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Wednesday, 12 June 2013 00:00

Morgan conjures the past with a poet skill

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bookRobert Morgan has a rare and cunning gift: he can sift through the detritus of the past, pluck objects and images from his memory (especially his childhood) and elevate them to the point where they become — in the sense that Joseph Campbell uses the word — “numinous.”

Many of Morgan’s poems resonate with Appalachian readers; especially those of us who share this poet’s commitment to a heritage that is rapidly vanishing. Consider some of the subjects: 

June bugs: (you tied a thread to one of their legs and allowed them to tow you through the pastures of summer. Hopefully, you eventually released your prisoner and watched it vanish “into a swarm of its own kind in clover and indigo.”

Tree-roosting chickens: Like me, Robert remembers an uncle who had a flock of tree-roosting chickens and the muttering and clucking sounds they made each night as they shift “like berries of an abacus.” Frightened by a noise in the night, a dog or a possum, “They will raise a half-hour fuss. The rooster crows at three.”

Funny books:  Like Robert, I was told by family and teachers that comic books were “sordid and salacious.” So they became forbidden pleasures. I hid them in the corn crib and beneath the bed. As a result, those lurid covers became  “illuminated texts” and the  “chap books prophets of sacred and secret art.” Comic books are still with us, of course, and they have been elevated to status of an art form, but Morgan pays homage to Superman and Lash LaRue and the glories of those “hyperbolic zaps and screams.” Pow! Bam! Yikes!

Old churches: In the poem, “Church Dust,” Morgan conjures up “the salts and silts of human hope and human sweat and human mourning.” Here, ground into the floors and woodwork of old wooden churches, along with “bits of hair and flakes of skin,” are the “forgotten sermons, hymns once raised at hot revival’s end,” the detritus of our lives becomes a kind of residue of human existence. When a chance wind stirs this dust, our yearnings rise and drift through the “troubled air.” In another poem, Morgan describes the night he heard his father “speak in tongues” in an old church. As Morgan and his brother listened raptly, his brother whispered to Morgan, “Is that Hebrew?”

Jesus in the clouds: Morgan struck a chord with “Face,” a poem about an image of Christ in the sky. The story goes that a mocking atheist, when told that “Christ is everywhere,” turned his camera to the sky and quipped, “Then I’ll take his picture.” And so he did. When the film developed, there was Christ. When they passed the photograph around in my eighth-grade class, some of us never saw it since it took a while to find how light and shadow came together to form a face. Like Morgan, I finally saw the face and felt a rush of awe and delight that I wish I could duplicate today.

Feather crowns: I have seen a dozen of these religious relics, and like the photograph of Christ’s face, they invariably gave me a sense of wonder. I saw one some years ago that was kept by an elderly lady who told me that the crown (an intricate construction of feathers that resembled a tightly woven cap) had been found in her sister’s pillow. “I know that my sister is with God,” she said, “this crown proves it.” I still remember the pleasure that I felt when I held that 75-year-old crown. Of course, no one believes in feather crowns anymore. In this bright new world, pillows are no longer filled with feathers.

Canning peaches: Another lost art. Certainly, there are some Luddites out there who still buy, peel and can, but they have largely vanished. Like Morgan, I remember the smell of that bubbling syrup, and how I lay in my bed, attentively listening for the “pop” of each sealed jars which meant that the canning was complete. Great mounds of peach stones were in the back yard, and the penetrating aroma of peaches hung in the attic for days.

Tool sheds, cellars, old barns: Many of the poems in this collection are about deterioration and decay. Morgan’s most vivid images are of “rust lacquered pipes” in abandoned cellars where the white roots of potatoes climb toward the light and “the smell of rust” taints the air in abandoned tool sheds. Broken plow points and “dobber combs dripping plaster.” This is the natural way of things. In “Exhaustion,” he notes that all creation has “this need to lie down.” The crumbling and falling apart of life, trees and flesh is a natural process.

Old radios, crystal sets: When I was a child, my grandparents had a radio much like the one Morgan describes. Housed in a wooden cabinet, it was equipped with dials and rotating knobs, and if you peeked in the back, there were big hot tubes and the air “was poisoned by electricity.” Yes, our Silver-tone filled me with a sense of mystery and awe, and when I turned the dials, I sometimes heard sounds that had no earthy origin. The same was true of my little crystal set with the copper wire wound on the Quaker oatmeal box, for it also produced sounds ... quasars, exploding stars, distant galaxies. Morgan has numerous references to “crystals” ... a repetition that suggests the poet’s awareness of the invisible and infinite world around us.

Perhaps I should note that all of the poems in The Strange Attractor are not about artifacts, obsolete relics and the passing of our heritage.  There is a marvelous poem entitled “Mountain Bride” that recreates a traditional tale about the mountain couple who built a fire in their new home and awoke a nest of rattlesnakes beneath the hearth stone.

However, my favorite poem is “Uncle Robert,” a tribute to Morgan’s gifted relative who left dozen’s of reminders  scattered through the house — objects that he had sculpted or crafted (paintings, a vase,) including a canoe that is slowly disintegrating in the barn loft and a box of arrowheads that he had picked up in the bottom “like seeds and teeth of giants.” 

Morgan had been told that he bore an eerie resemblance to this uncle and that they both spoke with a stammer. Uncle Robert’s P-17 “had  novaed over East Angelia and his remains” (bone splinters and rags) came home in a steel coffin.  Morgan retains a small statue of “The Dying Warrior,” modeled by his uncle and still bearing his uncle’s fingerprint on its base.

At times, Morgan hints at an interconnection in these numinous objects. It is as if each were an integral part of a grandiose design, and when properly aligned, they can render a strange music. This is a wonderful collection.

(Gary Carden is a celebrated writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

The Strange Attractor by Robert Morgan. Louisiana State University Press, 2004. 135 pages.

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