A Tributary to Life: Michael Morical’s The Way Home
Reviewed by Cori L. Gabbard
Alabaster Leaves Publishing, 2015 ; 64 pages, $16
ISBN-10: 692565485, ISBN-13: 978-0692565483, paper
Wisp-stems of dark-lime, neon grass waft across an impressionist shore of marmalades and plummy-pinks that submerge beneath flint-shadowed swells before expanding into a sea of fuchsia, its surface broken by gentler waves; a patch of algae farther out; and a tanker some fathoms beyond the seaweed. The beach and breakers overflow the multicolored, occasionally imperceptible line that serves as its frame, into a border of marbled crimsons on three sides and a pastiche of greens on the fourth.
Such is the cover of Michael Morical’s first full-length poetry collection, The Way Home (2016), which anticipates the poems to which it opens. To begin with, the fineness of the grass, which calls to mind the sharpness characteristic of the details depicted in Flemish still lifes, contrasts with the abstraction of the sand and ocean. “Landscape,” the first poem in the book, establishes a paradigm that perpetuates itself through many of the subsequent poems in The Way Home in featuring this juxtaposition of precision and nebulousness: with its references to “waterfalls,” “moss,” “stone” and “[f]erns,” “Landscape” conjures up the concreteness of a tranquil forest scene in the mind’s eye even as it alludes to the illegibility of “words intertwined,/twisted shaggy,/hard to define/ in the mist sustaining them” (lines 5-8).
Meticulous definition and dreamy impressionism constitute a binary pairing; that the scene and the border meld almost seamlessly in places, the sprays transcending the bounds of their perimeter, underscores not only the contradiction that embodies the relationship between the grass and the rippling main, but also the ways in which many of Morical’s poems reveal a connection between oppositional elements and, in some cases, their inextricability from one another. “Tributaries” is a case in point. The poem’s first two lines situate its speaker at a supermarket where he has arrived with deliberate intent: a “[s]hopping list in mind” of “mushrooms, Drano, mousetrap and thyme” (lines 1-2). All four of these items are bound to each other by their unremarkableness as ones that are readily available at grocery stores across the U.S. with the possible exception of those in very impoverished and/or rural communities. Yet inherent in this commonality, not to mention their shared identity as imminent purchases on the part of the speaker, are the properties that divide these objects by twos. “[M]ushrooms” and “thyme” are organic entities that, as ingredients for a given dish, are meant to perpetuate the health, energy and happiness of the people who eat them; by contrast, the two manmade products, the “mousetrap” and the environmentally-hazardous “Drano,” cause the death and suffering of non-human creatures in facilitating the relative ease of modern life.
The poem then goes on to detail what happens while the speaker is at the supermarket: someone else runs his shopping cart into the back of one of the speaker’s feet; the speaker himself peruses “the circular/left in [his] basket” (4-5); he feels a gust whizz past his “bare legs” (7) as a “butcher” (6) hurries past; and his ears detect what, by deduction, must be the pumping of a spray bottle as someone waters the fruit and vegetables—all before “music rolls down the aisle/with the shopping carts/and everything missing fits/and the song passes through [his] hands/until [he names] it” (10-14). That is, what begins as a series of literal incidents that the speaker experiences through the concreteness of the senses metamorphoses into a culminating moment of metaphysical bliss. And as “Tributaries” suggests, all of these happenings contribute to the poem’s final evocative image just as brooks flow into larger bodies of water. Yet the title itself simultaneously calls attention to the distinction between the socially constructed experience of going to the grocery store and the natural phenomena to which it conventionally alludes.
To the extent that “Tributaries” refers to the movement of streams, it associates itself with the idea of journeying which is the implicit theme of Morical’s own title. Like the book’s cover, “The Way Home” provides insight with respect to the content of many of the poems in the collection, as their respective titles suggest. “Maiden Voyage,” “The Traveling Temple,” “Taipei Moving Day,” “Returning,” “Relocating (Meet me at the Airport)” and “Into the Looking Glass” all evoke the concept of travelling from one point to another, while “Downsizing,” “Returning” and “Another Last Ride” carry connotations of moving towards a final destination which emphasizes the metaphorical meaning of “[h]ome” as “The Way Home” implicitly defines it. As the speaker’s address in “Viewing” to a peer he has known since childhood and who now “[lies] embalmed” (line 1) makes clear, “[h]ome” is the end of mortal life. “The Way Home,” therefore, is how we live in the interval between birth and death. It is no wonder, then, that Morical’s poems should fuse the particular and the amorphous, revealing the continuity between our existence and its extinguishment and locating the sanctity within the mundane: despite the comparative brevity of our lives relative to the longevity of the universe, we nevertheless measure them in terms of the occasional, fleeting moments that stand out to us from the overall blur that they encompass. As “Landscape” and, in particular, “Tributaries,” exemplify, The Way Home as a whole speaks to the rapture of those rare instances, to those punctuations in time when “music rolls down the aisle/. . . ./and everything missing fits/and the song passes through [our] hands/until [we name] it.”
Cori L. Gabbard earned a doctorate in English literature from the CUNY Graduate Center and is an adjunct assistant professor at the New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York where she teaches a wide range of courses, including Law through Literature and Technical Writing. Her scholarship, which focuses upon medieval and post-1900 British literature, partially informs her own poetry which also engages a variety of subjects such as the New York Public Library, Mark Zuckerberg, Russian salad and Anne Yale Hopkins, a seventeenth-century American poet.