He is not limited to one style or tone. He works as easily in metered verse as in free. What defines his voice is not merely formal principles, although one can point to certain formal characteristics in his best work—simplicity of diction, surprising shifts of tone between stanzas, natural line breaks. Instead what distinguishes Morgan's poetry is the serious quality of his imagination, his severe vision of life.

The clarity of this underlying vision is why Death Mother succeeds more than Morgan's earlier collections, for success here is not a matter of which volume contains the most good poems but rather of which book creates the most supportive context. Morgan is trying to articulate a vision of existence, and the immediacy and authenticity of this vision must be communicated before the individual poems can acquire their full importance. In retrospect, one can see how his early poems do not gain the force and clarity from their context that the poems in Death Mother do, and in Morgan's case this integrity is crucial. The surface simplicity of his best work hides a complex harmony of images and ideas that need a larger structure in which to operate. This need for a larger structure may explain why the best of Morgan's first three books was The Tarot of Cornelius Agrippa…. Somehow the demands of the parable form, the set interplay between his words and the illustrations of the cards, perhaps the very notion of a finite set of variations around a given theme, all focused Morgan's imagination into creating an original and nearly perfect book. Now in Death Mother Morgan transfers the control he learned in prose to his poetry, and the result is an equally original and distinctive book.

Morgan's new book is organized around three longer poems. The first of these poems is the title sequence, which sets out the questions which the rest of the book tries to answer. "Death Mother" explores the myths of death, not only classical myths like that of the Hindu death goddess, Kali, but also mythic confrontations with death on a personal level—inexplicable experiences that linger obsessively in the memory. Biography mixes with history and dream, and the reader is not always sure whether Morgan is speaking from personal experience or in a persona. Yet the ambiguity points out the underlying theme of the poem: man's inability to come to terms with death. The ambiguity...

(This entire section contains 884 words.)

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is also part of the reason why "Death Mother" is such an effective poem to read). Like Eliot in "The Waste Land," Morgan creates a chorus of voices that switch back and forth, and no sooner does the reader hear and understand one voice than another comes into play, surprising as with something new…. Morgan cuts between moods and scenes in an almost cinematic way, giving the poem a speed and power that breaks down any resistance the reader may offer to its bitter vision of existence.

"Death Mother" is the best of the three sequences Morgan includes in the book, but "Orpheus to Eurydice," which comes midway, also deserves close attention. This gentle, ambiguous sequence of love poems marks the point in the book where Morgan modulates into quieter, more affirmative poems. These poems address an ambiguous "you" which seems simultaneously to be a dead lover, the Muse (in the aspect of both a creator and a destroyer), and the poet himself, but on at least one level the sequence is a problematic reworking of the Orpheus legend from a poet who believes in the impossibility of an afterlife…. (pp. 667-69)

The situation of the poet in "Orpheus to Eurydice" is the central clue in understanding what Morgan is trying to accomplish in Death Mother. In their own way most of the important poems in this new book are one-way conversations with the dead. For Morgan poetry has become the only avenue to the underworld, and the lonely act of writing without any assurance of success has become his form of prayer. (p. 670)

Dana Gioia, "Three Poets in Mid Career" (copyright, 1980, by Dana Gioia), in The Southern Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 667-74.∗


Richard Tillinghast