Levon Helm by Jason Morris (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Look: tiny orange
butterflies crown clover
every angle for
the nectar, their
little jewelers’ lupes
eyeing clovers’ coronas
it is these animals to whom I owe
a debt of gratitude larger than poetry
(from “Raw Umber”)
What’s in a name? Music, insight, courage, and a fame matched by death and history and the instantaneous. Levon Helm the individual, the musician, the icon, positively notorious and storied, is as mysteriously absent from Jason Morris’s first full-length as he might be considerably present. There is difficulty in knowing the truth, and perhaps as a ghost or an analogy we might find the figure’s energies throbbing and glissading through and across the pages by default, by knowing or unknowing, by potential. Either way, or both ways, Morris’s voice is what fills this book first and foremost and it’s his voice that resonates with a severe beauty of scurry and scrawl from cover to cover.
A quality that holds Morris’s book together through this book, as a collection, is its patchwork of diverse senses of self and the voices that represent those senses. Morris as poet approaches a documented world through an applied plethora of lenses, angles, and curiosities. Subject matter is scattered and wizened by its range; as a collection, his poems are pervasive and capable of maintaining a subtly inquisitive purity. Emotion is balanced and arcing in concision. Heights of explorative hyperbolism, through joy or fear or trauma or distaste, rarely find a presence. Morris’s work is a soft glow, a resonant hum, the realm of the residence of the voice in a lively and respectable world. This paradigm, consistent with the Californian bioregionalism I’ve most recently been reminded of by way of Schelling, is utterly pleasant and hypnotically realized. There is a trapping and a phantasmagoric engulf that sways and docks the reader into the poetic bob. Morris’s language is a whispering throat, a delicate pendulum, a soft tide, built upon music and inventory.
To choose not to
pick up phone & scroll anyway through
Dear old dreary daylit world, dull
repetition of daily news, look up instead to see
a world newly cathected, autochthonous in
clouds, in ones and threes.
(from “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”)
It is fascinating to find Morris’s poetry in 2018. It sits extensively from the 1970s or 80s, echoing along the decades and gathering evidence of a world slowly creeping. Technological advances are more humdrum and ordinary than explosive and shocking. The search engine is as commonplace as the hummingbird. The social media as blandly bountiful as the juicy red cherry and the spitting out of the pit. Technology, the digital, the contemporary where we find ourselves does not have to be of significant consequence, is how I read its acting space within Morris’s poems. It might be anticlimactic or slightly stark in a mild burden of melodrama. But it comes and goes, lifted meditatively from the poet’s grasp. A flighty assurance of this temporal non-reliance is filled with equal parts quirk and mythic. “Google” meets “Demeter” in the same span of the 80 pages that make up Levon Helm.
What else makes up the book’s mythologies? The inspirations of the young poet’s language make brief but intentional appearances: through Mike Watt & Thurston Moore to Lyn Hejinian to Creeley & Olson to Clark Coolidge to Dashiell Hammett, there’s the presence of a musical and literary world scraping by the notebooks and moments of Morris and his incisive glaze of language. And beyond the questions of Sonic Youth, beyond the tracks and the chords and the concerts and the stanzas and the books and the readings, or perhaps, ultimately, from within, the cast of characters expands to include those individuals of the biographic present, the alive and the nearby, those close and of community, familial and intimate, resonantly personal while all the time brushed across the canvas in tiny, expiring bubbles. Morris’s imagery of voice is hurried and tireless, yet the persistence of intentionality indicates a stationing and situating of the self, a ghosting of the self, lapsing and relapsing through the daily experience.
What haunts me (& maybe “Providence,” too) is an oblivion of memory; that the loss of the bits might prefigure a larger loss. By taping this message & making for it a memorial of decimated piano chords, tape-hiss & distortion; by putting it right in the middle of the album, the music recognizes that. Memory is an oblivion in which only ephemera floats to the surface.
A poetics grasping collage by the throat, wringing collection like a towel to loosen the liquidous core contained within, Morris’s pitter-pattering lines fall into place but not without a determined effort of work and challenge. His writing contains a fullness of demonstrated craft and revision. As a collection of poems, this significant investment of the poet may not benefit the reader with any immediacy, and yet there is a feeling, a shadowy current that follows each poem, indicating the historical treatments contributing to the book’s final form. Language of obscurity, references of placement and displacement, allusions and quotations determinately ambiguous, and unexpected moments of exquisite flourish and precision are all features that flank and surround the overall identity and vision of Morris’s voice. As such, much is surprising and to be gained through the patterns of readership without much expectancy and predictability. Through elements both magical and mysterious, Morris has a sincere, macrocosmic effect of discovery and arousal dispersed throughout Levon Helm. Perhaps, like the thorough and intangible life of the man that the book is named after, this effect is one representing an unburdening-yet-burgeoning empathy of worldly creation.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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