Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review: Prairie Harbour, by Garry Thomas Morse

I first encountered Garry Thomas Morse’s poetry in one of the best ways that any small-press author can discover another small-press author: we both had work in the same literary journal. In this instance, it was in the September 2010 issue of The Quint, a small online periodical out of a university in The Pas, Manitoba. Upon reading the issue, I was immediately struck by the musicality of Morse’s verse, the way he manipulates line breaks and spacing to create a fiery momentum on the page, one that both subverts and satisfies the expectations of our readerly eye.

This prowess is very much animated in Morse’s latest collection, Prairie Harbour. The book could be read as either a singular long poem or a collage of shorter(ish) pieces that possess similar sequences of images, tropes or preoccupations. The defining feature of Prairie Harbour can be found in its title: this is a poetry collection about juxtaposition, about placing widely divergent concepts in close proximity to each other to cut new paths of understanding in our minds. Morse weaves a great tapestry of opposites as he explores his own First Nations identity and its relationship with other fraught aspects of Canadian, prairie, and, indeed, global existence.

These kinds of juxtapositions leap from nearly every page. Morse writes in the dense, trickster-like tradition of the so-called Prairie long poem (see Kroetsch, Cooley, Arnason, Dueck, Marvin Francis, etc.), and to recreate his line breaks on a blog platform would risk offending the sophisticated arrangements he has created. But here is a small taste, from early in Prairie Harbour, of what I’m talking about:

Speak to me then

of trees on your farm
of succulent saskatoons
of visions in perfect colour
of music in crystalline

speak through the flame
& I will forgo
plaguing Europe
& shadows cast
across “primitive” minds

You can see how Morse loads together a series of disparate images or tropes – Canada and Europe; rural reality and the liveliness of music; clear-headed (“crystalline”) perspectives versus “primitive” minds – and finds a way to make them sing together.

There may be a certain amount of futility to parsing exactly what this rich experimental text is “about” in the traditional sense, but the reader willing to pay close attention will spot a series of unifying ideas. Prairie Harbour is, at its core, about the long and continuous attempts at erasure of aboriginal identity, and how the First Nations voice literally needs to fight against the margins, against the very idea of margin, to make itself heard. Morse lays out many aspects of his own heritage in doing this, but what he creates never feels forced or didactic.

What’s more, there are great flurries of other tropes that readers can latch onto. Music plays a huge role in this book: I caught references to the great folk tune from my own neck of the woods, “Farewell to Nova Scotia”, as well as countless allusions to classical music and classical literature from Europe. In this sense, Morse is steeped in several artistic traditions and can write from multiple points of reference.

Still, there is a darkness that underlines this collection. It is a shadow embodied in “the Company”, a reoccurring motif in Prairie Harbour that may represent a specific corporate entity (perhaps the Hudson’s Bay Company), or, more likely, a generalized concept of the marauding, colonizing force that has threatened native identity and existence for centuries. Yet, through the sheer musicality of his verse, Morse forces us to welcome this bleak underscore to our minds. His poetry energizes us to the threat of colonial erasure, hinting at the great spectrums of light that await us if we can move beyond the harm it brings.

In the end, this is a book committed to the reformative power of art, to the ability of poetry to slip gleefully out from between the fingers of “the Company” even as it tightens its grip. This is a book that does not hold back its sense of hope.


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