1004 Startled by a secret talent

Blood-Brain Barrier
by Geoffrey Morrison

Victoria: Frog Hollow Press, 2019
$15.00 / 9781926948904

Reviewed by Matthew Tomkinson

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In the interest of full disclosure, Geoffrey Morrison is a frequent writing collaborator of mine, and together we wrote a book of short stories called Archaic Torso of Gumby (Gordon Hill Press, 2020). Therefore I was delighted to be asked to review Blood-Brain Barrier, and I will do my best to offer a fair appraisal of this gorgeous wonderbook.

Though I’ve spent the past five years as his collaborator acquainting myself with his writerly sleights of hand, Morrison’s debut poetry collection nevertheless startles me like a secret talent, like a shower aria heard through a bathroom door. The poems have a dynamic range that spans from comical to contemplative, often pivoting from one to the other in the same line, and then back again. The feeling is one of blood rushing from head to heart, often ending in a kind of vasovagal syncope when things take a sudden surprising turn, as Morrison’s poems often do. See, for example, the poem “Horrible Hand” whose final line is too good to spoil here. (You know a poetry chapbook is exceptional when it comes with spoiler alerts.)

The book is divided into three distinct parts, but the divisions between these sections are semi-permeable. As suggested by the cellular boundary-crossing of the book’s title, Morrison transports images, diction, and references freely throughout the work, allowing these elements to transcend their section headings and to unite the poems thematically.

Geoffrey Morrison was born in White Rock

Each part has its own emotional atmosphere, poetic structure, and thematic concerns. The first part, “Game Pieces,” combines grade-school giddies with grad-school anxieties, reimagining famous tabletop games such as Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots as political allegories. Part two, “Houses,” is a sequence of four pantoums that recycle their own stanzas into new kaleidoscopic meanings. Part three, “Blood-Brain Barrier,” is an eight-poem sequence that explores bodily permeability, revealing a phlegmatic speaker whose very being comes to resemble an exposed nerve.

Though the book is steeped in vulnerability and tenderness, it resists easy emotional identification, offering something far richer in its distinctively weird warpings of mind. Access to what the author calls “the room of my language” requires some diligent lock-picking, but once you enter that room, it’s the kind you never want to leave. If poetry’s task, according to Dean Young, is to “foster a necessary privacy in which the imagination can flourish,” then Morrison’s writing finds the perfect balance between opacity and transparency.

Indeed, Morrison’s metaphors can sometimes resemble a kind of private language, as in lines such as, “My Antikythera mechanism learned courtesy / again in the stroking water.” This poem, “House of Sea Rain” has concepts that “flit like anchovies” and ideas that “you haven’t sifted yet.” Morrison brings these images up from a shipwreck of sorts — the net of anchovies, the ancient computer, and the unsifted stuff of thought — and lays these mixed treasures before us.

Geoffrey Morrison

Reading Morrison’s poems, for me, often involves a moment of impasse while sifting through these mysterious images, a feeling of looking for an interpretive entryway, when suddenly one realizes that this house has had a key under the doormat the whole time. For example, while reading “The Works and Days” (an allusion to Hesiod), I failed to detect the extended metaphor punning on fireworks. No doubt, it says more about me as an unideal reader of poetry that it took me so long to realize that “the dead dandelions” that “live again, and die” were shapes in the sky. Truly, it was a fireworks-going-off moment when I put two and two together.

Morrison deftly balances these moments of Rubik’s Cube cohesion with the deep satisfaction of disorientation, especially in the book’s “House” pantoums, where the form itself actively resists the possibility of a gestalt. The pantoum’s repeated lines have the effect of a mix-and-match flipbook, creating sublime derailments, non-sequiturs, and clang associations. For my part, I take great delight in these moments of aporia and disorientation. In fact, they make for some of my favourite moments in the book and some of the most memorable lines.

One example of this comes from the last poem in the book, “A Very Special Episode of Blood-Brain Barrier.” As the author can attest to from our personal exchanges, I get so excited about this excerpt that it induces frisson every time I think about it. It’s one of those syncope lines I mentioned earlier – the kind that makes you have to sit down and put your head between your knees:

Water in a loose magnolia petal,
tea-stains of fester: a shell-shaped soap dish
my mother had in a house that fell down
the stairs.

Behold the author’s room of language: an impossible staircase worthy of Escher, an enjambment worthy of Dickinson, and a tongue twister worthy of the cellar door treatment. Brilliant.

Let me put it this way: Morrison is a master of semantic and syntactic ambiguity. Look no further than the poem “Trouble Die-in-a-Bubble.” How many titles of poems have made you cry? What are the actual odds of that happening, anyway? Well, somehow this has been my experience. Even before the pandemic, before spending all these months indoors in my personal bubble of doom, the innocent board game reference felt tinged with loneliness and death.

This is another of Morrison’s great gifts — namely: to “find good / lines,” as one poem explicitly owns up to. Not only does the author find good lines in abundance, but also strikingly original similes, such as the one in the first poem that describes “square windows lit or not / like yellow buttons in an elevator.” My natural response to much of Morrison’s writing, perhaps because we are collaborators, is to ask: why didn’t I think of that?

Geoffrey Morrison

I’m often awestruck by the performativity of these poems, noting all the subtle ways in which they enact the things they describe. Take, for example, “Blood-Brain Barrier V,” where Morrison writes, “And so I’m skipping / every second stair, hushing when phones are near.” Not only does this line carry that special melancholic oomph on a musical level, but on a technical level its enjambment also skips a stair and its elegant near-rhyme (which I think has something to do with the melancholic oomph), literally uses the word “near.”

I find this more moving than I do clever, but Blood-Brain Barrier is plenty clever, too. You’ll find paraprosdokians and anacoluthons here if that’s what you’re looking for, because Morrison is (anecdotally, but also on the page) someone who clearly knows his craft. But the poems work on so many levels that notions of craft rightfully recede. I have perhaps unevenly emphasized some of the profounder moments in the book at the expense of you not knowing how funny it is. Allow me to correct this imbalance by telling you that herein Jeff Bezos is compared to Grendel, HAL 9000 is poked in the eye, and board gamers come to realize that “A huge shoe owns us.”

Another Dean Young-ism goes: “The blood’s always fake but you got to try to make the bleeding real.” In Morrison’s poem “Cavity Sam,” we are made to see from the perspective of the famous Operation board game patient, who is trapped in a perpetual state of emergency like the archetypal hypochondriac. If this poem’s fake blood is Sam’s “folksy ailments,” then its real bleeding happens in the penultimate line when the patient is suddenly humanized, lying “Naked and indignant” on the operating table. In this act of reimagining seemingly inane cultural artifacts, Morrison finds pathos in plastic, and personal anxieties manifest in diversionary pleasures.

As per that sense of performativity I described above, sometimes the poem itself enacts the bleeding. In “House of the Summer I Thought I was Going to Die,” for example, the speaker describes “Unaccountable small pains, presentiments” and a fear of growths metastasizing. Before we know it, the pantoum itself starts metastasizing with sentences invading subsequent stanzas, the body of the poem outwardly holding together even as its contents shift internally.

Morrison’s collection comes together around this theme of an acute sensitivity to subtle internal shifts. In the final poem, already quoted above (“A Very Special Episode”…), the speaker tells us that “The freight of my mind moves around when I / sleep; in the morning shit’s strewn like the Chase Vault” (note: a real-life burial vault subject to an urban legend that its coffins shift positions at night). Perhaps it’s having woken up at 5:00 a.m. to finish writing this review, or the endless brain fog of recent months, but I feel particularly seen by this simile right now. Shit is undeniably strewn. But for as long as I’ve been reading this book, things have felt otherwise.

Blood-Brain Barrier is beautiful beyond belief, a nimble yet messy-hearted work. So get on your bikes, boards, and blades and go support my dear friend and the illustrious Frog Hollow Press!

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Matthew Tomkinson

Matthew Tomkinson is a writer, sound designer, and doctoral student in Theatre Studies at UBC. His debut collection of short prose, Archaic Torso of Gumby, co-authored with Geoffrey Morrison, is out with Gordon Hill Press as of March 2020, and his chapbook, For a Long Time, is available at Frog Hollow Press. An upcoming chapbook, oems, will be published by Guernica Editions in 2022. Matthew lives in Vancouver on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

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