The empty bell
The dead birds
In the house where everything sleeps
The world stands still
It seems someone has died
The trees look as though they are smiling
A drop of water hangs at the end of each leaf
A cloud crosses the night
Outside a door a man sings
The window opens without a sound
— Pierre Reverdy, 1918 (translated by Tom Hibbard, 2005, www.milkmag.org)
Although The Sunday Times states “Bloodaxe Books has a ferocious reputation as a publisher of groundbreaking poetry”, neither “ferocious” nor “groundbreaking” seem appropriate descriptions of Esther Morgan’s second book of poems, and it’s hard for this reviewer to imagine The Silence Living in Houses causing any major splashes in the literary world. Still, none of that stops me from digging it.
First let me admit my bias, the inclinations from which, more and more, I approach almost all art, but especially poetry: it’s a space for the mind to rest, resist, and roam with a heightened sense of attention, a sharpened awareness, and a more open sensitivity. Sometimes this space exists within the everyday culture (Andy Warhol, William Carlos Williams), sometimes below it (underground), sometimes above it, beyond it, on its periphery, but always through and because of language.
Combine this nebulous existence with poetry’s brevity, and it becomes easy math: “more” must be said in a smaller increment of words so there’s what might be called “productive ambiguity”. This is why so many modern artists — and not just poets — actually work against closure, instead preferring the echo, the hint, the hover.
So I’m not bothered by the frying pan with which Morgan does not beat us over our heads, not bored by the calmness, consistency, and slight variations of her craft. The best art requires and rewards the most active and acute audience, not one that constantly projects or demands, but builds a relationship with the work.
Throughout her book, there is a refreshing subtlety: it’s not preachy revolutionary street poetry full of fire but light on illumination, not elitist intellectualism, nor is it humdrum first-person lyric narrative free verse (although the poems tend towards this mode). These poems are like my football hero Art Monk: they go about their job with a sense of dignity and devotion, without much flash, simply doing the job really, really well. Simply on the grounds of manners, I admire this work.
Here is “Boarding House”, the first poem of the second section of the book:
Though you’ve forgotten those rooms exist
your body remembers, your haunted blood:
At night your heart beats its fist against the wall,
your spine buzzes like a jar of wasps,
the sharp cry lodged inside your cortex
is working its way into your mouth.
This is typical of the poems in this book: lyric-based, drawing its drama from images rather than exclamation, from fossils of narrative rather than an explicit emotional sweep, all governed by a regular stanza pattern (in this case, couplets) of free verse lines (although they are measured, tending to have small ranges of syllables and accents per line — they’re just not metrically uniform).
What’s really compelling about this poem, and the many other poems like it, is how the idea of home begins to take agency, how transience is a life-force, how a frustrated sense of belonging can permeate any physical space, how the body (blood, heart, spine, cortex) takes on identity, has memory, has intentions, desire, and consistently becomes another figure the speakers may interact with.
That’s a classy poetic move: to clarify by deflection. The matters of these poems are bleak: domestic violence, other personalities, a maid who’s reached the end of her rope, meek wives, repressed young women, the literal and figurative tearing apart of houses, sexually abusive husbands, havens, hospitals, and hordes upon hordes of ghosts. We should be happy that such tumultuous subject matter is treated less sensationally; whatever of the speakers’ issues we consider, we almost always consider them indirectly, through photographs and paintings, through flowers, windows, china, a game of chess.
A lesser poet might approach the same matter in a completely different manner, might take these subjects and turn them into a book of shocking, chest-beating, confessional protest poetry — and I should say that I do have much respect for writing that might be described in a such a way. But I’ve found that often the subject matter, especially such difficult and emotional subject matter, gets done more justice when the manner is more restrained. Here is “Fast”, one of the best:
Since then, everyone’s been searching for answers,
and though nobody knew them, not really, the sisters,
we share what we’ve gleaned:
the taxi driver from their final trip into town
who watched the three of them sat like in church —
grave, stiff-backed, harking to something; the woman who found them, her voice at the inquest a whisper
describing the icons and guttering candles, the one who died last
prostrate by the back door, key in her hand. Sometimes, undressing for bed, I picture them —
giddy and blind and lighter than girls, locked up all summer
inside a house that mirrors my own.
Once I passed by their door in the evening,
heard some old jazz being played very quietly —
a curtain fluttered into the street like a veil.
I remember how breathtaking a student’s villanelle about an alcoholic father was, how the methodical consistency, the utter formality of the poem’s manner sharpened the emotion. Although a few poems in section two are more “explosive”, Morgan’s work has a similar tension: the book is full of implicit compassion, implicit outrage, implicit confusion and loss. How we deal with memory, expression, violence, muffled hope, how we negotiate the ghosts of the past, the phantoms of the now — this is not lightweight stuff, and yet a kind of eerie illumination is the result, as if the only thing that could steady the suggested chaos in these poems is Morgan’s relentlessly hypnotic voice. If these poems were played louder, so to speak, we might turn them off, and that would be a shame.