Frederick Morgan James Finn Cotter - Essay

James Finn Cotter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Poets have always known that life tells a story and that the story is the stuff of myth. Poetry long embodied what theology and psychology only now begin to describe: the inner journey from within the world, midway between its beginning and its end. In his fourth book, Death Mother and Other Poems, Frederick Morgan continues to find incidents and images to body forth his journey and its sure but shadowy destination, "that other life to come."

Plainly and figuratively, Morgan writes of his own unfolding story, its emptiness and moments of fulfillment, its angers and affections, its pain and exultation. Each poem compels our attention for its autobiographical truth or its spiritual significance. Morgan balances his inner and outer worlds with rare clarity, so that the whole man speaks in each line….

Above all, death as a personal event and a transcendental experience reappears throughout the poems as the point of the story to be confronted, imagined, interpreted, feared and embraced. Death is mother, wife, lover, peddler woman, son, President, taximan: She is the Jungian anima that darkens and illumines the poet's consciousness or he is the poet's other self, Jolly Roger and black guide. No American poet since Whitman has written so profoundly and eloquently about death. In poem after poem…. Morgan movingly faces his own dying, weaving new myths from Eastern and Christian sources, probing his own past and dreams, bravely affirming: "I greet each day as it comes."

In these pages, the poet plays many parts: He is Orpheus in search of Eurydice, a colonist and trader summing up his life, a dreamer encountering old ghosts and a wry reporter of the passing century…. In the 10-part title poem he combines drama and meditation to frame an important contribution to literature about dying: "Death/gives us birth, we live in her." Written in loneliness and love, Death Mother deserves to be read by anyone serious about his or her own unfolding story and the archetypes that give it a local habitation and a name.

James Finn Cotter, "'Death Mother and Other Poems'," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1980; all rights reserved), Vol. 142, No. 11, March 22, 1980, p. 251.