Despite the publication of two previous books of poems (Peru in 1983 and Dream Palace in 1986), Herbert Morris remains very much unknown in contemporary American poetry. Some of this lack of fame is surely attributable to the late publication of his poems in book form (Morris was fifty-five when Peru was published); the length and difficulty of his poems may also have contributed to this relative obscurity.
In The Little Voices of the Pears, Morris continues to build his reputation as a brilliant writer of dramatic monologues in the tradition of Robert Browning, using sentences much indebted to the prose style of Henry James. Evoking American landscapes as well as more exotic ones (Brazil and Iceland, for example), Morris also brings to mind the terrain of Elizabeth Bishop and the passion and sensuality of Wallace Stevens. Morris’ work focuses on a number of subjects, which he examines from different angles—subjects such as language, perception, passion, cruelty, art, sight and blindness, and history and our relationship to it.
The present volume, comprising eleven fairly lengthy poems, opens with “The Wait,” a meditation on a photograph by Russell Lee. The photograph, entitled “Saturday Afternoon Street Scene,” shows the main street of Welch, West Virginia, in August, 1946. The first words of the poem are Looking at it long enough”; Morris’ focus is clearly on the speaker as he views the photograph. It is wise of Morris to locate the reader thus, for immediately the qualification and interruption of his own sentence begins. Indeed, the first sentence ends only after twenty-three lines.
With syntax, qualification, and interruption, Morris means to imitate time. Further, he intends to suggest the mind’s wandering paths, so that the complexity of understanding a photograph (or anything) is appreciated. The atmosphere is stifling:
part heat, yes, part humidity, but mostlysome pure, unnamed, late August suffocation:life in small towns on main streets some time afterthe peace treaties have been signed.
The speaker pauses to describe a movie marquee, a few roadsters passing, but it is atmosphere more than objects that he conveys. He senses impending rain, weather that becomes a metaphor for all danger on the horizon: “intractable, mysterious, perverse,/ threatening, even, somehow fraught with danger.”
When the speaker’s eye comes to the photograph’s main focus, three people in front of a shoestore, he describes the man and two women sympathetically and in great detail. All three are caught in time and are—to the poet’s eye, at least—both helpless and innocent, in a sense:
One thinks, all the while, of their gift for patience,thinks of restraint, enduring, limitless,the quietness of all they do and are,is persuaded to think even of passion,even of passion, in such bleak, cramped streets.
Morris makes much of the man’s waiting; he is “perhaps resigned/to the knowledge that what he does he must do,! that what he suffers! shall not be the first or last of it somehow.” The speaker is caught by the whiteness of the man’s shirt, so speaker and photographic subject are snared, doubly, together. Thus caught, a pawn to time and history, man is bound to struggle, in Morris’ view, if he wants to understand “the treaties, the surrenders,! ... whatever trouble each of us is born for.”
Three of the next four poems are more personal, and they are among the best in the book—”Latin,” “Reading to the Children,” and “French.” Interesting, especially, for the light that they cast on the author’s choice of vocation, “Latin” and “French” show a young boy’s enthrallment to language, syntax, and sensory pleasure. The scene in “Latin” is quite charmingly drawn: “We are, once more, in Mrs. Goodman’s class,! geraniums crowding the sun-struck windows.! I occupy the third desk, second row.” Mrs. Goodman is so sexy, so seductive, with her scent and “fishnet stockings,” her “spike heels...
(The entire section is 1796 words.)