IT’S HARD TO KNOW just what to make of, let alone how to sum up, Matt Morton’s elegant and slippery debut, Improvisation Without Accompaniment. At times, Morton himself gives the impression of not knowing what to make of his work. One stanza into “Republic,” the poem that leads off the collection, he notes:
Each day begins by promising a clear-cut expedition, but
by evening I find myself perplexed, unsure of what
meaning means …
Just so. Morton’s poems often begin strongly and then devolve into a series of non sequiturs into which they disappear, as if vanishing down a long hall of mirrors. The non sequiturs are often stylish and witty, but unless you’re a fanatical acolyte of John Ashbery or Dean Young, their arbitrariness comes to be frustrating:
Bluebonnets overwhelm an overpass. A charred field,
a swan. For years the smell of vanilla may remind you
of a large hole in the earth. Little far-flung black star.
Is it just me or is there something about riding a train.
Ever since you were a child. You will store his ashes
in a stoppered flute.
(“Pinwheel Floating on Water”)
A single pink flare lit
the clouds. She said, But these are only store-bought muffins.
A garden snake lies axe-halved on the sidewalk. One goal
might be to whittle experience down to its basic elements.
(“Improvisation with Scenes from the Pageant”)
Examples could easily be multiplied. Given an accumulation of these shards or shreds of observation and association, one arrives at the end of many of Morton’s poems unsure whether the poem is really over. I often found myself turning the page to see if there was more to come or if instead I or the poem had somehow skidded past an ending. Notice the sense of closure in the above two passages — deceptive closure, since neither passage occurs at the end of a poem.
Morton’s poems achieve the impression of speed, if only the speed with which thoughts and impressions flit by. This speed is one of their pleasures. If the journey matters more than the arrival, perhaps that’s part of what an improvisation is: impromptu, fragmentary. From “Republic” again:
But if only
improvisation were permitted I could finally give my soliloquy and then
but the sentence isn’t completed; presumably the wish isn’t fulfilled either. Or is it? Throughout this collection, improvisation is both a theme and a method.
Motion and speed and random-seeming connections aren’t the only items in Morton’s poetic tool kit. The poems also offer a striking vocabulary of recurrent images, images which, if we connect them like dots from poem to poem, suggest a kind of story line in themselves. Over and over, for example, we encounter trains — I counted at least 10 train appearances, and came to welcome them as familiar friends, from the “fascinated by trains” in “Republic” to the “overnight train” in “The Good Life,” the “I rode trains underground” in “Self-Portrait as Oswald’s Ghost Addressing the Warren Commission,” “the caboose on fire racing down wooden tracks” in “Elegy for My Brother in the Wilderness,” and more. There are also several (though fewer) images of a carnival or midway, with the associated notion of a performance or show, a trope which connects to the leitmotif of improvisation. And underlying the restless motion is a rarer but salient image of a very young man riding around town after dark:
I know I used to drive through my neighborhood
after dark with a girl who was always fiddling
with the radio dial and talking about the weather,
the streamer clouds overhead backlit by the moon.
It may or may not be helpful to return.
(“The Good Life”)
The car image recurs twice in one section of the “Elegy for My Brother in the Wilderness,” a sequence where the central ache and the generic structure build a framework and supply a consistent tone for Morton’s darting and diving imagination:
Once while driving to school, I had just turned sixteen, he and I began
to argue the way that brothers argue, maybe about the radio
and when I struck his chin — hard — with the back of my fist
while navigating a curve in the road between the retirement home
and the open field, I don’t know which of us was more surprised. …
And my apology was like an ancient currency
in the black car in the school parking lot in
the town where it never
snowed it being a Texas town where we often joked
that nothing of importance ever happened.
But memory and regret and utterance are important. Poems are important, and the place where poems have their genesis is important. It is helpful to return, and then to leave again, perhaps abandoning that car and hopping on a train to a city.
Morton presents as an intriguing combination of hayseed and dandy. The improvisations scattered throughout this collection encompass a variety of writers’ (and others’) voices. At different times, and in different ways, Morton channels Keats, Wallace Stevens, Oswald (as we’ve seen), and the Faulkner of As I Lay Dying, as well as others I may have missed. Keats turns up almost word for word (“Improvisation After Keats”); Stevens, on the other hand, is more a tone and a turn of phrase, as in in the luscious closing of “Improvisation in an Alpine Field,” which reads like an outtake of the end of “Sunday Morning” with some of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” stirred in:
As if the earth existed
for this sole function of sacrifice, to offer us
whatever shape or color we desired. As if desire,
like the blazing flowers and the mindless silhouettes
of deer, were itself perennial, and we — after years
of starting out, of setting forth, and finally having arrived
at this particular unspectacular stretch of land —
might now be granted some measure of clemency
and could lie still, never again to anticipate watching
the people we love disappear.
Once we arrive at the passage beginning “after years / of starting out,” though, Stevens’s voice morphs into something younger, rawer, more direct.
Morton’s improvisations feel like homages, experiments in imitation. They tend to be less random and surreal than the other poems here. Also less diffuse, easier to follow, is the sequence I’ve already mentioned, “Elegy for My Brother in the Wilderness,” a sequence which Patricia Smith, who awarded Morton the Poulin Prize for this manuscript, correctly observes “anchors this […] collection.”
In his blurb for Improvisation Without Accompaniment, Alan Shapiro makes an intriguing observation. This collection shows, he avers, “a persistent emotional attachment to literary and religious traditions in which the speaker of these poems intellectually disbelieves.” Possibly; I agree with Shapiro, if I understand him rightly, that there’s a disconnect, a gap between the often beautiful language in many of these poems and the burden of what the poems are being asked to convey. But I’d describe this conflict a little differently. The how in poetry is so often more powerful than the what, and this is never truer than when a very gifted young poet tries out their instrument.
Language, the very means Morton deploys, can trip him up, and he knows it — as when, in “Republic,” “I find myself perplexed, unsure of what / meaning means, or why meanness — which means // differently — so easily enters the heart…” “Republic” is the first poem in the book; in the last poem, “Dialectic,” he complains, “Words muddle […] Forgive me, I’m just a collection of thoughts / that buzz like newborn wasps, the sum of affects / always at war, never sure which one’s on top.” Words may muddle, and that collection of thoughts and affects is an unnervingly apt description of some of the poetic procedures on display here. The poems are often so lulling, so graceful, that perhaps it doesn’t matter which affect comes out on top. But it’s likely, given time, that Matt Morton will curate his disorderly collection a little more, and use his strong poetic voice even more compellingly as it becomes more his own. Despite the frustrations it offers, Improvisation Without Accompaniment is an accomplished and an often beautiful debut.
Rachel Hadas’s most recent books are Talking to the Dead (prose, Spuyten Duyvil, 2015), and Questions in the Vestibule (poems, Northwestern University Press, 2016). She is currently completing verse translations of Euripides’s two Iphigenia plays. Hadas is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers-Newark.