Ann Chandonnet Reviews John Morgan’s “Spear-Fishing on the Chatanika”

by Ann Chandonnet

New & Selected Poems
by John Morgan.
137 pages, paper, Salmon Poetry, Ireland 2010, $19.95.

A mood of calm pervades every page of John Morgan’s latest collection, Spear-Fishing on the Chatinika (Salmon Poetry Ltd.). This sensitive, expressive book is a perfect example of Wordsworth’s idea of emotion reflected in tranquility–even at those high-tension moments when he describes being frantic about the health of a family member or recalls the frustrations and missteps of virgin sex.

I first encountered John Morgan’s work in Field’s 1979 anthology A Geography of Poets. It stood out then. Later I met Morgan (he taught at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for many years), and even participated in readings with him and other Alaskan poets in Juneau and elsewhere. He is also calm in person, and his students remember him fondly.

Morgan grew up in New York City. His experiences working in the Peabody Museum of natural history led to the title and several poems in his first collection, The Bone-Duster. Bones, ash and tenderness are constants throughout this larger collection, too. When spear fishing, the fisher never knows what threatening denizen will appear through the bubbles of surf and the tremulous strands of giant kelp. Morgan repeatedly surprises the reader with his images and with the sybillant clang of many of his final lines, as well as sudden whiffs of cinnamon, damp gears or spruce.

The difficulty with reviewing a book like Spear-Fishing on the Chatinika is that almost every poem calls out for its fifteen minutes of fame. “The Psychoanalysis of Fire” is notable for its arresting strings of multisyllable adjectives. “Spells and Auguries,” the 24-poem section for his younger son, struck with encephalitis, is freighted with medical terminology and stone-hard, one-syllable words as well as waking dreams and horrible possibilities. A teen deals with the siege of Leningrad, trying not to be overwhelmed by the gathering bodies of his family and the spectre of hunger. (Note the almost secret rhyme in these stanzas.)

Annie Dillard has written that Morgan’s poems are “strong and full of carefully controlled feeling. They are tender and precise evocations of the moral and sensory life of man.” Morgan reveals a human being built on a steely skeleton of responsibility, clothed in the flesh of painful consciousness. Over and over, he feels life “going deeper” until it is “salt in [his] pores.”

Although many of Morgan’s poems deal with the landscape of Alaska, where he spent decades, these lines visit many other countries and centuries. He has memories of Robert Lowell as well as a beach in Mexico. Often, as in “The Beach Walk at Port Townsend, Wa.,” he is trying to find the space to escape grief and guilt in order to find the right details, the right metaphors for all the other things in life he wishes to record. When he writes of Anton Webern “sickened by the recent loss of his son/strafed to death on a train,” his concern for his own son–strafed to coma by a sudden illness–surfaces like an unexpected episode of vomiting. The same lurch occurs when he writes “Walking Past Midnight” for a fellow poem whose infant daughter is stricken with meningitis.

Bike riders and bones in the ditch, pizza and Phenobarb, Morgan reaches right and left, backward and forward through time and space. His poems for his wife Nancy are especially touching, love poems being the hardest poems to write without turning honey into gall. His portraits of her innocence and bravery make an indelible impression on the reader. For instance, “Then” is one of the most honest and touching poem I have ever read. In another of his poems for her, “May,” the ripples, stipples, roots, kisses and chortles of nature come to fruition in the final line: “the tune the earth is singing to itself” –a tune that expresses his happiness in their continuing relationship.

At Harvard, Morgan won the Hatch Prize for Lyric Poetry. At the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was awarded the Academy of American Poets’ Prize. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner and many other prestigious journals.

Spear-Fishing on the Chatinika is a collection to read and re-read with pleasure–watching for glass but sipping cocoa on the couch.

Morgan’s publisher, Salmon Poetry Ltd., was founded in 1981, taking its name from the salmon of knowledge in Celtic mythology. Founded by poet Jessie Lendennie, Salmon specializes in the promotion of new poets, particularly women poets, and now has published more than 200 books, including several notable anthologies, the most recent of which is Dogs Singing (November 2010). The press is located in County Clare, Ireland. Its US distributor is Defour Editions of Pennsylvania.


Ann Fox Chandonnet is a poet and non-fiction writer who lives in Vale, North Carolina. She is the author of Canoeing in the Rain (Mr. Cogito) and other poetry collections, as well as history and nonfiction such as “Write Quick”: War and a Woman’s Life in Letters, 1835-1867 (Winoca Press, Wilmington, N.C.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s