Garry Thomas Morse. Prairie Harbour. (Talonbooks 2015).
Although at 160 pages Prairie Harbour already feels like a big book, it’s actually much larger as a reading experience, a whoppingly huge act of synthetic imagination, & an exciting example of the modernist (& post-) collage long poem. The solid, thrumming core of the book, split into two long sections, ‘Prairie Harbour 1-12’ & ‘Prairie Harbour 13-24’, surrounds the more precisely satiric poems of ‘Company Romance.’ The range of references, the imaginative leaps, the interweaving of so many cultural & social historical events & attitudes add up to a monumental investigation of the ways European & First Nations worlds collided & connected, & still do, notably for this particular poetic sequence, on the Saskatchewan prairie, & in the mixed heritage of the writer. No single review can begin to do justice to the extent of Morse’s literary & cultural reach in Prairie Harbour, but I will try to suggest just a bit of what this extraordinary long poem does (& note here that scholars will be delightedly commenting on all its many allusions & references for years).
‘Company Romance’ begins with ‘Henry Hudson worming through ice flows / to prove that Empire is odyssey perhaps’ & moves through a litany of names associated with ‘the West,’ the Hudson’s Bay Company, & eventually the poetic maker of the Indian Act, all the way to ‘The Present Missing.’ Along the way, Morse introduces many famous & infamous names, & mixes sly impressions with shifty quotations to represent a history continually undermining its own heroic tale, as in ‘Corporate Saboteur 1.1’: Ersatz atavism and the spectre of random / violence had become the perfect product / of North America, the kind of open-air / theatre that was good for business, and / any accord that was reached between the / Company and the Métis was quashed by / the North Westers who demanded that / Assiniboia be destroyed on the spot. // To be continued … ‘ And, he does continue, through Riel, contemporary ‘global macrocannibalism, from / Cree Wihtikow to Kwakwaka’wakw / Bakbakwalanooksiwae, ravenous / eater of initiates, leeching culture, / language, and song from the poor / sap subject’ all the way to ‘but whether dead or vanishing / in the age of mechanical repo- / traction / the living are somehow / missing / from our syrupy hockey / rioting six-packing cultural whoop / still not finding quite the right role / in our red-hot company romance.’ All of which is fairly straightforward, a slash & burn rhetorical savaging of conventional settler-colonial history.
‘Prairie Harbour 1-24’ breaks the pattern at every turn, & where the individual poems of ‘Company Romance’ present as an attack on specific historical persons & events, the sequence slips in & out of many ‘I’s & other, usually admired, figures, & their various ways of being in the world. Art, as a major aspect of that way of being, appears & disappears throughout, a flame flickering across space & time. It begins in
‘this have- / not province’ with a Renaissance painting & soon slides from ‘here waiting / for you like Saskatchewan’ through a myriad of further referential moments to no clear conclusions, as will each further section, yet adding up to a massive collection of one sensibility’s connections across all the cultures that now make such a person possible. Even this first poem, just beginning the sequence’s trippy quest(ioning), covers a lot of ground: ‘speak through the flame // and I will forgo / spectres / plaguing Europe / & shadows cast / across “primitive” minds / & concerti in the kaffeeklatsch / where even a secular musical /orgasm could not secure / a spot / wiping tables’.
In ‘Personal Signature,’ one of the ‘Company Romance’ poems, Morse quotes Bill Reid: ‘I would trade the whole of Haida art for the Mozart horn concertos.’ One way of reading the complexities of ‘Prairie Harbour’ is as an attempt to explore the cultural/historical ramifications of that remark by one of the greatest Haida artists. Morse, himself, obviously knows & loves the classical music of Europe, & his collage poem alludes to various representative examples throughout, most especially Shostakovich’s string quartets toward the end, when it also takes up the Holocaust as well as Stalin’s purges in relation to white European dealing with First Nations here in Canada. Of course, to put it that bluntly is to ignore the complex subtleties of this long poem. What Morse has done in both his earlier Discovery Passages & Prairie Harbour is to radically complicate both the representations of & his readers’ responses to that history while also offering a fascinating reading experience to any willing to give these poems a go.
I find it heartening & exciting that both Prairie Harbour & Steven Ross Smith’s Emanations reveal their writers’ continuing adherence to the Olsonian sense of the page as field, with the poems ranging across the page so as to draw us away from the conventional look of lyric: along with certain others, they are stretching the concept of the poetic out again. As with The Maximus Poems, for example, I read Prairie Harbour often knowing I’m not getting everything (there’s so much there), but finding the lines so engaging I just want to keep going, hanging on in its wild ride, ‘the senses sped / on with spiritual / excitement stretched / out to almost painful length / over faintest apparition’.
The deeper into the poem you go the more there is to take in, & toward the end the art of Agnes Martin (born in Saskatchewan) & her thoughts about it inflect the whole enterprise, as they & so many other quotations behave in a Benjaminian manner, slowly collecting a number of possible ways of seeing, of being, into this never quite complete enterprise. I expect we will see more of this kind of work from Morse, & it will be just as difficultly exciting, but for now Prairie Harbour offers readers an engagement they will not soon forget.