FAIRBANKS - I always get excited when I
discover a new, to me, poet. Some people like to unwrap presents - I
unwrap poems, watching them unfold into pictures of another person's
viewpoint. A good poet can take the most mundane subject and turn it
into a lyrical vision, pulling me out of my mundane world into that
So when John Morgan's new book, "Spear-Fishing on the Chatanika,"
arrived in my mailbox, I was elated. Not only was it a new book, it was a
poet I hadn't read before, so I got a double package in which to
You may wonder, "How do you make spear fishing poetic?" Not everyone
can. But Morgan does, with his title poem, "Scouts Spear-Fishing on the
Cross-legged on the bank around
a stylish blaze our fathers counted coup -
how beautiful from the air
those cities lit by bombs,
the giddy godless scare
of elemental flack, blue sequins
on the black...
Equating the glistening fish with the "bursting" of bombs, this poem
takes a few readings to really get its meaning. But it sticks with you -
I found myself turning back to it several times as a phrase in another
poem jolted some small understanding into my head.
Morgan takes on the typical Alaskan themes - boundless landscape,
teeming wildlife, overwhelming beauty. But anyone can write poetry about
that. What puts Morgan a notch above is the way he takes the usual and
makes it unusual. In "A Little Night Music," Morgan begins:
Look, I can do the impossible:
I am driving a large yellow
bus backwards up this steep hill,
steering in reverse by the outside
mirror through the on-coming traffic,
avoiding the deflecting streetcar
tracks, the vans, bicycles, and so forth.
Perhaps this is the career I
missed out on - driving backwards
up a hill a large yellow bus.
Nothing prosaic here. Just a keen, observational eye and a way with
words that makes me really jealous.
One of my favorite poems was "Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska: A Suite."
With suite (and sweet) titles such as "Dead Walrus on the Beach," "A
Village Littered with Bones," "Neighbors: Gossip," and "B.I.A. Housing,"
this poem, for me, was an excellent picture of Alaska today. The
juxtaposition of modern and traditional, of Alaskan and Outside, of
snowmachine parked next to dog sled, is a photograph of the history and
legacy of Alaska.
In Suite 7, "Privilege," Morgan writes:
Awed by this place
the top of my head comes loose
and tears assault my eyes. Hairy
with impending ice-ages
I see the past arriving at
our shore: mammoths, mastodons,
and man. All
times are crowded into this
small village, its
magic, my privilege.
Morgan is at his best when he writes about the personal. He has
numerous poems dealing with his family, especially his sons. One
suffered a childhood debilitating illness that affected the entire
family. Morgan writes of that time with all the passion and fear of a
parent watching a child near death; but with a remarkable detached eye.
He is able to see the little picture inside the big picture.
The final poem, "Spells and Auguries," is introduced by Morgan this
way: "In November, 1993, without warning, our son Ben went into a coma.
This sequence deals with his illness and its long-term consequences."
Straightforward, simple, truth. But the suite of poems that follows is
In "Prologue: Song for Ben," Morgan recalls a night ritual every parent
The night sky bouncing with a thousand
of light, up and down the room I walk, holding
your warmth - blue bundle, chilly ears and hands.
Above us, in green shadow, the sleek Egyptian
cat, a plaster statuette you twist to smile at.
That simple scene is wrenched away with the second suite, "Sirens and
Your cry, half howl, half moan, rocks
That's a nightmare every parent dreads, and it resonates with fear,
anguish, anger, and doubt. Morgan has captured a visceral emotion and
given it voice, given it color. It made goose pimples rush up my back,
and I dropped the book to call my three daughters, just to assure myself
they were OK. They're all adults, but that fear never really goes away.
This is a poem in 24 parts, covering the extent of illness and
recovery, from sitting in the hospital waiting for word, to flying his
son to another state for treatment, to the doctor's angry "Why didn't
you bring him sooner?" to the diagnosis - it's a road map for a family
dealing with the disaster that is illness. Between the worry and the
fear, there is the horribly routine - Who will pay for all this? Why am I
signing all the papers again? Don't they listen?
Amazing how Morgan was able to put that into beautiful, simple but
complex, lyrical words. They flow across the page, dripping the emotion,
but not enough to distract the reader into wanting to clean them up.
In addition to 22 new poems, Morgan drew from several books for this
collection, including "The Bone-Duster," "The Arctic Herd," "Walking
Past Midnight," and "Spells and Auguries." This book is crammed with
excellent poems. Morgan is my kind of poet - not frou-frou, not overly
sentimental or maudlin, just a master of words. I will definitely be
checking out the older books, and hope he writes many new ones.
Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who
lives in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Review: "Reading the North", The Anchorage Daily News (Summer 2010)
This gathering of poetry is the culmination of over 40 years of writing about family, travel, explorations of landscape, dreams and history. Generous selection from John Morgans three previous books follow, and the collection concludes with a moving sequence dealing with his son Ben's near-fatal coma due to encephalitis and the long-term consequences of that illness.
'See his blueprint for a universe
Review: The Midwest Book Review's Internet Bookwatch site:
which contracts as it cools.
There, the moon is a mirror
made of dust, a doll
shaken till one eye sticks open.'"
"The man of Alaska has seen and done many things most others wouldn't even think of. "Spear-Fishing on the Chatanika" is a collection of poetry from John Morgan as he presents over forty years of his work and thought. Award winning work, "Spear-Fishing on the Chatanika" is a thoughtful and recommended collection. "The End": One gray animal walked to the edge of morning./The moon was behind it and the road/wound north, an infinite hill./And as there was simply no reason to proceed/with the project it had set out on days before, it sat down.//Eyes/are all I see of its gray face/staring into the morning/chilled past all desire/having at last come to the end."
A mood of calm pervades every page of John Morgan’s latest collection, Spear-Fishing on the Chatanika. This sensitive, expressive book is a perfect example of Wordsworth’s idea of emotion reflected in tranquility–even at those high-tension moments when he describes being frantic about the health of a family member or recalls the frustrations and missteps of virgin sex.
I first encountered John Morgan’s work in Field’s 1979 anthology A Geography of Poets. It stood out then. Later I met Morgan (he taught at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for many years), and even participated in readings with him and other Alaskan poets in Juneau and elsewhere. He is also calm in person, and his students remember him fondly.
Morgan grew up in New York City. His experiences working in the Peabody Museum of natural history led to the title and several poems in his first collection, The Bone-Duster. Bones, ash and tenderness are constants throughout this larger collection, too. When spear fishing, the fisher never knows what threatening denizen will appear through the bubbles of surf and the tremulous strands of giant kelp. Morgan repeatedly surprises the reader with his images and with the sybillant clang of many of his final lines, as well as sudden whiffs of cinnamon, damp gears or spruce.
The difficulty with reviewing a book like Spear-Fishing on the Chatinika is that almost every poem calls out for its fifteen minutes of fame. “The Psychoanalysis of Fire” is notable for its arresting strings of multisyllable adjectives. “Spells and Auguries,” the 24-poem section for his younger son, struck with encephalitis, is freighted with medical terminology and stone-hard, one-syllable words as well as waking dreams and horrible possibilities. A teen deals with the siege of Leningrad, trying not to be overwhelmed by the gathering bodies of his family and the spectre of hunger. (Note the almost secret rhyme in these stanzas.)
Annie Dillard has written that Morgan’s poems are “strong and full of carefully controlled feeling. They are tender and precise evocations of the moral and sensory life of man.” Morgan reveals a human being built on a steely skeleton of responsibility, clothed in the flesh of painful consciousness. Over and over, he feels life “going deeper” until it is “salt in [his] pores.”
Although many of Morgan’s poems deal with the landscape of Alaska, where he spent decades, these lines visit many other countries and centuries. He has memories of Robert Lowell as well as a beach in Mexico. Often, as in “The Beach Walk at Port Townsend, Wa.,” he is trying to find the space to escape grief and guilt in order to find the right details, the right metaphors for all the other things in life he wishes to record. When he writes of Anton Webern “sickened by the recent loss of his son/strafed to death on a train,” his concern for his own son–strafed to coma by a sudden illness–surfaces like an unexpected episode of vomiting. The same lurch occurs when he writes “Walking Past Midnight” for a fellow poem whose infant daughter is stricken with meningitis.
Bike riders and bones in the ditch, pizza and Phenobarb, Morgan reaches right and left, backward and forward through time and space. His poems for his wife Nancy are especially touching, love poems being the hardest poems to write without turning honey into gall. His portraits of her innocence and bravery make an indelible impression on the reader. For instance, “Then” is one of the most honest and touching poem I have ever read. In another of his poems for her, “May,” the ripples, stipples, roots, kisses and chortles of nature come to fruition in the final line: “the tune the earth is singing to itself” –a tune that expresses his happiness in their continuing relationship.
At Harvard, Morgan won the Hatch Prize for Lyric Poetry. At the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was awarded the Academy of American Poets’ Prize. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner and many other prestigious journals.
Spear-Fishing on the Chatanika is a collection to read and re-read with pleasure–watching for glass but sipping cocoa on the couch.
Ann Fox Chandonnet is a poet and non-fiction writer who lives in Vale, North Carolina. She is the author of Canoeing in the Rain (Mr. Cogito) and other poetry collections, as well as history and nonfiction such as “Write Quick”: War and a Woman’s Life in Letters, 1835-1867 (Winoca Press, Wilmington, N.C.)