Born in New York City, in 1976 I moved with my family to Fairbanks, Alaska to teach for a year in the creative writing program at the University of Alaska. I’m still there. I’ve published six books of poetry, as well as a collection of essays. My work has appeared in The New Yorker and Poetry, among other journals. For more information, visit my website: www.johnmorganpoet.com
The earliest poems that I’m still willing to reprint were written in 1965, when I was 22 and engaged to Nancy. I was in graduate school in Iowa City and she was a sophomore at Simmons College in Boston. To brighten my tiny rented room, I pinned the postcards that she sent me to a bulletin board above my desk. She was taking an art history class, and the latest card, from the Gardner Museum, showed a gleaming St. George, confronting a decorative and not very dangerous-looking dragon. Although we planned to marry over Christmas break, everything remained unsettled, with her parents urging us to postpone the wedding at least until June. They argued the delay would give our relationship a more thorough test and allow them time to adjust to the shock of losing Nancy.
June seemed a lifetime away, and doubts about my competence as a poet weighed on me as well. How could I draw this person I loved into a dubious marriage when my professional life was menaced with frustration and failure? But steeling myself against these gloomy thoughts, I managed to scribble an encouraging, playful, rather giddy love letter which recast the postcard she’d sent as an allegory of our vexed circumstances. And then, as an afterthought, I copied it over and set it out in lines like a poem, one very different from any I’d written before:
A letter in Late October
My darling, The St. George, whom you gave me in token,
on the wall above my desk weighs with two hands a thin
gold sword, allegorical of December. The dragon of June
has already been probed by the barber pole spear of love,
and in the reddish distance under an orange sky, you,
dearest Nancy, kneel beneath the high walls of Simmons
Castle, whence St. George on his blue charger will
carry you to the fertile land of Iowa. The sword is light
in his delicate hands, and his face, as smooth as yours,
is calm, though the shaggy dragon squawks and the horse
rears and turns his head away. I take the postcard down.
The colors are as outlandish as they seemed, and I notice
that Crivelli has perpetrated on both the horse and dragon
rather oversized genitals. That must be part of the story.
A slaty turf and evergreens reinforce the impression
of winter. No more barren or fantastic nights, my wife-to-be.
Hesitantly, not sure it was even a poem, I handed it in to the workshop. The comments weren’t friendly.
“Why is this poetry rather than prose?” one student asked.
“If it’s an allegory,” someone else piped in, “then who’s this dragon supposed to be? I don’t get it.”
“I can’t see any point to these line-breaks,” another student complained.
Others attacked the personal nature of the writing and suggested that I ought to check out T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where the master explains that poetry must never flaunt the writer’s personal emotion.
The workshop teacher George Starbuck fielded some of the criticisms himself and let others slide, but I sensed that, in spite of its many flaws, he liked the piece, so after class, I went up to talk.
“Don’t let that guff get to you.” He waved a hand toward the emptying classroom. “Just keep writing like this. You’re on the right track now.”
Oddly, this success was almost as worrisome as my earlier failures. Having gained Starbuck’s approval once, would I ever be able to do it again? My doubts accumulated over several weeks until Nancy sent another postcard. This one reproduced a Vermeer interior, and, hoping this time to avoid any questions about whether my response was actually a poem, I composed it in quatrains, tossing in some off-beat line breaks and seeding it with plenty of rhymes.
Postcard from Nancy
As companion to the Crivelli, a Vermeer
with your sad hand full
of worries on the reverse. This
too from the Gardner:
a young Dutch lady performs at the virginal.
A gallant gentleman, his
back to us, lends one ear
to the music, while
his other attends a blue dressed matron’s
the checkerboard floor; and
in the left foreground
a bass viol has been laid down next
to a draped desk.
Is he a soldier?
Beside the quill
and parchment, could it be that those
are coins? Why
in such a domestic
scene does Caravaggio’s
prostitute laugh on the wall above the music?
This painting filled
with lightly arrested motions
may offer us repose,
in hope that, not in despite of the world,
our music, when I
escort your viola, will hold
My diamond for his guilders? No. No brokers, Nancy.
In this age of
war and purchased love
mine’s a free answer.
I can’t be sure that the workshop approved of this poem any more than the first, but thanks to Starbuck’s encouragement, I filtered out some of the guff, and heard a few brighter notes. One of my earlier critics granted that there were commendable formal elements here, although he was puzzled as to exactly what point the long first line in each stanza was trying to make. And in response to the inevitable T.S. Eliot reference, someone pointed out that Robert Lowell and his student Sylvia Plath had used their private experiences and personal emotions in several powerful recent collections. Later in the year, “Postcard from Nancy” would win the university’s Academy of American Poets Prize, and after that, a newly married man and prize-winning poet, I could move ahead with confidence.
There is one more poem in this sequence for Nancy. (By the way, this month we celebrate our 52nd anniversary.)
Quakers perform their own marriage, but
I couldn’t pass. Your doctor-father
expected at least an Ethical
Culture wedding like his. In the room
your mother’d frantically unchristened
and reupholstered the week before
Christmas, Rabbi Jacob K. Shankman
presides—in the name of Moses and
the God of Israel. Then the champagne--
the old dragon knows his champagne—those
effervescent relatives, and we
pose hand in hand and cutting the cake.
Twenty-nine stories over Central
Park, its skaters, zoo, and holiday
lights, we went to bed early. We’re blocked
by pain, fears, fail, wake unresolved
from long dark. Rain on Friday. Look,
down there’s the Met; the American
Museum; that’s the Delacorte, where
we saw Love’s Labour’s Lost and Troilus
last summer, courting, promising.
You’ve got an art journal to write; I
take in El Greco’s vision; love’s
uneasy. Night, Christmas Eve, and we
retired early again. Now marriage
makes us, who’d pictured only starry
nights, weep. We hold our bodies, our spirits
brace, but there’s a wall between us.
Then between us the tense, immaculate
fear gives way before your love. Your love,
my brightest crescent, Ares am I,
above the city, the world, the dozen
gates of heaven squeak open; angels
cry, carols rise from the ice rink
speakers. We exchange art books, beam, have
breakfast in bed. Christ, I love you, Nancy.
© 2017 John Morgan
Editor's Note: If this poem(s) moves you please consider writing to the author (email address above) to tell him or her. You might say what it is about the poem that moves you. Writing to the author is the beginning of community at Verse Virtual. It is very important. -FF