What does it mean to suffer and to try to give a physical body to the suffering? How does one give to suffering a sound that embodies what is pathos and acts as a guide through one’s labyrinthine exploration of a self that seems to constantly be midst slipping away? Big questions. In his debut collection of poems, Storm Toward Morning (Copper Canyon 2014), Malachi Black’s attempts to answer these questions are highly musical, meditative poems that use repetition and philosophical/religious allusions to create poems that double as prayers. These poems lead the reader through a bereft psyche that only allows for so much entrance before the speaker disappears in the very music created to give himself life. But, the focus of Storm Toward Morning isn’t simply an “I” finding his way to a language that delineates, whether murkily or with more precision, a frigid emotional territory, rather Black creates in this collection a new-aged Job who–despite his dips of faith in himself, God, and even the reader–finds beauty everywhere he looks.
Divided into three sections, this collection has in it a Divine Comedy of sorts: section one explores the hell that is longing, loneliness, ennui, and a secretive sharing of a desire turned against the one who desires. Everything here is illuminated or overcast, either/or, what sits between always obfuscated or wholly avoided.
Consider the following lines from the poems “Mirroring” and “Under an Eclipsing Moon”:
You must be so tired of my runny eyes,
my muttering and fumbling toward the light
switch at your side, the conversation
that I make when I’m the lonely one
I am the black strokes on the baby grand
piano in whose hands I am tonight
beside the hospital, a yellow gram
of Valium with me in the bright
side of this house behind a darkened high
school baseball diamond. Here it’s too dim,
too overcast to know what sort of slim
lip the moon has grooved into the sky.
Black uses these poems to explore an identity that tries desperately to see the world around him with a sense of understanding, prescribing for his pain intense rhythm (Black’s metrical ear is impeccably Frostian without being derivative) and rhyme. Some of the poems explore this sense of sorrow and avoiding sorrow by using sonic patterning of meter and rhyme better than others. Each poem is precisely written, very intentional about what it reveals and refuses to reveal. They typically, in Section 1, appear in couplets with the occasional nonce form appearing to briefly break the pattern. If a poem falls it is frequently because it is indiscernible from another poem within proximity, arguing similar points in similar rhetorical and prosodic ways. This could all point to the development of a particular personality coming into being via his obsessions; however, for this reader, the substantial presence of couplets and lyrically beautiful but tonally deadpan expression becomes expected, making the inclusion of some poems questionable.
Compare the placement of internal rhyme in “Insomnia & So On,” “Against the Glass” and “When I Lie Down”:
Give me some doubt
on loan; give me a way to get away
from what I know. I pace until the sun
is in my window. I lie down. I’m a coal:
Left alive, I am an opening
too wide, much too much gaping sky
to slip behind the throbbing canopy
of hide I call an eyelid. So let your crow
land in my lashes; close my eyes.
I’ll be you nest, a place to rest
built out of syllable of lullabies:
Rocking in my midnight robe, I am
alive and in an eye again beside
my kind insomniac, my phantom
glass, companion my only bride:
this little window giving little shine
to something. What I see I keep
Section II seems to be the most solid and is incredibly beautiful. Purgatorial, this centerpiece focuses on a relationship with a higher power that discusses how one loves what cannot be seen, has faith in what does not show love clearly, and carries on with a life that is constantly reminding the one who lives that soon it will all be over. It consists entirely of the poem “Quarantine” that in ten sonnets, connected as a crown, entertains the idea of there being a Job-like presence in this book arguing whether the presence of God is necessary or even a possibility. Some questions I had were “How does doubt play a bigger role in the book when all poems are put in conversation with this centerpiece?”, “Is it possible for flesh to override faith, for flesh to override God,” and “How hollow does one need to become in order to let God inside and is this hollowing for God worth the pain endured for His entrance?” I found myself thoroughly satisfied with where my mind traveled, with the narrative that I was able to build in a poem that is not directly narrative. It is in “Quarantine” where I felt closest to the speaker and it is because there was something at stake that allowed a biography of the speaker to sneak through. The section “Vigils” in “Quarantine” is an absolutely stunning poem:
There is no end: what has come will come again
will come again: and then distend: and then
and then: and then again: there is no end
to origin and and: there is again
and born again: there is the forming and:
the midnight curling into morning and
the glory and again: there is no end:
The third section of the book seems to be a return to many of the ideas presented in the first part. In many ways it has an energy to it that the first two do not, a kind of rage that bubbles beneath making the Paradise of this section less about peace and beauty and more about finally having power, if even a little, over one’s mortality and thinking therein. From the prose poem “Growing Season”:
The tree can speak, and it will shriek until a whole head hangs down by a neck-like stem with a dumb body dangling beneath. And hell has won: once borne, the body drops. Another one’s begun.
There is more formal difference here and the means by which Black explores isolation, death, and melancholy are more metaphorical in some instances, such as in the poem “Whalesong”. The quality of sound is still present as well as the jolt from idea to idea, image to image that frequented many of the poems in section one in a kind of non-sequitur, philosophical whisper: “Behind this round and solid sound, I square:/ an egg is scrambled on the scalding pan//I am; I am what I can’t quite withstand./ A flippant wind, disheveling my hair,” from the poem “Dining after Dawn”. Here is a move Black seems to favor: create a scene or situation and explore the many transformations a self can go through within a scene that, too, is transforming. The instability of the environment in the poems of section 1 and 3 create a total person whom the reader can either decide to trust and distrust, to believe or abandon as discredited by his own numbness.
And that is the challenge of Storm Toward Morning. It is very difficult to want to know who is speaking because so much that is at stake is rendered invisible, as though being vague is equal to being universal. Frequently, I found myself wondering more about the missing dramatic situation than the obvious beauty of the poems themselves. Many of the poems begin in media res with the question of “What happened that made this possible/necessary” left unanswered. The lack of narrative, meaning not prosaic explanation, rather the backbone of tension that facilitates with creating empathy, is a risky move in which too many of the poems invest. This gives the tone of the book a monotonous veil that belies the craft and intensity of Black’s obvious abilities, in particular with prosody. But I could also argue that this monotony could very well be the point. We as readers end where we begin: in a subtly lit dark (the soft light of death approaching), alone, obsessing in a general sense about what it means to be alive when the “why” of existence feels so far away. The poems perform this lack of “why” and the emotional distance is as startling and unnerving as what I imagine is the inspiration for these poems.