Chapbook exploration: “Fables with Fangs” by Christopher Morgan

Originally published at gnathic.

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My copy of Christopher Morgan’s Fables with Fangs (2016 Ghost City Press; cover art by Christopher Morgan) arrived with a personal note written across the title page. One of the wonderful things about social media is that you can interact with artists you may never have had the chance to meet in person. And Chris is one of the warmest and most welcoming poets I’ve encountered in the social media realm. He also selflessly encourages other poets in their craft.

This chapbook was part of Ghost City Press’ 2016 Summer Micro-Chapbook Series edited by Kevin Bertolero. Christopher made the cover art and, upon reading these eight poems, I think the cover art is apt. It’s a gorgeous layering of ghostly trees in an intermittently darkened and sunlit trail through a weald in hues of slate blues, charcoals, and pastel yellows. My copy is one of a limited 1st Edition print run, the eleventh of only twenty. Truly exclusive. Get yours while they last directly from Chris @andlohespoke.

I’ve been fortunate to read Christopher’s poems in the past. We connected after we both had works published by the now-defunct theNewerYork Press (tNY) in poster form. His work was Bomb Boy and it was made into a poster designed by the talented Nils Davey. You can find Christopher’s Bomb Boy story in tNY’s archives (linked above). Christopher’s poems seem to come from a place of deep examination, from the journey of suffering that only those who allow themselves to be sensitive to the world around them fully experience. In these poems, the rage of Bomb Boy is not gone but may be more filled out, a Bomb Man. This fact does not detract but enrich.

Beginning with the first fable, “My Doppelganger, The Furnace”, you see that Christopher knows this truth about himself (My double is a nastier version / of myself. Or he’s kinder…) but second guesses it. And how could anyone be sure? The self that is our other self, the self that we watch from inside, the self that amazes or pleases or frightens us, Christopher sees that self and wants you to see it, too. Maybe it is dissociative, but it’s what people do. He is owning it in verses that flow like a conversation with You. You are sitting across the table from Christopher, both sipping tea or coffee, and in his eyes behind his smile he is warning and welcoming at once: what lessons you learn from his fables are up to you.

The warning in his verses develops further in “Omen” where the stanzas tumble like the pieces of granite hammered (villagers took hammers / to the black mountain. / Broke the granite / until it was barely alive.). Suddenly everything in nature is dying in the midst of a man-made destruction, a cycle of violence without beginning or end, a Jericho. It is impossible to know where it started or how to stop it.

The poet wakes up in “Red Sun” and we sense a kind of hope in the little whispers / of sunlight. But like hope always does, it flickers maybe like the sun through trees on a windy day. And in waking up we are disoriented (I couldn’t tell the difference / between swimming and dreaming.) and wondering what does a red sky in the morning mean? Storm. And if the sun itself is red? Red in fables is always a warning.

But then Christopher goes to a past place in “Under Control” (on the playground again), and whether he is only the shadow or also one of the Little monsters playing and laughing or being swallowed whole by darkness, or all of these things, we are nodding our heads in a kind of agreement with him. The poet takes us with him always, as is his job, and he doesn’t forget we’re here. He gifts a bolded stanza where every line ends in a fricative s/z, a hissing that can be ominous or playful, teasing or mocking, warning or alluring. We think of how children in fables get lost and how it is always their own fault, as if the lesson could possibly be that a child could outsmart the darkness.

He moves on to a stopping place, “The Wall.” A woman and a man are locked in a nightmare. Christopher shows you how gruesome it can be to be consumed by a place and how helpless/hopeless it is to try to pull someone back from that place when what is left of them is only pieces of what you believed in (A leg dangles. His warped lips stretch / like taffy…). Then the realization that you may have held on too long (Teeth glisten overhead.) and how you can be all of the parts in this poem at once. What you learn from this fable is caution.

Now the poet snaps his fingers at you to bring you out of the nightmare (Pay attention. I can only perform / this trick once.) and see him in “An Older Me”. Here the truth is a movement in verse from still to frantic, all for display. We want to see, but isn’t it voyeuristic and shouldn’t we be ashamed? (Does my flailing / to hold everything at once / make me more appealing?) Yet Christopher shines at you, both him and his doppelganger, the two (plus) sides of him, even if you close your eyes. He will not stop. The Bomb Boy threatens with an internal rhyme that glitters at you, coaxes you.

So maybe this is the only way the poet can face “The Bear”. We are with him as a boy who wants to see and not see this bear, torn between fear and wanting to fight (I’m opening my door just a crack.). He locks the door of his sister’s room, [b]ut what can / locks do against a bear? The entire poem is suspense and you are suspended in the place where a child is in time. And like every bad dream we don’t know what happens next. So we move on warily. The lesson seems to be the fear that you must face.

In “Georgia” we search with the poet in a wild world. We are informed on the back page of the chapbook that Christopher grew up for part of his life in Georgia. It is plain to see that, like a poet must, he observed the place closely. In the heat of it, the sweat and swamp of it, he gives you the sting of fire ants and the venom of snakes with the satisfying repetition of k-sounds stopping hard at the velum: fire ants attacking an abandoned cracker; slicks back; dabs its neck; rat snakes; the murk; a whip crack; a king snake; red on black means venom lacked. It’s a poem full of ferocious sounds that follows a series of seven relentless fables and he gives it to you like a treat, almost a relief. This is an outside poem after seven inside poems. But it doesn’t let you off the hook. You as reader are still weighing out good and evil as with any fable, as you balance the poet’s word and the poet’s world.

My immediate response after reading these Fables with Fangs was that I was unprepared for them. I think I tweeted at Chris that they took me by surprise, or caught me off guard. And I think that in itself is a lesson. When reading Christopher Morgan’s poetry you should always prepare yourself for the hidden place it will expose in you. It will be painful, but with promise. Most appropriately, Chris chose to quote Rumi as a preface to the chapbook: The cure for the pain is in the pain. If art does not make you work, then what is the point of it? I am thankful for this connection through art, this balancing of the world.

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A letter to my sister

Lost in the weeds

lost in the weeds tooToday my family buried my cousin while I wandered in the woods looking for beautiful things. Several times since I heard the news, I have attempted to write about what can happen to you by the time you reach thirty-six years of age. How can you finish anything by that age? He achieved all of the badges a man might expect to achieve by that age: son, brother, man, friend, employee, husband, and father.  Can you live a full life by thirty-six? I have to wonder if he felt done already, if he felt ready to go when he felt the first clot block his heart, if he felt fear or acceptance. When you go like that in your seventies, as my father did, maybe you can have a second to think, “OK. I have done everything I needed to do.” But at thirty-six, can you say that? I have no idea what my cousin might have done later. Maybe he would have helped his daughter with her homework, taken photos of her as her date picked her up for prom, danced at her wedding –all of those things that people with children may expect to do. I think he deserved to get to do those things. When your heart gives out at thirty-six, does that mean you have given all of the love you can? No one can make sense of this. I certainly cannot. We wander lost.