Storm Toward Morning
By Malachi Black
Copper Canyon Press, 2014
Reviewed by J.G. McClure
Form is content: how we say something and what it means are inextricably bound. Malachi Black knows this well: in his brilliant debut Storm Toward Morning, we find a poet working within, struggling against, and actively reshaping poetic form. Take a poem like “Drifting at Midday,” which opens:
Now I can see: even the trees
are tired: they are bones bent forward
in a skin of wind, leaning in
for a little more than any
oxygen can give…
The title announces this as a poem about drifting. In a way, perhaps it is: the speaker drifts among the trees and drifts deeper and deeper into the pathetic fallacy. But drifting isn’t quite right: the couplet structure suggests a certain planning, as if the speaker has something in mind and is methodically building it.
What the speaker has in mind, it turns out, is projecting his troubled psyche onto the trees. They begin as simply “tired,” a mild personification. But soon he builds them piece by piece into bodies: first the bones, then the skin. Not even that is human enough for this speaker: he next imagines human ailments for the trees—osteoporosis, then ennui. The poem continues:
is in season, they can live;
but living is no reason
to continue: everything begins:
and everything is desperate
to extend: and everything is
insufficient in the end:
and everything is ending:
Now I can see: even the trees
The speaker’s obsessive and off-kilter rhymes paint a portrait of his distressed state of mind; once again, Black uses the formal elements of language to create meaning. Working against this unbalanced obsession is the speaker’s rigidly logical argument. The poem is laid out as meticulously as a mathematical proof, with each step clearly delineated by a colon—A leads to B, B to C, and so on. The colons become more frequent as the speaker’s moves from theorem to theorem become more rapid and more dire. This line of reason seems far too methodical to be called “drifting.”
And yet, as the poem ends, we’re back where we started, the last line exactly echoing the first. Once again, form is content; the speaker’s reasoning, we see, leads nowhere: his despair circles back on itself, and argument amounts to nothing. The lack of a period in the final line denies closure; the circle can continue indefinitely. This deliberate struggle to make sense of his condition is, in the end, mere drifting indeed.
Yeats said that from our quarrels with others we make rhetoric; from our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry. In “Drifting at Midday” we see the quarrel creating the poetry, but we also see the formal elements of the poetry informing and complicating the quarrel. The structure is part of the struggle. See, for another example, “Mirroring”:
You must be so tired of my runny eyes,
my muttering and fumbling toward the light
switch at your side, the conversation
that I make when I’m the lonely one
awake and you’re the only one who’ll take
me in bad shape. It’s I you can’t escape.
Again, the speaker projects his internal strife outward, pitying the mirror image rather than himself. The reflection becomes a defense against loneliness, the only “other” person who will always be there for the speaker. Though the relationship is somewhat troubled (the speaker imagines that the reflection wants to escape him), for the most part it works. The couplet rhyme, one line sonically mirroring the next, helps create the feeling of harmony here. Soon, however, the arrangement begins to break down:
Too many times, I’ve seen you fake
a lopsided smile. You’ve seen me break
it with a greeting as I reach to shake
the hand you reach to shake: somehow I
never say goodbye. And maybe I’d admire
you, whose sole machinery is being
what I see when you see me, if only
someone else could be you seeing me.
The rhymes begin to combine themselves in unexpected ways: “fake” pairs, as expected, with “break,” but then overextends into “shake,” which then reappears out of place, in the middle of the next line. The same goes for “I” / “goodbye” and “machinery” / “see me” / “only.” The rhyme calls attention to its own brokenness; the mirror, it seems, has its own agenda. Sure, it’ll smile—but it’s faking.
The final couplet allows the reestablishment of sonic order—but only once the speaker admits to the mirror (and to himself) that this companionship-through-mirroring cannot work. He can’t “admire” the image in the mirror because it is, in the end, still too much himself.
In both of these poems, we see a powerful longing straining against the restrictions of form. The longing is directed outward, but based in the Self: the trees and the mirror are stand-ins for an internal conflict. Black’s work is at its most powerful, though, not when it struggles with the Self, but rather when it struggles with—and prays to—what Black calls “the possibility of God.” The book’s stunning second section is a long poetic sequence, a crown of sonnets entitled “Quarantine.” As Black explains in his end notes, the poem is engaging both the tradition of Donne’s “La Corona” and the Christian monastic tradition of the horae cononicae.
It’s not possible, in a short review, to give an in-depth reading of how each of these sonnets interacts with the rest. Suffice to say that the relation of each to the next, both formally and emotionally, is fascinating, and that the form’s demand for repetition creates a poignant sense of unending spiritual grappling. Instead, I want to highlight the freshness and deep feeling of the language. Take, for example, the “Nocturne” section:
To This Kingdom Come to Nothing:
I have itemized the night. I have held
within the livid tissue of my mouth
every particle of light and even now
I am a maze of radiation. I have felt
in each of my one hundred trillion cells
the rapturous, proud swell of darkling sounds
whose undulations break a body down
to sprays of elemental matter. As well
I have obtained a straightforward account
of the forces and conditions that propelled
the universe to burst from nothing else
and I can tell of every trembling genesis.
There is no end,
What Has Come
……….Will Come Again
What is so wonderful about this sonnet is how masterfully it fuses potentially-opposed elements. We see the delirious ecstasy of the mystics (“the rapturous, proud swell of darkling sounds”) alongside the concrete materialism of science (“each of my one hundred trillion cells”). We see anger and doubt (“the livid tissue of my mouth” and “to burst from nothing else”) alongside the miraculous (“I am a maze of radiation”). We see the language of business (“I have itemized”) alongside the language of the lyric poem (“the night”). The clash and fusion of these elements not only give Black’s poem access to fresh language for religious poetry, but also embody the knotted threads of feeling and experience that the speaker is trying to disentangle. Black is right to locate these sonnets in the tradition of Donne: they have the kind of complexity, struggle, and wrenching feeling that make, for instance, the Holy Sonnets so memorable and moving.
Pound famously said to “make it new.” Reginald Gibbons, in his essay “Poetry and Self-Making,” argues that a more worthy goal may be to “make it last.” Storm Toward Morning is one of those rare books that accomplishes both. Working within and against received forms—everything from the pantoum to the villanelle to the crown of sonnets discussed above—Black brings to his work a darkly energetic playfulness so often missing from contemporary formal verse. The forms feel fresh again. Here is a poet who understands form deeply, and uses it masterfully to serve the emotional demands of the work. These poems have something important to say, and they say it beautifully.