Tuesday, March 24, 2009

`The Nature of Assistance'

Do a Google search for “Herbert Morris” and a post I wrote last June comes up fourth from the top. This is sad and bewildering, especially because two of the top three results are for other Herbert Morrises, not the great poet who died in 2001 at age 73. Do the same search but add “poet” and my post is fifth. (Go here for another post on Morris.) We can safely conclude the critical oblivion Morris endured in life lingers on in death.

I was delighted Monday morning when I woke to an e-mail from a man whose father was Morris’ cousin. He found my post, he writes, “in a very roundabout way.” I don’t yet have permission to identify him or further quote his e-mail, but he suggests Morris was much loved by his family, a man who loved and delighted children. I’m not surprised judging from the evidence in Morris’ poems. Most are set in the past, viewed through the lens of memory, with the poet often returning to his childhood in a sort of observant reverie. The second of his four books, Dream Palace (which I take as a metaphor of memory), includes the lines “'the past you would reclaim, the past/you would entreat to stop the heart, the past.”

I worked Monday as a reading aide in an elementary school. All day, kids came to my office and we read together – an unexpectedly encouraging experience because even the weak readers, including one I’d been warned was a discipline problem, enjoyed their books. Even that kid, with his dirty fingernails and clothes reeking of cigarette smoke, never gave the impression reading was an odious task. As part of my assignment I spent an hour on recess patrol. A group of boys trying to dig a rock out of the ground with sticks unearthed a small, four-sided glass bottle with a rusted cap. They brought it to me and asked what I thought it contained. I threw the question back at them and the consensus was “magic potions,” which is more interesting than the poster paint it once held.

One of my favorite poems in Dream Palace, which I read during lunch, is “Magic,” a first-person account of a childhood encounter with a stage magician. It reads like a Steven Millhauser story told from the point of view of an audience member picked to assist the performer. It’s more than autobiography in the banal sense. Here is the last of the poem’s 20 four-line stanzas:

“Magic, I tell myself, is transformation.
We are conspirators in our undoing.
Still, there are weights and depths to be determined:
What kindness is, the nature of assistance.”

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