by Michael Wasson
How might we find ourselves filling the vacancies in the small pieces of the world around us? How might this feel when we know that the psyche we carry along is central to our suffering? In his debut book of poetry, Storm Toward Morning, Malachi Black is not so much our complete answer to these questions but an attempt to beautifully transcribe the experience of questioning via meditative exploration.
Take for example “Psalm: Pater Noster”:
I am your plum:
in the shadow of your mouth
and I will echo as a taste
against your tongue:
To search out the world for metaphors and adding meaning to our experience is a central concern for these poems, and we find ourselves participating. The speaker informs us that it is our plum. Adding urgency and palpability, Black’s speaker seems to be desperate in fixing us together. We are devouring the plum. Hungered. It echoes across our tongues. We praise it.
Here, too, the speaker mines into us. At the same time, we want it. In time, through the pulse of the poem, Black’s speaker has become a part of us. Desire. The need to be wanted. That satisfaction, the very suffering of loneliness reaches out and slips in, transforming from the ache of the mind to the fleshy plum opening in your mouth. And the best part is that you, yes, want it.
Religion and ancient literature seem to ground the collection well. Not oversaturated, but briefly, effectively so. In the aforementioned poem, I notice at first it’s headed with “The Lord’s Prayer.” Throughout, but not limited to, Black helps us reenter Dante’s Canto XIII—the suicide woods—; we witness the canonical hours that he notes is a condensing of “the traditional quarantine period of forty days and forty nights into the passage of one day”; and we see gestures toward Caesar, Archimedes, Marcus Aurelius.
What I find with Black’s clear-eyed and intellectual use of these figures is a profound sense of inwardness by looking to others. Again, it’s that way of locating pieces of the world—be that literary events or a baby grand piano—that we can fill in with ourselves. With Dante’s Canto XIII, Malachi is attentive to the tree in agony: “The tree can speak, and it will shriek until a whole head hangs by a neck-like stem with a dumb body dangling beneath. And hell has won: once borne, the body drops. Another one’s begun.” How much like lives in cycle Malachi Black showcases with this grim scene.
How much like being born, like suffering and hanging on to life, and finally in an instant like dying and being reborn again we simply are in our experience.
Storm Toward Morning is one of those true to form, true to innovation and to ancient concerns of humanity—which seems to always be reoccurring in some way or another—and true to the music in our questioning. We feel guilty in defying powers around us. We feel relieved to break bonds. We are anguished. We are joyous in our celebrations. And we are carving the outlines of our consciousness in the world around us. Malachi Black takes us closer to ourselves and illuminates how “… to burn on.”
A genuine, masterfully skilled, and powerful debut in American poetry—haunting, reflective, and guiding us through by its light, through the dark ruptures of our living, Storm Toward Morning is a magnificent book.
Storm Toward Morning is available from Copper Canyon Press.
Michael Wasson, nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, earned his MFA from Oregon State University and his BA from Lewis-Clark State College. He received a Joyce Carol Oates Award in Poetry, and his work is included or forthcoming in Poetry Kanto, As/Us, Hayden’s Ferry Review, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Cutthroat, and elsewhere.