Void and Compensation by Michael Morse
Canarium Books, 2015; 104 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle
Michael Morse’s debut collection, Void and Compensation, is propelled by considering what follows loss and whether anything could fill the space created by losing, to distance or death, those most loved. Morse’s poems are consumed with the mechanics of loss. They look to guides: the weather, children, birds, the speaker’s parents, and his former selves, to learn how to let loss be living’s natural pair.
The book is full of desire, which occasions decisions or their faltering, ruling out what might have been. In one moment, Morse recounts in “(On Reading)”: “I’m at my lover’s apartment years later / and I’m holding her baby, not mine and yet / a ruby of my making, my ambivalence.” (72)
The poems offer their speaker company, often at a remove. In the book’s longest and central poem: “(Poem as Aporia between Lighthouses,)” Morse writes: “The lighthouse only suggests an autonomy: / part warning, part bearing, it projects that we need others.” (44). “Part warning, part bearing” is true of the poems, too – they caution against ambivalent love, but show a speaker who pulls back from others, who wonders what could have been, and who revels in being unseen.
Morse’s poems often hope to find guidance in the loss their speaker has faced. In “(Tsimtsum),” which turns on the loss of a mother, Morse works to fill a mother’s absence with a form as unusual and resplendent: “Make of yourself a mother you’ve read about in guidebooks: / a McKinley, a Denali.” (8) Children are made by imagining, too. From “(Poem as Aporia between Lighthouses): “Tonight, between the houses, I’ve brought a child in my head / not yet articulated: he could be my past or my future” (49). Between the houses it’s dark, and therefore it’s possible to imagine that anything could be there.
Morse’s speaker is captivated by returning to people and places he’s known, as another way to address the divides formed by grieving. Migratory birds, for which returning is a natural mode, appear often and are a guide to surrounding loss with song. In “(Eponym Imperfect)” Morse writes:
It’s in the very bones of larks to sing
and song’s an exponential reckoning
of skyward intentions if I were, I would.
Brave subjunctive bird, what on earth will do? (5)
These are poems that reach. They look to birds for their song, but also because flight and song both require expansion to what’s beyond a bird’s resting body. Wingspan and music matter to Morse as means of outreach. The poems turn inward for as much as they want to extend, and this tension pulls one poem close against the next.
The way the poems meditate on losing shifts as they readdress the questions of how to be close to others, and far away, at once. They atone as they reach out, sometimes just in the interest of reaching “I’m sorry” Morse writes in “(Facebook)” “in the way that dogs out back / bark at the nothing they’re trying to name.” (66)
1. The poems in Void and Compensation are propelled and slowed by the web of feelings that surround the people, places and moments that the speaker has lost and can’t touch.
2. The poems find a counterbalance for their grief in the commonly magnificent. They’re particularly swayed by birds, and the weather, and by the old and young.
3. These are solitary poems. The people they contain are often dead or imagined or far away. They relish their outwardly curious solitude, even when it hurts. Loss, here, is part of every sweetness.
4. These are poems consumed by the subjunctive. The possible is appealing because it provides a future that escapes the weight of memory, and because each absence will be followed, if never filled, and its compensation could be anything at all.