- Soulful Layers
94 Pages; Print, $15.95
Dos Madres Press
100 Pages; Print, $17.00
We have here two very different poets, each captivating, but in a distinct manner. The general subject matter of their poems suggests that the family is still the dominant structure in the emotional lives of many individual Americans. In fact, the cover of Amy Barone's volume displays a photograph of mother and daughter together, side by side. And yet, ironically, both poets are apparently childless and, at least for considerable stretches, partnerless. However, both collections are imbued with a sense of longing and a frequent feeling of melancholy at the memory of lost loves.
By comparing their poetry in a number of categories, I would like to sharpen our view of the particular orientation of each author.
In their poems both poets reveal a deep involvement with poetry itself, in theory and in practice. For Barone poetry means "mining tales / from the soul." The poet recovers memories and vivifies them. But she also claims: "We capture nature's power. / Brandishing words, I paint." Thus, the poet clarifies and intensifies the experience of the world around us. Several poems also deal with writer's block and the search for inspiration.
Morris does not write much about poetry or literature, but by his actual practice shows rather than tells what poetry is and does, and how it does it. However, in at least one poem he affirms the power and value of literature. In "Only Passing Through," he writes "You finished a good book / and it was yours, part of the skeleton, the articulation / of self." Morris's poetry is much more literary, i.e. it frequently employs various literary devices—metaphors, similes, regular rhythm, occasionally rhymes, conceits, and a playful ambiguity using the same word with different meanings in varied contexts.
The preferred narrative approach favored by both poets is the anecdote, usually recounted in the first person and often concluding with a reflection on the significance of what has transpired. Memories, frequently from childhood, provide the source for many of these anecdotes. The settings for Morris are homes and hospital, concert halls and museums, and also a senior citizen center. Barone presents many scenes in her Philadelphia childhood home and neighborhood, then at Birdland, Smalls, other jazz locales, and rock concerts (generally in New York City). Finally the setting is Italy, where Barone lived and worked for a time, and reconnected with her family roots in Abruzzo.
Though love and longing are central themes for both poets, Barone's poetry is more intensely erotic, while Morris is more philosophically and theologically oriented.
Music and Eros go together in Barone's poems, with music an animating force and the musician an object of desire. In "Chaste Dates," we read how the narrator has given up her previous restrained boyfriend because she was "now used to the blazing strokes of a bass player from Brazil." In "Music Lesson," Dan, a musician "plays her lithe body as if it were a rare guitar." The erotic power of music reappears frequently throughout the collection. But music is also a source of emotional comfort, as in "Soundtrack to My Life," where the narrator tells of "the sheer magic music shed on a / timid child imprisoned in a confused household." Music provides meaning and a language to accompany life. In "Understanding Jaco," the narrator explains how she "peeled apart its soulful layers searching for // the truth or an obscure meaning." And music also serves as a drug and an aphrodisiac, as in "Bahia Beats,": "the music gets me plenty high / … The best moves all down below." Love in Morris's collection is less erotic, less physical, more touched with sadness and regret, but also irony and humor. "Love Blurbs" offers a litany of descriptive statements that sound like excerpts from the review of a novel. But in reading, it soon becomes apparent that they actually refer to a failed marriage, presumably that of the poet. The ambiguity is both funny and...