An engraver in short, sharp slashes that go deep. Andrew Salkey
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About Mervyn Morris
Mervyn Morris (b, 1937) remains one of the most resourceful and technically brilliant of Caribbean poets. After studying at the University College of the West Indies, and winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, he embarked on an academic career which would eventually take him back to Mona as a teacher and later Professor of Creative Writing. Alongside his own collections he has written extensively on West Indian literature, and edited various anthologies, as well as the selected poems of Louise Bennett, the iconic Jamaican Creole poet ‘Miss `Lou’. In 2009 he was awarded Jamaica’s Order of Merit. In 2014, he was appointed the first post-independence Poet Laureate of Jamaica.
In the Sixties and Seventies he belonged to a small group of young poets who met up in Kingston, reading each other’s work, exchanging political and poetic ideas, ambitious for the future and struggling to get noticed and published. Thus most of Morris’s literary life has been lived in the post-colonial era of independence and its subsequent political struggles, characterised by tensions and choices between personal and collective commitment which are explored in a variety of ways throughout his work. Despite a keen awareness of continuing injustice, he has always taken a philosophically long view, bound by “smouldering restraint”, convinced that discovering or reinventing identity is better than shackling it to a disinterred tragic past. So he is probably less popular with angrier figures, and never writes the big political poem, the propagandist’s occasional poem or the slogan-filled doggerel of the uncompromising activist. He often tells painful truths, but without rancour.
His poetry eschews obvious historical causes, rather taking up the abiding concerns of all men: sexual desire and spiritual love; mutability and mortality; friendship and betrayal; joy and grief. He is a supreme poet of the everyday, the potency of the familiar with its safety and its limitations, its disappointments and consolations. Many of his poems are shards of personal memory, fragments of autobiography. Like a melancholy comedian, he moves from social observation to fleeting introspection with ironic detachment, his craft and intellect joined in refining language and feeling to tellingly spare effect. His poems of domestic life compel with their familial routines masking deeper frustrations; yet his intimacy avoids sentimentality, pares down the emotional truth, always alive to the ambiguity in close relationships. This is especially revealing in his sequence of poems On Holy Week, where the Crucifixion is flecked with Caribbean colour, and peopled with locals. Turning from sacred to profane, Morris inhabits his amorous verses with intense self-awareness and erotic power, which is to say he writes sexy poems about lust. love, seduction, deception and conquest. And of course he has a fine ear for nuanced shifts from Standard English to Jamaican Creole, transpositions which give locality and music to those poems at once linguistically conscious of their origins yet unconstrained by them.
But although he is a serious poet, Morris is also a performer, a wisecracking cynical versifier with a sharp wit and a sparkling gift for ingenious rhymes. He conjures resolution out of tension with satisfying aplomb. In telling his brief narratives he can be a subtle, even sly, master of tiny, wounding reversals. He can also shift from satirical flair to magical reflection with sureness of delicate touch, as in the haiku ‘Garden’: “after a shower/ blackbirds preening on the grass/ dressing for heaven.” Complex simplicity, with faint echoes of Blake and Clare, captures a moment of epiphany in this exquisite Franciscan benediction.
Mervyn Morris has chosen a dozen poems from his recording specially made for the Archive, and they give some flavour of his marvellous facility and range. The Creole comicality of ‘Peelin Orange’ dissolving into bitter resignation, the surprising epigrammatic depth of ‘Walk Good’ and the wonderful Caribbean Garden of Eden hinted at in ‘Eve’ – these wryly amuse where ‘Cabal’ appals, with its conversational cruelty, a bleak morality tale about cronies and corruption. Among the rest, ‘Casanova’ is a perfect exposure of the vanity and self-delusion mingling in the damaged heart-throb, while ‘The Day My Father Died’ speaks of death’s finality and the birth of grief, a new life for the living to bear, especially so for the poet’s mother. Morris reads his work beautifully, with memorable clarity, in a warm, richly hued voice, colloquial, declamatory, always attuned to music as well as meaning.
The recording was made for The Poetry Archive on September 7th, 2010 at The Audio Workshop, London, and was produced by Richard Carrington.
Poems by Mervyn Morris
Books by Mervyn Morris
On Holy Week, a sequence of poems for radio
Dangaroo Press, 1993