Madison Morrison’s work has a characteristic hallucinatory nanoprecise brightness, a jubilant anti-nihilism not unworthy of Nietzsche, like an acrylic photorealist mural of a strip mall in Provo, Utah. Yet his masterpiece Light is serendipitously hampered by a mysterious greyness that emanates from the poem’s profound duality: thriller and lullaby, for it is hectically active yet quietly and soothingly ruminative, matter-of-fact yet impossible, classically symmetrical yet chaotic as a Mandelbrot set, user-friendly yet taking us to the remote coldness of Uranus where nothing can live.
Of course lots of cool writers have this quality—Milton, Kafka—but in Light the poet has devised a technique that has enabled him to compress his suspect material into a previously unknown state, somewhat as tabletop physicists can now chill the gas clouds of certain elements to create the Bose-Einstein Condensate. The counter-intuitive properties that are manifested in this academic, expensive phenomenon will be my metaphor for the surprising pleasure the reader finds in a great and enigmatically consoling poem.
Light is as much a narrative poem as The Ring and the Book or the Homeric incest-tragedies of Robinson Jeffers, yet as with the author’s travel writings there is the kind of subversive anti-narrative found in Robbe-Grillet, where narrative at its most intense, even stereotyped, sublimes into pure form, pure contemplation.
An attack on drama: the author has, admirably, admitted he dislikes Shake-speare, is bored by the Bard. He says he likes certain great nineteenth-century novels, but I don’t believe it. His idea of great painting is the old Chinese landscape masters, where human figures shrink, as they say, into insignificance.
The Sentence of the Gods isn’t anti-humanist, far from it, but man’s rusty old comedy of love and politics, seen from the detachment of enlightenment, takes on a genial glow that is unnervingly uncanny: is the author really an australopithecine like the rest of us? The Sentence has apparently been written by God, for whom our tawdry dramas—our egomaniacal divorces, our quasi-meaningless Presidential election crises, our struggles to cough up the mortgage payment, our terror of death—are sweet farces, a video after the Chinese has been delivered.
It is this detachment combined with a naïve respect for the material that makes Light one of the great poems of the twentieth century: it is breezy, effortless, as if the writer can do no wrong, a perfect formula for producing a pathetic amateurish goulash, or the Duino Elegies.
The poem consists of 216 stanzas, each stanza containing ten lines. It is a kind of journal, or even novella, of the poet’s dreams. The endless “action” of the dream-narrative, a kind of violent epic, when confined in the rigorous pro-sodic format and the calm style of tale telling, produces a most peculiar omelet of adventure and serenity. The effect on the reader is tranquilizing, rather like those morbid murder mysteries set in the dreaminess of Oxford; Light is the perfect bedtime book, to be read as one nods off, listening to the winter wind about one’s cottage. Arising from sleep, it conveys one to sleep.
The poem disdains to interpret the dream. It is instead a trope of the dream, struggling to produce an equivalent for the divine imagination that emanated from the dream in the first place. An expanse opens, admitting Newton, Kennedy, DiMaggio, Miller. The dream of a dream. As in our actual dreams, there is nothing but sex and violence. Yet there is no sex and violence. The word “violence” does occur in stanzas 82, 125, 186: the word, the referent, not the act. Violence here is an abstraction. Yet, as in Homer’s Iliad there is plenty of violence, and it cannot be escaped.
Protect your children with all your might:
But don’t protect them from The Light.
Light is a freakish amalgam, a cross between the summer’s blockbuster action movies and Shostakovich’s string quartets in winter:
You are the sort of
little girl who answers
without an answer.
You have an invitation
to the tea, but at
the tea you have
nothing to say,
your eyes twinkling with
a Christmas invitation.
“——,” you say.
The last line is the best thing if its kind since Rimbaud’s Madame xxx installed a piano in the Alps. The point is that the line is orally unreadable, and therefore the reader is forced back to the conventions of prose, a phase shift that shatters the boundary between poetry and prose (and predicts the transition to prose that occurs in the larger poetic epic with Revolution.) Or perhaps the dash means “nothing,” since the poet says, “you have / nothing to say.” Nonetheless, my point remains.
And who is this “you”? You? The poet? (But the poet is constantly repre-sented by the narrative “I.”) Is it the confusion of identity, of meum and teum, which we expect in dream? The little girl is a dream-character, like Alice, and it is she who is being addressed.
The poem, clearly, is mad. Yet it doesn’t have the forced doctrinaire mad-ness, say, of The Waste Land or of Alienation Rockers, or of the boring artless-ness of Automatic Writing, or sterile experiments with syntax and typography, or the naïve primitivism of Outsider Art. A successful madness must truly usurp Reason, as in Rimbaud’s Illuminations (which is written in false prose), it must be exquisitely formal and impeccable to achieve subversion, and poetry. The goal, as always, is to achieve poetry.
Madison Morrison is rightly edgy about the label “Surrealist,” unhappy with such an historical cliché. He does not want to be pigeonholed. Or, we might say, there is no Surrealism. (André Breton, the dogmatist, was not far wrong when he said, “I am Surrealism.”) For Morrison true Surrealism ends with Lautréamont, or Jarry, or Roussel. Or perhaps even earlier, with the clinical experimentation of automatisme psychologique, or with Freud’s first recording of dreams. For him Surrealism as an esthetic is a schtick.
But as with Romanticism, there’s a Surrealism that’s stereotyped and a Surreal-ism that’s always becoming adequate, that’s fresh and new. In this sense we are all Romantics. We are all surrealists. Light cannot entirely escape the label, because the entire poem is based on the poet’s dreams, and dream, along with psychological automatism, was one of Breton’s two “methods.” In his early phase Morrison is and is not a surrealist.
The poet dreams, as always; it is, after all, her profession. But an unpleasant iron law torques the fantasy into reality, like psychoanalysis annihilating a pretty masturbation fantasy. There is no escape, there is no hiding, and hence the uncomfortable quidditas, the this-ness of Light. There is no moonlight in these dreams, no Albert Pinkham Ryder diffusion, no serenity. Pierrot is not Lunaire. Instead this is Sleep awake: fully aware, nervous, without relaxation.
Yet this can’t be right; the very greatness of Light in fact lies in its meditative tranquility. To read Light is to break through to what reading this poetry shit is all about: to become both sleepy and transcendentally heightened, both goofy and enlightened. Therefore the dreams must be read. Light is not a joke. This is not rhetoric: the dreams are a matter of fact, a daily insanity, quotidian not queer. And yet they are not boring, as our dreams always are. How to explain this “dream poem.”
For dreams are not poetry. Dreams are not real.
Except in Light.
Like the author’s violent disclaimer, that he is no surrealist (he will admit to being surréaliste, but only in Breton’s most doctrinaire, programmatic sense), the poem itself is violent. As with the dreams that we all dream, Light is full of hor-rific violence. And, of course, sex. (The poem is full of examples.) And yet its prevailing mood is one of Olympian serenity, of the same quietly alert medi-tativeness that prevails throughout the Sentence of the Gods and is, in fact, its “message,” if any. This is the opposite of psychoanalysis, which whips even the blandest dreams into a frenzied foam of lust, fear and murderous hatred. Freud once, sexually, in fact lewdly, interpreted a patient’s simple dream about flowers until, as he smugly remarked, she didn’t see the dream as so “pretty” any more. “But the dream was pretty,” Wittgenstein protested.
Yet there is also a triumph over sex and violence: as, again, in the Sentence as a whole, the author achieves a transcendental triumph over the quotidian through the perverse strategy of embracing it. In Light his predilection for “objectivity” serves him especially well. Jung enslaves us to our dreams, but Madison Morrison, like Freud, liberates us from them.
A weakness, perhaps.
Light is a “corner book,” exquisitely poised, in the system, between SOL and LUNA, and as such stands between Sun and Moon, between Day and Night, between Reason and Fantasy.
Possibly this accounts for its magnificent dual nature, for its incomparable, dynamic, contradictory mishmash:
The somnolent, contemplative, dreamy atmosphere combined with a turbulent and frequently violent plot (the dream stories)
The soporific regularity of its stanza form combined with its crazy and jazzy mise-en-scène
The hieratic, dignified style combined with a goosy aleatoric reli-ance on the contingency of whatever the dream throws up
As in the radically central books comprising HERMES, the author seems safely and snugly ensconced (sleeping?) in the Middle, as if he can do no wrong.
Of all the author’s flights Light obviously presents the greatest temptation to psychoanalytical interpretation, yet there is something unworthy, vulgar about deconstructing it in this way. As usual, MM evades classification (hence his marginalization by the literary establishment); his dream journal is not a dream journal at all and seems to be a simultaneous display of the Unconscious, the abstract and sublimating Superego, and, most important, the House on the Borderland of the preconscious, that nebulous place just before sleep where the inside of our skulls begins to fur over with “nonsense.”
Unlike most of the bright and cheery Sentence, Light, like the universal unconscious it portrays and comments upon, is a sewer of violence, fear, sexuality and a constantly frustrated lust for power. Hence it is my favorite of the books, since in helpless opposition to the author I am a card-carrying Goth (a Goth being a person who thinks Darkness is Good). And yet, like the in situ digital video travel books, Light, too, is real; isn’t a dream a phenomenological reality, a given even just like a poème trouvé in A?
So Morrison fans may find themselves surprised to be dipped, immersed, in a film noir, shown, as in a dark theatre, with scenes like these:
I meet a mustachioed man.
I push him in the air
off the railroad platform.
Without asylum they
emerge to be beaten
by truncheons of fortune
wearing blue uniforms.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . The
disobedient walk the
sidewalk in fear.
As a man
of fear and violence I
will only shoot to kill.
The armed assailant
takes many bullets,
before his death
Madison Morrison the Murdering Monster, the Terrorist? The terrorized? More is revealed here, perhaps, than in the memoir Magic, or in the self-suppressed “divorce journals.” Yet Light is also, like a Tiffany lamp in a dark, quiet study at midnight colorfully flowing with the poet’s characteristic humor and with his infectious, almost Henry-Milleresque joie de vivre.
The poem does what we do precious little of, and that badly, in our dreams: it thinks:
. . . Maybe “Gulliver!”
would be a good idea. We
need more music in
our lives, not elegance.
your world is not the
same as Europe.
Action and contemplation, laminated together into a solid varnished ply board of ten-line stanzas. One immediately wonders if the thoughts occurred to the poet during the dream or were a later accretion, an elaboration like the adjectives or like the poet’s mesmerized attempts to figure out what is going on in the half-coherent, half-menacing Magic Kingdom into which he has invol-untarily been thrust. As in the travel books, he is a wandering vagabond.
The dreams, however, are no more a pretext than Keats’s hearing the song of the nightingale is a pretext. They are the subject itself. Like all dreams, they contain the whole of life. And death. Light is not embroidery.
Don Juan says that during dreams “the assemblage point” shifts from its normal location, and that one of the most difficult tasks of sorcery is to be aware of this without at the same time waking up. Dreaming While Awake. Light is sorcery, a cross between the therapeutic anamnesis of dream journals and the quite different teleological aims of poetry. It is a weird and original kind of anti-reverie, an inversion of reverie in which one is Awake While Dreaming, a kind of anti-Surrealism.
We need more music in our lives. Absolutely: I force all my houseguests to sing something, anything. And only song will do; I have failed: Light has extreme relaxed somnolence combined with extreme restless action, extreme irrationality combined with extreme sobriety, prosaic matter-of-factness com-bined with visionary lyricism . . . A musicologist once said that the attempt to describe Beethoven’s last quartets drives writers into “the intense inane,” and that is where I end up. I can only stammer that just as the key to Beethoven’s last music is that it is fantastic, the key to Light, contrariwise exactly, is that it is intelligent, a superb mind working at the top of its youthful game. Like some philosophies it seems to be a new form of thinking, and like all art it must be experienced.
Perhaps the ultimate source of the poem’s incomparable dualism, or dialec-tical synthesis (as George jokes in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ) is the fact that Light is a “corner book” in the scheme of Sentence of the Gods, which means that its first letter, L, is the end of SOL and the beginning of LUNA, giving the book characteristics of both gods at once.
In Wallace Stevens’ intricate symbol system this would mean a perfect merger of Reality and the Imagination. Mind-boggling, but this cosmic coitus describes precisely what Light is, and all its binaries are pendant, dendritically, to it. As with many scientific inventions or techniques, the author seems to have serendipitously stumbled upon a method.
And the author has wisely gathered SOL and LUNA into a single book with Light as its fulcrum. Dressed as it is in a decidedly French haute couture, and with its young man’s spirit of reckless gaiety, scintillating with the effervescence of an expensive French champagne, SOLUNA is all of a piece and forms a kind of unbuttoned overture to the Sentence of the Gods, after which the epic seems to shift focus, increasingly concentrated as it is on the author’s two grandiose aims of both incorporating all human civilization and also of producing a poetic alternative to his supreme enemy—and rival—the epic realist novel. Such a Quixotic project requires the ambition of Lucifer and the industry of Edison, and one hopes that its rigors won’t keep Professor Morrison from dreaming on. We must dream on until the Sentence is commuted.
I know for a fact that the author—quite winningly, in my Ascetic Bohemian opinion—prefers to eat cheap canned food the way Steven Spielberg prefers to eat cheap fast food, but I rather miss his Brut-and-caviar phase.
Do you know Wittgenstein’s Last Thought? It is the last entry in the note-books that became On Certainty, written just before his death.
I cannot seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says “I am dreaming,” even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream, “it is raining,” while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.
A typically subtle and profound thought. Unfortunately, however, I dis-agree with it, “unfortunately,” because my disagreement with it has perhaps been the source of my somewhat spectacular failure in life. But Madison Morrison gives me the courage of my convictions.
And only song will do:
If the globe eye is
irised, all colors of the
rainbow pulled on
the pupil’s pole,
you might think
night smokes or the spout
drains or the barrel ends
in the room. Such