A Complex Contrarian of Occasions: Garry Thomas Morse’s Prairie Harbour

By | 15 November 2015

The final stanzas of this poem reach yet further outward, tracing a foundational flaw in Canadian culture. Morse explains that even those Indigenous people who have not been so dramatically victimised,

the living[,] are somehow 
from our syrupy hockey- 
rioting six-packing cultural whoop
still not finding quite the right role
in our red-hot company romance. (81)

Morse poignantly protests the exclusion of Indigenous people from the hockey-beer-and-maple-syrup whitestream culture. Their absence from what Morse calls the ‘cultural whoop’ and the ‘red-hot company romance’ obliquely evokes well-documented inequities in health, housing, education, and even access to potable water. Morse avoids pedantry in making these points, but the accretion of details across the long arc of Prairie Harbour is as persuasive as it is devastating.

Although Morse’s critiques of settler colonialism and its attendant everyday forms of racism are timely and significant, to discuss only these aspects of his work would ignore Prairie Harbour’s other investments. Throughout, the sounds of the French horn ring out, ‘Giacometti’s grey people’ wander past (30), and Morse references Hegel and ‘horndogging’ within a single stanza (27), which goes some way toward illustrating his poems’ wild and impressive scope. As Prairie Harbour rises to its point of highest tension late in the final section, it combines discussions of historical and contemporary anti-Semitism with descriptions of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, references to Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, descriptions of the Hadron collider, and chants of ‘GO RIDERS GO,’ which celebrate the local football team. There are also a number of quotations from essays on and interviews with the painter Agnes Martin, who is one of the touchstone figures of the book. The range of sources and fonts is dizzying, and gives the lie to any notion that the prairies contain nothing – in both positive and negative ways.

Although she is often associated with the American southwest, Martin was born in the small town of Macklin, Saskatchewan, and her spare, gridded canvases closely resemble the landscape of her youth. Her paintings, which seem to depict nothing and yet vibrate with a quiet and brutal intensity, provide a way into imagining what it is that Morse is getting at in his notion of a ‘prairie harbour.’ Martin’s poem/manifesto ‘The Untroubled Mind’ (1972) resonates especially in the final poem, where Morse calms the dense and increasingly tense accumulation of fragments from the immediately preceding sections. Unlike the earlier poems in the final section, ‘Prairie Harbour 13-24,’ this last text is written only in one sans serif font and involves much more white space, resulting in a quieter, more ‘untroubled’ tone. The relative emptiness of the page, like the deceptive emptiness of Martin’s paintings, allows for a few closing insights: ‘you’re just like me // a lone / plume / overwhelmed’ (157). In this simultaneous vision of similarity and isolation, there is ‘consolation // that rigid non-colour’ (157). Morse suggests that in ‘a rock,’ and ‘grass / through the wind’ we can summon ‘a vision of // quiet’ which is ‘great comfort’ (157).

If this seems an ascetic (or aesthetic) retreat into nature, I would suggest that because it comes at the end of the book this need to quiet the mind is best viewed as the result of the prior work’s dizzying explorations of Regina’s ‘complex / of contrarian / occasions’ (48). Of course, one of the best-known difficulties of the long poem is how to end it, and I think that Morse’s provision of a safe and quiet harbor for the mind is especially apt. With his intense examination of what the prairie harbors – including much ugliness and substantial racism – some shelter is needed, especially if the mind is expected to go on producing, or to go on at all.

Perhaps I am being too literal, but I think that the Olsonian sense of page as field takes on a new significance when it is used to represent a place that is primarily known for not much more than its abundance of actual fields. The flat, empty terrain surrounding Regina typically signifies boredom and blank nothingness – people joke that you can watch your dog run away for days. But Morse reconfigures the meaning of nothingness through his engagement with Martin, and repopulates these fields through his analysis of the local culture and its history. His use of collage and deep engagement with place are clearly indebted to second-wave modernist poetics, and like many second-wave modernist works, they do much to complicate and enliven the place they represent. It was refreshing to see my hometown afforded such complexity, perhaps especially because the portrayal was not often flattering.

But the fact that the book does end signals its difference from many other mid- and late-twentieth-century epics. While Morse’s full immersion in the prairie reveals the histories and ecologies that subtend Regina’s suburban sprawl, the book nevertheless cleanly draws to a close – we can drive away and leave the bedroom community behind. Morse has not trapped himself into a life’s work; the dropped threads of his explorations can be picked up and pursued by other poets and scholars. Even as Prairie Harbour concludes, it demonstrates that there is enough drama in suburbia’s little boxes to keep us all going for a good, long while.

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