Crying Shame by Jeffrey Morgan
Jeffrey Morgan’s first collection of poems, Crying Shame, is a book of dichotomies, exploring the occasions when, as he notes in “Rescue Excerpts,” “the line between the two groups muddles.” The first section in the collection, “How Word Is Passed,” sets up this paradox and overlap of memory, history, and desire, and how they work both with and against each other. This confusion returns in the last sections, “Little City Shame” and “Big City Shame,” however, Morgan provides no answers; instead, he leaves us with unsettling, but vivid, images.
The first poem, “How Word is Passed,” explores how we receive and perceive history and stories, and the speaker ends claiming, “We’ve been told things and so we tell others.” This startling assertion, using a plural “we,” sets the tone for the book by establishing how mechanized people can act, thus, creating a fragile understanding of the past and the self. “Nostalgia,” follows, which shows just how terrifying and dangerous our own memories and longing for the past can be. Morgan personifies nostalgia as the garbage disposal, “He is more powerful and less sober than his reputation, which precedes him like cut fruit.”
From here, Morgan moves into more imaginative, metaphoric poems, which show both his range and his sense of humor. The speaker in “Work,” seems to go through the motions; he “chew[s] on old photographs” for lunch, and “bring[s] home suitcases of bacon.” Morgan adeptly shows the humor and the cost of adhering to the work week and what we’re “supposed” to do. However, the speaker comes home, “unzips [his] smile,” and dreams of a different life, and we’re left wondering if this is enough to sustain him, to sustain us. Throughout his collection, Morgan interweaves these playful poems with deathly serious questions, and one way he is able to do this so effectively is with his adept line breaks that add layers of meaning to his poems. For example, in the “Little City Shame” section, we get a sense of fun with the first line, but the layers begin accumulating as mendacity becomes evident with the addition of the second line, “This is what life does: parcels out the silly/ memory of similar motion.”
The two ten-section poems titled “Rescue Excerpts” explore human nature at its most extreme. The first poem shows both the lost and the rescuers, and the second depicts a group stranded on a desert island in which “two philosophies were born.” Each section is a short prose snapshot, which Morgan has mastered, and they all come together to show how the thoughts of each group eventually merge, so what starts out as a dichotomy quickly becomes conflated.
In his poem, “Empathy,” we get that wonderful grotesque that Morgan excels at. “There is a man’s head inside my father’s freezer. All my life I’ve seen his sockets, candied/over with frost, on my way to the meat and the ice cream. The head says nothing and his/silence gives me courage to be silent.” In a book so concerned with language and communication, it is especially interesting that the speaker demonstrates the understanding of the courage it takes to not speak, while actually speaking in the poem. From the first poem, we know to be leery of things that are repeated, but what these heads tell him “over and over and over again” is “that a man’s smile is a predatory bird,” “a man’s face is the surface of an ocean. And every man is an ocean.” Again, we see a speaker exploring the two sides of something, what appears on the outside, and what lies beneath the surface.
Not only do most of Morgan’s intellectual, contemplative poems work well, but when he gets at the heart of an image, his poems are at their most vivid. “Swashbuckle” is one of the most concise and evocative poems in his book with each word contributing to the sense of resistance but inability to act if being rend in two. “Don’t Beat a Dead Horse,” is another one of Morgan’s lovely grotesque poems that explores the idea of a horse resisting death, and it becomes a lovely metaphor for how the living negotiate their own lives.
Throughout the collection, there is a give and take of language, communication and emotion. In “Giving,” with the word pornography and gambling language, the plural “we” asserts that the giver is always looking for personal gain. Adjacent to this poem is the equally disturbing poem, “Receiving,” claiming, “We put our heads together and made a monster.” The plural “we,” how it acts, and the often bad things it does, is something Morgan is very interested in. “Crowd Theory” mimics this and expresses the frustration Niebuhr may have felt when wanting to convey his belief that “groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” Morgan is also interested in how people try to control one another, and he aptly uses a variety of settings to show how attempting to control and being controlled go hand in hand, “City people are not allowed to be bored and so yearn/for the expansive country. Country people” (Prime Directive). Throughout this collection there is both a dissatisfaction and a contradiction with what speakers, both individuals and the plural we, desire and how they act.
If in the first poem, the speaker is afraid that people repeat things mechanically, in one of the “Little City Shame” poems, the inability to communicate and the sense that time is passing and death is inevitable but will come suddenly, is internalized, “There is saying, there are no words. And there is being this lack.” In this section, the speaker also speaks of nostalgia, but more kindly this time, as a way of making sense of an unnamable emotion, “I want that back, whatever it was, not because/I want it, but because this isn’t working.” This sense of language’s inadequacy and the contradictions that speakers feel towards emotions starts to come together the most in the “Big City Shame Section.” The “we,” the “I” and the “you” all come together here, and “As our opinions gnash we define/the non-negotiable: the mess of combination,/the power of naming things one. We.”
It seems then, that this collection contemplates the interrelatedness of language, narrative, desire, and ultimately shame. There is both individual and collective shame, and in this collection people and language merge, and “everywhere evolution’s remnants/do their strange, sad dance.”