When I read poetry I want to be surprised and delighted. The poems in Alexander Payne Morgan’s Loneliness Among Primates deliver. If there is a common theme, it is grief; grief that is the other side of love, tender and resonant and questioning.
Grief that, in many cases, is associated with the father. In “The Meaning of Leaves,” a child is absorbed in the task of deconstructing and reconstructing a life. He “finds a pile of leaves / and begins / a careful unraking.” The situation: a funeral, and loss he seems oblivious to as prayers are said and dirt drums on the coffin. The child is focused and purposeful, “puzzling out his ordering on the sidewalk.” Then suddenly “He’s too surprised / to cry / when his Daddy scoops him up / to go.” The poem captures the impact fathers have, interrupting the child’s active attention to bringing order and meaning to the moment.
Over and over again, these poems show the long reach of the father, often in destabilizing terms. “Idiot Waters,” “Last Lunch,” “To a Father Thirteen Years Dead” capture the speaker wrestling with the father, across the distance of time. In “What Good Are Pigeons” a boy travels to meet his father, a boy aware of impending divorce, of division and loss. The poem ends with the father cornering this children, battering them with his assertion, “I was right, I was right, I was right.”
Boy becomes man, becomes husband and father, and this shift presents similar challenges as division and losses naturally accrue. In “The Cup” a man reckons with the end of a relationship, brought to his attention in a cup gifted to him by an ex, and soon after by the news of her death. He begins to use the cup, notes how its “small dry circumference” fits his palm in the morning. Of course the cup eventually breaks, causing him to reflect on “fault lines / present from the beginning.” When he glues it back together and it leaks, he continues to use cup, a generous act of faith and love, also a testimony to the inevitability of flawed human relationships.
Somehow grief and generosity go together in this collection. They are never far apart, on display in the poems about the poet’s children. In “Where to Be Blue” he contrasts the pressure and violence of his youth, “mute as an inmate / tunneling I in spoonfuls dug my long escape,” with the freedom he wants to see in his daughter, who has dyed her hair blue, “if you’ve got to be blue / let it be your hair,” yearning for her to be “an un-tortured child.” And for the son who chafes at authority, “I am terrified he will find no safe passage,” the speaker finds restraint. “I can’t follow,” he says. Which is the polar opposite of “I was right.”
Alexander Payne Morgan has written a book of engaging poems– about what it is to be a child, a spouse, a father, about how to negotiate relationships over time in a spirit of love and freedom. His is a warm and intimate voice. I am grateful for it.