There are typically two things I like to do after reading a book of poetry for the first time, especially when it’s for a review. First, I come up with a first-impression word cloud – it may be only one word or a few, but it’s meant to sum up the general feeling I have towards a book on initial reading. This time around, for Christopher Morgan’s first chapbook from Sad Spell Press, Shadow Songs, the word was “visceral.”
Which brings me to the second thing: I like to hunt around for information on the author, to get a sense of any of their previous work or just their personality/online presence. This inevitably leads me to their social media accounts or blogs, which can be a neat little window into their lives that inform any second or third readings of their books.
One thing that struck me about Morgan’s tumblr page was the number of blurbs posted from other writers who seem to have had the word “visceral” come to mind as well when reading Shadow Songs. While it’s a short collection at 22 pages, it packs a punch of emotions that at once is striking and comforting, letting you know you’re not alone.
It’s not often that you meet someone who doesn’t carry with them some sort of family trauma, which is why it’s important that we have writers like Morgan, who address this and the pain that comes with it so honestly in their work. We need authors who aren’t afraid to write about how the ones we love most can also be the ones who hurt us most, and how we manage to navigate this.
In Morgan’s chapbook, we find someone coming to terms with their past and making way for a world beyond the confines of the family dynamic, which can often be toxic. In “Hate Song,” tension is ever-present within the staccato musings of a narrator dealing with feelings of anger and frustration at his father. The language is particularly jarring, sometimes violent:
“I hear / my
mother’s silence / as the hate song carries on / knocking
you aside / baring teeth / as the hate song / carries me on
its shoulders / like a wounded creature”
While Morgan dedicated this collection to his family in one of the opening pages of the book, he doesn’t shy away from speaking about the fragility of trust between parent and child – how the child, while expected to follow the rules of the parent, can often begin to question the parent’s guidance. In “The Drowning Yard,” a mother leads her children to a lake, “showing them how to hold their heads under. To breathe deep.” The narrator, one of the children, decides they can’t follow their mother’s lead. It’s a dark, unsettling moment – an acknowledgement that sometimes, a parent may not know what’s best, and in some cases may lead you astray.
One thing that stands out beyond the tension-filled, dark theme of this chapbook is the style of Morgan’s writing. He experiments with pithy lines and formatting, as evidenced by “Single Sentence Staccato,” his series of 29 sentence-length stories. Each of these bite-sized tales is creative and often end in quirky, unexpected ways. They’re a testament to the author’s ability to be concise and impactful all at once.
It’s a dark, unsettling moment – an acknowledgement that sometimes, a parent may not know what’s best, and in some cases may lead you astray.
Shadow Songs is an emotional debut that speaks to the experience of abuse within a family and how this colors one’s life and relationships. While this collection was admittedly a troubling read at first for its visceral quality, it was nonetheless necessary for the author to use such searing, impassioned language to convey the feelings of pain and grief that many often struggle to put into words. Now that Morgan has, perhaps readers will see their own personal experiences within his words, and that can be a beautiful, consoling thing.
(Sad Spell Press, Poetry, Paperback, Nov. 2015)
LESLEY LEROUX is a writer, editor and artist from Canada’s capital (originally the little island of Newfoundland). She graduated with a degree in journalism from Carleton University. Her fiction, nonfiction and photography have been published both in print and online, and she has occasionally dabbled in radio and television. She is a feminist, bibliophile and yogi who can be found tweeting about any of the above @LesleyLeRoux.