Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617
The majority of poems in ["Death Mother and Other Poems"] center on the "primal recognition," the Lear experience, the death consciousness that must eventually come to all of us, but Morgan distances himself from morbidity by carefully considering how to live life with this awareness. The long title poem, "Death Mother," begins with the speaker's conversational acknowledgment to the ultimate femme fatale that whether she appears as sleep, night, or dreams, she does indeed have dominion. The poem moves mostly in free verse through bits of narration, conversation, and generalized comment, in an intellectual wrestling match with the Angel of Death. The odds of the match are overwhelming but the necessity of it is obvious, for "not to recognize her is/not to recognize ourselves." Speaker shifts from conversationalist to Nazi corpse-burier, to almost omniscient seer, to Death herself. Death is at once Earth-Mother, lover, destroyer, guide, religious spirit, and part of the self.
The ultimate question for this poet is this: How do I face up to my own mortality? As he searches for answers, Morgan finds that the Greek myths mostly avoided the issue and existential thought too easily denied it any significance beyond itself. He himself finds a basically Christian attitude the best answer. (p. 41)
Not all the poems are concerned with death. "The Trader," for example,… is a narrative poem blending two subthemes Morgan is fond of: the meeting and conflict of cultures, and the indelibility of those transitory moments of love and happiness…. Other poems reflect on personal experiences, Christian and mythic themes, and the darkly comic predicament of modern America. All the poems speak in a gentle, urbane, mature voice but reveal a tough, logical mind. Many employ beautiful closure—not a pat answer but a "raft for the crossing" which one might "abandon on the other side." If the reader has a regret about the poems included, it is that in a few poems the poet does not share enough of his experience adequately to inform the reader. But, in view of what he does share, this occasional stinginess must be regarded as a small fault.
Certainly one of Morgan's main strengths is his mastery of a variety of styles. His range of both form and method is large. Death Mother consists of eight sections of poems loosely separated in terms of subject, tone, and technique. The poems range from three-line single-image lyrics to long prosy narratives, neat elegies and love poems, phantasms, and philosophical arguments. Diction and image are precise without denying the reader his flights of speculation…. (p. 42)
But it is in variety of metrical and sound effects that Morgan's talent is most apparent. He moves in and out of free and fixed forms with the agility of a skater. His usual medium is unrhymed and open, but he sometimes opens with unrhymed lines, hints at rhyme through assonance and consonance, moves into unpatterned or slant rhyme, and ends with a rhyme pattern. His experiments with terminal sounds prove to be some of his best moments. (pp. 42-3)
Since Morgan returns to many earlier themes in his latest book, he provides an opportunity to see the continued sharpening of his skills. The death of his son John is remembered in both A Book of Change and Death Mother. Both poems are lovely, affective conversations with the young man after his death. Both are prompted by dreams. But while the earlier poem is soft in focus and short on imagery (perhaps the recent pain prevented anything more specific), the later poem, "February 11, 1977," rivals Housman's "To An Athlete Dying Young" in its chiseled precision. (p. 43)
David Sanders, "'Mother of Pain, Mother of Beauty'," in Tar River Poetry, Spring 1980, pp. 41-4.