Poetry Review: ‘The Thing Is’ by Cameron Morse

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The Thing About ‘The Thing Is’

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Friend and former colleague Cameron Morse is somewhat of an anomaly in the American poetry scene. More likely he is a living miracle. Diagnosed with a glioblastoma (i.e. brain tumor) in 2014 — a disease with a 14.6 month median life expectancy — Morse has since been poetically prodigious.

“Cancer saved my life,” he once told me.

Indeed, it’s been a sort of second birth.

In the past seven years, Morse, 34, has completed an MFA from the University of Kansas City-Missouri, penned eight books of poetry, manned the helm as Senior Reviews editor at Harbor Review and, most importantly, grown his fledgling family — which is the focus of his latest collection, The Thing Is (Briar Creek Press, 2021).

The book is an ode to the ordinary, a thicket of 57 family-themed poems. Many of them read like pages snatched from his diary and daily devotions on everyday life: the seemingly unremarkable moments and unexpected happenings of being a father, a husband and living with cancer. 

“Cancer saved my life.”
— Cameron Morse

The native Missourian opens his book with a two-poem Prelude, which sets the tone of displacement and a searching of place with Leaving and House Hunting:

Roots of the trees
we give our hearts to,

the phantasmagorical
sycamore doubled

over its gnarly waist,
stuff the clay joints

and burst apart our pipe
dreams of a home

of our own. What season,
what search, what extended

sentence is this
run-on, we run on?

Because our lives are not
our lives now.

— Excerpt from "House Hunting"

Morse has settled down, yet is searching for home; married, yet is in constant migration. His young son, Theo, newborn daughter, Omi, and Chinese wife, Lili, are central figures in the poems penned on their pilgrimage to elsewhere, forming vivid scenes of familial turbulence and domestic meltdown, as depicted in The Nightmare:

Pulling over, Lili threatens
to eject Theo in mid-tantrum
from the car seat. Making
herself late for work the morning
I must return with the van
and carry Omi on to Children's Mercy.

— Excerpt from "The Nightmare"

Despite the pressures of parenting compounded by his ailing body, Morse manages to balance the chaos of childcare with magical moments of fatherhood, as in The Trick:

The trick is to hold still
enough for him to imagine
you have drifted off
to sleep on the bottom bunk
but not so still that you
actually do drift off for more
than a moment and miss
your exit, a single tuck and roll.
in seamless motion: Ninja,
swiftly ninja. The trick is not to
look back if his eyes are
closed before twisting the doorknob.

— Excerpt from "The Trick"

He also taps into his masculine pride and marital disillusionment in The Stalemate, and shares a shockingly intimate moment of procreation in The Fountain (you’ll have to read it for yourself). Together, these poems add contrast to a patchwork portrait of the pleasures, pitfalls and complexities of parenthood.

Clearly, the protagonist of these poems is a devoted family man, humble and homely, continuing the poet’s journey, day-in and day-out; rain, shine or shitstorm.

Then there’s the inevitable ‘puke poem’ (Morse must be the unwitting champion of barf compilations, which can be hard to stomach; but hey, at least he’s honest). This time, however, it’s made more palatable in The Floor Drain:

Plumb the pipe and you will

dredge, reaching depths. You will
regurgitate your breakfast.
The tooth breaks. Empty your tool bag.

— Excerpt from "The Floor Drain"

Which is necessarily supplemented by a transcendental ‘poop poem’ in The Garbage Can:

I turned my brain off
and chomped but could never bring
myself to retrieve from their chill
corner of the refrigerator,
a remote outpost. Flies abuzz about

our failed culinary experiments
dig also Omi's diapers,
the smudged wipe, browned
lining, blue-striped wads.

If they are supplicants, the can
is God, waiting to receive our weekly
collection at the curb, the heavy
bags we hold our breath and heave.

— Excerpt from "The Garbage Can"

Herein lies the poet’s greatest gift — his ability to mine meaning from any and everything, no mater how minute or mundane. Clearly, the protagonist of these poems is a devoted family man, humble and homely, continuing the poet’s journey, day-in and day-out; rain, shine or shitstorm. Cancer rears its ugly head from time to time, as in The Plate, but it’s more of a thorn in his side informing his theology, than the focus of his mission:

I could learn to appreciate
your lack of interest in the body
of such a man, a momma's boy,
the father of your children. Made,
I am amazed by the human
beings we created together. It's for
their sakes I defer until later
the inevitable argument, even if I don't
believe your parody of my deficit
stems as you twist it
into concern for the cancer
patient you inadvertently married.

— Excerpt from "The Plate"

At times, Morse sounds like a poet in free-fall, tossing up prayers of penance and supplication. The loss of coordination in his left hand and his ability to play the guitar, as in West Virginia, mirrors his loss of control over life circumstances, heightening his sense of drifting and displacement:

There are songs I wish I had
sung in the coffee house
at Calvin before I lost the power
of my left hand to form chords
on the fretboard. West Virginia
makes me wonder where
my home is. Certainly not here

— Excerpt from "West Virginia"

Meanwhile, single-stanza chunks of text, as in The Bad Guy, add an unrefined, draft-likeness:

"You're a bad guy, Daddy. You're poopy."
July, please, for God's sake, hide your face
in chimney stacks. Let me off easy,
for once, scot-free, chain-smoke
sooty. Gray clouds crowd-source the sun,
the source of clouds and clapping
leaves, a levee that lavishes information
in the breach, too much information.

— Excerpt from "The Bad Guy"

This rawness is refreshing compared to some of Morse’s earlier work, which can feel over-edited at times. It also gives the impression of haste, the urgency to crank it out in amid the demands of childcare and domestic drudgery. This stylistic choice helps to retain the pure impression of each moment. He doesn’t have time to squabble over niceties — and neither do we.

Morse’s prolific poeticizing of the dad’s daily grind makes one point clear: The world is moving under our feet and all around us, so we’d better engage and enjoy the ride.

Morse’s prolific poeticizing of the dad’s daily grind makes one point clear: The world is moving under our feet and all around us, so we’d better engage and enjoy the ride. It’s also a call to unplug from technology, to put down our devices and plug into our own senses, to sharpen our minds and indulge our imaginations, rather than blindly believe technology’s false perception of reality, as described in The Rain,

I love it when my iPhone
doesn't say it will rain
and it does, it totally does,

because my smartphone
can't hear the wind change,
its long low rasp a tiger

breathing in the sieve
of the leaves, and it can't see
the leaves stirring responsively

— Excerpt from "The Rain"

Throughout his everyman’s journey, Morse finds meaning and motivation from his usual muses, including ancient Chinese folklore in The Gourd:

Chuang Tzu describes a gourd
smashed because it was
too big for a ladle, but which
would have made “a great
tub so you could go floating…”
I don't know where I'm going
with this. I like rain.

— Excerpt from "The Gourd"

And the ‘prophets’ of Asian poetry in After Basho:

It hurts where I hit myself
on the head. Who would
want to be a poet, snagged,
as you said, except when,
or where, it's the only viable
option, so as not to end up
a suicide? Sometimes I imagine
myself a preacher…

— Excerpt from "After Basho"

These mystical wise men from the East act as spiritual guideposts, poetic forefathers, whose footprints he follows on the poet’s pilgrimage.

Beside his wife and kids, Morse is not alone in his journey, and he is not afraid to name names. Family relations, including his parents and siblings, various acquaintances, from his oncologist to his next-door neighbor, as well as artistic inspirations, the likes of John Denver and Theodore Roethke, are just some of the many characters who accompany our burdened pilgrim on his 61-page quest.

In a sense, Morse’s newest collection is a reflection of the vast community that holds the threads of his unraveling family together, while he slowly, literally loses his grip. Indeed, these pages confirm the age-old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child” — and we don’t get to choose who our neighbors are.

The Thing Is is a celebration of mindfulness, an exercise in writing every day — as miraculous as doing your morning push-ups, as enlightening as changing a dirty diaper.

An ode to the ordinary, The Thing Is is a celebration of mindfulness, an exercise in writing every day — as miraculous as doing your morning push-ups, as enlightening as changing a dirty diaper. But that’s exactly what good poetry is: a practiced meditation, an intentional observation, a deliberate introspection, to ponder or lament or celebrate something common, which produces a deeper understanding or surprising revelation of the thing, of oneself, of each other, of nature, of God.

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Follow poet Cameron Morse online at:
https://cameronmorsepoems.wordpress.com/

Purchase “The Thing Is” online here (non-commission link):
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-thing-is-cameron-morse/1140207308

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Our 10-day hospital quarantine adventure in Thailand

Recently Eve and I got sick with Covid-19. Finally. It seemed like we were the last ones to get it. After two years of pandemic, somehow we had miraculously remained healthy and well, to the point that I was starting to disbelief the virus even existed. Well I can tell you for certain now that it really does exist and it isn’t fun to get it.

At first I wanted to self-isolate at home, but Eve insisted I go to the hospital. In the end, I didn’t really have a choice and, as sick as I was, I rallied myself to pack a change of clothes and go to the car. Little did I know I was embarking on a 10-day journey of forced hospital quarantine in Samutprakan, Thailand…

When I got sick with Covid-19, I didn’t imagine I would spend more than one week in the hospital like a prisoner in luxurious confinement. For better or worse, Eve came with me. Together, we had an extravagant experience in Thailand’s expensive healthcare system tailored especially for those with premium health insurance.

The worst part was the sore throat. The fever wasn’t pleasant either, but the sore throat lasted nearly a week. One night I had troubled breathing because there was so much mucus in my windpipe and my throat was so swollen I couldn’t swallow. But slowly my symptoms receded and I recovered.

The hardest part was not being able to open the windows. They were locked. It felt like I was in a prison. No fresh air could come on. Anyone who entered our room has to wear a disposable outfit of plastic cloth from head to toe. The nurses came and went wherever they pleased. They didn’t always knock.

It made for some awkward situations, especially in the mornings, as you can imagine. Sometimes before we’d woken up and put our clothes on, suddenly the door would swing open and a pair of astronaut looking characters would swoosh into the privacy of our bedroom to conduct their medical inspections…

There is so much more to the story. I write this much for now as a placeholder until I have time to return and write a proper blog post about our experience in hospital quarantine. Stay tuned!

Cafe Review: Paco Club Bangkok

Take a Healthy Bite of Hipster Paradise with Plant-Based ‘Smoothie Bowls’ at Paco Club Bangkok

https://goo.gl/maps/34kESKhDcXG8f5vU9

With an artsy design and all-natural, plant-based desserts called “smoothie bows,” Paco Club Bangkok sells a unique blend of delicious and decor. Not smoothies in the traditional sense, these colorful creations are comprised of your choice of fresh fruits and shaved ice, blended and sliced to create edible works of art that are wonderful to behold and even better to consume.

Located on the busy corner of Sukhumvit 49/9 Alley, the cafe is a 2-km walk from Thong Lo Boat Station. With no sidewalk access, it’s truly a sparkling diamond in the rough. Open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday-Sunday, it’s the perfect place for a cool, low-calorie lunch or an after-dinner dessert date. Snap that snazzy IG photo and imagine yourself lounging in Andy Warhol’s personal pop art gallery. But customers beware. Claimed to be “highly addictive,” down just one delicious designer bowl and you’ll be back for more.

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The thing is

For Cameron Morse

The thing is
I’d forgotten the reason why

I began painting lines of poetry
Or maybe I was praying too hard

To reclaim a feeling or space
Lost in the disgrace of youthful play

Stripped away like the thin foreskin
Of boyhood, bloody and discarded

Never to be retrieved, but perceived
As wind weeps through willow trees

It was a time when time deceived me
To believing it would linger long

Until the day dawned and I realized
I was the one who moved on

Roof hot, tin cat

Roof hot, tin cat
And all the dreams you swept under the mat

Of yesteryear’s doorway
As if you didn’t dare enough to recall

What melodies you sang
What sounds intoxicated your brain

On a good day, on a down day
Or the way people, ordinary and full of flaws

Were beautiful, in all of their fallen godliness
Captivatingly magnificent, miserably terrible

Disappointing surprises at every turn
And their smiles that burned through the wax

On your windshield, and the rain 
Of the splendor of life and the glory of it all

Hymn: Great is Thy Faithfulness, O God my Father

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

~ Lamenations 3:22-23 ESV

Great is Thy Faithfulness, O God my Father

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father.
There is no shadow of turning with thee.
Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not.
As thou hast been thou forever wilt be.

Great is thy faithfulness!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed thy hand hath provided.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
sun, moon, and stars in their courses above,
join with all nature in manifold witness
to thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

Great is thy faithfulness!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed thy hand hath provided.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow;
blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

Great is thy faithfulness!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed thy hand hath provided.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Notes:
Poem by Thomas Chisholm, 1923.
Italics added to indicate refrain.
Text reference: https://hymnary.org/text/great_is_thy_faithfulness_o_god_my_father

Scripture reference: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Lamentations%203%3A22-23&version=ESV

ESV-James-1:19-25

Know this, my beloved brothers:
let every person be quick to hear,
slow to speak,
slow to anger;
for the anger of man does not produce
the righteousness of God.

Therefore put away all filthiness
and rampant wickedness
and receive with meekness
the implanted word,
which is able to save your souls.

But be does of the word,
and not hearers only,
deceiving yourselves.

For if anyone is a hearer of the word
and not a doer,
he is like a man who looks intently
at his natural face in a mirror.

For he looks at himself
and goes away
and at once forgets
what he was like.

But the one who looks into the perfect law,
the law of liberty,
and perseveres,
being no hearer who forgets
but a doer who acts,
he will be blessed in his doing.

ESV-James-1:26-27

If anyone thinks he is religious
and does not bridle his tongue
but deceives his heart,
this person’s religion is worthless.

Religion that is pure and undefiled
before God, the Father, is this:
to visit orphans and widows in their affliction,
and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

NIV-Phil-3:12-14

Not that I have already obtained all this,
or have already arrived at my goal,
but I press on to take hold of that
for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

Brothers and sisters,
I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.

But one thing I do:
Forgetting what is behind
and straining toward what is ahead,
I press on toward the goal
to win the prize
for which God has called me heavenward
in Christ Jesus.