Garry Thomas Morse. Discovery Passages (Talonbooks 2011).
Collage, documentary, lyric cri de coeur, satiric history, Discovery Passages covers a lot of ground, & does so with unsentimental brio. One can read it as a collection of short & longer poems, or as a single long sequence; either way, it strikes home, as Morse excavates the many appropriations of his Kwakwaka’wakw ancestry, scattered like the people themselves over the past few centuries of colonization.
Morse opens Discovery Passages with a series of lightly walking poems, taking the page as a field (in Olson’s sense) & stretching his ‘long clean lines like cedar’ across the whole page. These large hearted & wide ranging pieces, full of the voices of many ‘other / Multitudes,’ lead readers into a maze of many other voices, but first the slowly coalescing volume takes us into a narrow (minded) & fixed rhetoric, that of the Indian Agents of Duncan C. Scott’s Department of Indian Affairs, in the sequence titled ‘No Comment,’ all the quoted bits of which are laid out most strictly down the left hand side of the page. These pieces tell eloquently against themselves.
About the only thing that could follow that is ‘The Indian Picture Opera,’ a rollicking ‘treatment’ of ‘Creative Non-Fiction Escapades of the Kwakiutl [sic].’ Morse plays many voices into this piece, & then brings even more into the poems that follow in order to begin interrogating the kind of ‘Romantic’ fallacies even the most scholarly anthropologists of the late 19th-early 20th centuries committed. See, for example, the photograph of Franz Boas, just before the sharp & powerful ‘Interpretive Dance / for Franz Boas’:
& I will tell you
so that you may know
& my particular line
for a split-
which demonstrates Morse’s command of both poetic & political lines.
Morse argues with many other writers, past & present, especially some who have written about the geography & history of the West Coast, from Alert Bay up to Quadra Island & back to Vancouver, with many side trips to museums (& poems) across Canada & the US. ‘Hamat’sa’ take off from one of George Bowering’s poem of the same (almost) title, ‘Hamatsa,’ both understanding how that earlier poem adapted oral tales documented by the anthropologists & undermining its sense of proprietorship (whether meant or not). In its playful move to the chomping (eating) of elemental roots, its mash-up of past myth & present pop culture, it swings hard against being told by others, & appeals at the end to language’s privacies as well as its open mouth: ‘Chomp (sky).’
Morse enters many ‘I’s, looks out from many eyes, here, having been forced to see so narrowly in ‘No Comment.’ There is great richness in the tangled lingos of the later poems in Discovery Passages, especially the wonderfully witty ‘Wak’es,’ about what Harry Assu remembered as ‘the big carved wood frog displayed at my father’s potlatch’ now in the Smithsonian. But such open-heartedness almost always meets a form of control, which the final 12 pages of ‘500 Lines’ demonstrates in its repeated ‘I will not speak Kwak’wala.’ Followed by a final separate page:
K’i. k’isan kwak’wala
Discovery Passages is far too rich a mélange to be fully appreciated in a single reading. A super kind of bricolage, it’s a cornucopia of gifts from Garry Thomas Morse’s personal potlatch that readers will accept with deep gratitude.