Nationality: Jamaican. Born: Kingston in 1937. Education: Munro College, Kingston; University of the West Indies, Kingston (Government Exhibitioner); St. Edmund Hall, Oxford (Rhodes scholar). Family: Married; two sons and one daughter. Career: Formerly Senior English Master, Munro College; assistant registrar, Warden of Taylor Hall, from 1966, senior lecturer in English, from 1970, and later reader in West Indian literature, University of the West Indies; visiting lecturer, University of Kent, Canterbury, 1972–73. Award: Institute of Jamaica Musgrave Medal, 1976. Address: Department of English, University of the West Indies, Mona, Kingston 7, Jamaica.
The Pond. London, New Beacon, 1973; revised edition, New Beacon, 1997.
Shadowboxing. London, New Beacon, 1979.
Examination Centre: Poems. London, Beacon Books, 1992.
Is English We Speaking: West Indian Literature. British Library, 1993; as Is English We Speaking and Other Essays, Kingston, Ian Randle, 1999.
A Study Guide to Old Story Time. San Juan, Trinidad, Longman, 1995.
Editor, Seven Jamaican Poets: An Anthology of Recent Poetry. Kingston, Bolivar Press, 1971.
Editor, My Green Hills of Jamaica, and Five Jamaican Short Stories, by Claude McKay. Kingston, Heinemann, 1979.
Editor, with Pamela Mordecai, Jamaica Woman: An Anthology of Poems. Kingston, Heinemann, 1980.
Editor, Selected Poems, by Louise Bennett. Kingston, Sangster, 1982.
Editor, Focus 1983: An Anthology of Contemporary Jamaican Writing. Kingston, Caribbean Authors, 1983.
Editor, Riddym Ravings and Other Poems by Jean Binta Breeze. London, Race Today, 1988.
Editor, It a Come, by Michael Smith. San Francisco, City Lights, 1989.
Editor, with Stewart Brown and Gordon Rohlehr, Voice Print: An Anthology of Oral and Related Poetry from the Caribbean. London and Chicago, Longman, 1990.
Editor, The Faber Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories. London, Faber, 1990.
Editor, with Edward Baugh, Progressions: West Indian Literature in the 1970s. Kingston, University of West Indies, Mona, 1990.
Editor, Aunt Roachy Seh, by Louise Bennett. Kingston, Sangster, 1993.
Editor, with E. Kamau Brathwaite and Lorna Goodison, Three Caribbean Poets on Their Work. Mona, Jamaica, Institute of Caribbean Studies, 1993.*
Critical Studies: Modern Romance: A Study of Techniques and Themes (dissertation) by Stacey Schlau, n.p., 1976; "'Balanced/in Pain': A Study of the Male/Female Relationship in the Poetry of Mervyn Morris" by Roydon Salick, and "Religion and Poetry: A Study of Mervyn Morris's 'On Holy Week'" by Gloria Lyn, both in Journal of West Indian Literature (Kingston, Jamaica), 1(1), October 1986; interview with Pam Mordecai, in Matatu (Main, Germany), 12, 1994.* * *
Mervyn Morris's first poems, appearing from the early 1960s in the Sunday Gleaner, Bim, the Jamaica Journal, and The Pond and, along with his "schooldays" poems, all collected in his first published volume, quickly established him as perhaps Jamaica's leading poet of domesticity. But even here there were already gnomic tendencies lurking in the darker corners of the verse. In "Family Pictures," for instance, the apparent man-hero is also a "victim" and "master of one cage," and in "The Reassurance" we note the manking's crown becoming a blind visor, so that he has to tap out "a peephole in his crown" that becomes, by the poem's end, "the … peephole in the mind." "Journey into the Interior" has a similar, almost too obvious, quality:
Stumbling down his own oesophagus
he thought he'd check his vitals out.
He found the entrails most illegible,
it wasn't clear what innards were about.
He opted to return to air and light
and certainty; but when he tried
he found the passage blocked; so now
he spends the long day groping there, inside
But it is in Shadowboxing, with, as Morris himself points out, the poems minimizing themselves into what he hopes will be their very essence, that he most nicely essays his sense of critical contradiction. He produces what a critic once called "boxes within boxes," some, like the following ("Dream"), perhaps a little too minimal:
I grabbed a pail
to dip some water up
in the murk
and then I woke up
Morris is a bit too concerned with pointing out the moral instead of allowing these poems to be their own moral. Even at their best these "onion skin poems," as someone else has described them, often put an almost inordinate strain on manner, on implied tone, and—signally—on the last line, with sometimes a resulting sag within the middle of the strophe.
In the end it is to Morris's early poems that we return. For it is here, in his crafty "race" and Georgian schooldays poems, that we most comfortably find his characteristic generosity and sense of equanimity and that his contradictory gnomic lurking works best:
The future darkening, you thought it time
to say good-bye. It may be you were right.
It hurt to see you go; but, more,
it hurt to see you slowly going white.
Following is another example:
In 19-something X was born
in Jubilee Hospital, howling, black.
In 19-(any date plus four)
X went out to school.
They showed him pretty pictures
of his Queen.
When he was 7, in elementary school,
he asked what naygas were.
In secondary school he knew.
He asked in History one day
where slaves came from.
"Oh, Africa," the master said,
"Get on with your work."
Up at the university he didn't find himself;
and, months before he finally dropped out,
would ramble round the campus late at night
and dab his blackness on the walls.
Perhaps the best example, even if it is atypical, of Morris making a spectacular break from Georgian into nation language occurs in his poem on that mystic, troubled icon of Jamaican independence, the great ska/jazz trombonist Don Drummond. His labyrinthine solos—musical boxes within boxes within boxes—led, it is said, to his death (possibly by suicide) in a Kingston lunatic asylum:
Me one, way out in the crowd,
I blow the sounds, the pain,
but not a soul
would come inside my world
or tell me how it true.
I love a melancholy baby,
sweet, with fire in her belly;
and like a spite
the woman turn a whore.
Cool and smooth around the beat
she wake the note inside me
and I blow me mind.
Inside here, me one
in the crowd again,
and plenty people
want me blow it straight.
But straight is not the way; my world
don' go so; that is lie.
Oonu gimme me back me trombone, man:
is time to blow me mind.
—Edward Kamau Brathwaite