Jan/Feb 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews

Pequod Poems: Gamming with Moby-Dick

Review by Carole Mertz

Pequod Poems: Gamming with Moby-Dick.
Wilda Morris.
Kelsay Books. 2019. 123 pp.
ISBN 9781949229608.

Wilda Morris' latest collection, Pequod Poems, is delightful for its deliberate story telling through poetry. Its publication commemorates the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville's birth, and consists of poems written in an outstanding variety of forms, some rarely used, and even some invented by the author. Each poem relates in some way to Melville and his famous whale, and each one attests to Morris's artistry and vivid imagination.

In her Preface, the poet explains how she began considering her theme several years ago and continued her work at a writer's residency on Martha's Vineyard, sponsored by the Noepe Center for the Literary Arts. We can thank this sponsor for providing Morris the setting and space she needed to develop the back-stories to the characters she included in her charming and well-considered volume. The characteristics of the New England setting, with its seaside influences, aptly enter the contents.

The collection is organized into five sections. The poems in Part I serve to introduce us to the major characters as they appear in Moby-Dick. Morris presents the narrator Ishmael by way of a Mesostic poem. All of the letters in the epigraph weave vertically through this poem, forming the sentence, "What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters..." (See "Ishmael in New Bedford," p. 17). "Oceans," (p. 19) uses the Pleiades form (seven lines, each of six syllables), in which the first letter of each line is the first letter of the poem's title. "The Captain," (p.23) is rendered as a spiraling (and double) Abecedarian.

The full enjoyment of her poems, however, does not lie only in Morris's use of an abundant variety of poetical forms. It is the way her content brings us into the atmosphere of Melville's ocean experience and lets lovers of classical literature recall that important novel of the 19th century. In "A Pequod Sailor Speaks," (p.20) Morris imagines the watery vistas the captain and crew might have seen on the Pequod (Captain Ahab's ship). A quote from this poem delivers descriptive scenes of the sea and concludes with a remarkable metaphor in its final lines:

Sudden winds bellow, curdle foam.
Sword-sharp, they rip the sails, shriek
and break the mast. Lightning stabs
billowing water...

The turncoat sea leaps over the bulwarks,
Judas, kissing the captain.

In Part I we also discover Ahab considering the wind; we encounter poems written from the viewpoint of Ahab's wife and from that of Ishmael (Melville's narrator); and we learn of Pip, the tormented cabin boy.

"Stubb Ponders Shadow and Substance," (p. 56-57), delivers its story in sestina form. Intricate in its use of the movable end-line words, it tells of a sailor confronting his death:

...when the Angel of Death knocks and I hear
the window of my life closing, when it's true
that what I want more than safety is Nantucket cherries. A shadow
crosses the deck. I try to be bold, look into the face of death.

Ahab vows the finish of the great white whale in "Prophecy." In "White" we find "...like tempestuous / wind and breakers, the spun / water that the white whale / whipped into a fury..." The Captain's monomaniacal quest to avenge himself of his dismemberer is ever present in the lines.

The "Sonnet 80 Suite" appears in Morris's Part II. In this outstanding set of poems, (pgs. 63-66) the first rhyme gives us Ishmael, recalling "the captain of the ship, that man of might / whose hubris doomed his crew..." Here Morris is playing with the specific end words Shakespeare used in his Sonnet No. 80. She does this in bouts-sonnet form but manages to remain in the theme of Moby Dick. In the next three poems, she writes in the form called "a gram of &s." For this form, she must use pre-selected end words that appear in each poem's title. I found these to be ingenious in their adherence to the structure while simultaneously delivering fine narratives.

In "Soundless—Starbuck Ponders," (p. 64), the end words, "sound," "soul," "loud," and "send," for example, are all formed by the letters in the word "Soundless." Each line adheres to the "rule."

While the sinking Pequod sounds
the sea, I sound my soul,
its clamoring a loud
racket I try to silence. I send...

The final poem in the Sonnet Set is an erasure poem, itself an intriguing form and a visual delight.

In "Memos to Herman Melville," Part III, Morris speaks in slightly more philosophical tones. Here she sometimes addresses Melville directly. In "Theology," (p.84) we find:

At the end of your book,
Ahab lies down beside Quaker Starbuck,
and Fedallah, the Parsee, beside Portuguese,
Tahitian, and Maltese sailors...
all manner of men in a democratic grave.

Morris's Part IV brings a bit of backtalk. This assumes new pitch, as compared with the poems in the other sections. In "Meditation by the Water" (p. 91), a speaker asks just what the psalmist means when he declares "the Almighty will keep you / under his wings." And in "No Harm in Ahab," a poem significant for our current times, Morris delves into the theme of evil and the question of righteousness. (It is the single poem in this collection where I discovered a minor misprint.)

Five poems in Part V bring the volume to a close. Here, forms used that I haven't previously mentioned are the "Golden Shovel," the "lipogram," and "the snake," a form Morris herself devised.

For its rich content and variety, the skillful manipulation of words into logical form, and for her imaginative imagery, Wilda Morris's Pequod Poems is a colorful collection. One can read it for story, for a poetic reconnection with Melville's novel, and for pure delight in the richness of Morris's descriptive and rhyming techniques.


About the poet:

Wilda Morris has served a wide community of poets, both through her own published poems, and through the many workshops and courses she has taught in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. In addition, she holds leadership positions in major artistic organizations throughout Illinois. These include the Illinois State Poetry Society and Poets & Patrons of Illinois, both for which she served as president. This reviewer benefits from her monthly challenges at the Wilda Morris's Poetry Challenge blogspot and gratefully attributes her acquaintance with Szymborska, and many other fine poets, to Morris.


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