The Thing About ‘The Thing Is’
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Follow poet Cameron Morse online at:
Purchase “The Thing Is” online here (non-commission link):