Storm Toward Morning, by Malachi Black
Review by Alana Folsom
There are some poetry books that ask to be read for their emotional impact—for the pure punch to the gut that their lines deliver—and then there are books that more subtly creep into your bloodstream. These books aren’t loud, but they remain beautiful and heavy in the part of your stomach that always feels a little hollow. Malachi Black’s debut book Storm Toward Morning is the latter: a subtle and delicate sneak. Most of this comes, for me, in my awe over Black’s use of form, syntax, and sound. As I read, I trust that the poet behind each word, who lay every comma like a brick, is doing so intentionally. The fact that Black has an explanatory companion to Storm Toward Morning online only affirms what his poems simmer with: control.
And I know that there’s a criticism of poetry often bandied about: that poets are writing for other poets. But Storm Toward Morning is the who gives a fuck? reply to that question. Black’s awareness of craft sparkles in its precision and, sometimes, humor (like “Ode to the Sun,” which opens with “You repeat yourself like no one/ I know…”).
I don’t want to lie, though: I struggle at times in this collection to grasp onto something beyond craft, and spent the week after I’d first read the book wondering if craft was enough. After re-reading this collection, though, I think that it is: that the skill embroidered into every poem is what makes each poem beautiful. Can I call a poem a Faberge egg and not be a douche?
In a text exchange with a friend, I called STM “intellectual” and when she asked if I meant “show offy,” I knew the word intellectual was wrong: these poems hum with confidence, seem to emit an I-know-what-I’m-doing bing at the end of each line. They’re not showing off, their just skillful. The moments that Black seems to be saying directly to other poets do you see what we can do? are the strongest. “Insomnia & So On,” for example, begins with the lines “Fat bed, lick the black cat in my mouth/ each morning. Unfasten all the bones//that make a head, and let me rest: unknown/ among the oboe-throated geese gone south” (7)—I could keep quoting, but the prosody’s muscularity is evident in these opening lines. The smoothness of the end-rhyme is the least impressive part of these couplets; more expert is the movement of meter, which begins with stress after stress to communicate the quite literal stress of the unsleeping speaker and then transitions into a lulling iambic pentameter. Within the meter, though, each word holds a sonic resonance that complements the beat, but also operates singularly: the long “o” sounds pull you forward through the entire poem and that construct a network of images (animals, weather, domestic life).
Storm Toward Morning tackles insomnia, depression, subjectivity, and faith. Underneath all this headiness and potential grand philosophy, though, is a simple and pressing question that the book circles: what is living? Interestingly, STM erases all notions of an individual speaker through repetition and divergent self- and poetic-definition, so the question is never rooted in the personal, a move that seems invigorating and new because of its anti-confessional bent. In “Traveling by Train,” for example, the poem ends with “…you’re lost/ between the meter and the desperate rhyme/ of clacking tracks. Home is nothing here./ You’re gone and in the going; can’t come back” (6). This “you” here seems to be the reader, lost to what the speaker knows (and there’s humor here, too: a glimpse into self-deprecation and diminishment) is a “desperate” rhyme, yet the reader remains “in the going”. The syntax in the poem’s final line seems to capitulate rather than declare: “can’t come back” is its own clause and doesn’t speak directly to “you’re gone”—in other words, the syntax is playing with our expectations, is calling for our attention over the loud train sounds. The poem is aware of itself and yet it able to remain within the poem, like an actor believably addressing and then ignoring the fourth wall.
Interesting, too, the book is filled with poems that actively define both “I”s and “you”s—“I am the black strokes on the baby grant” (5), “I am an element” (25), “I am the harvest” (47) as well as “…you were the bottom of a birthday hat” (8), “you are the gulf/ between the hoped-for/ and the happening” (36), just to cite a few. These definitions, which often come in odes or in addresses to God, serve the effect of multiplying the speaker and the reader, who is sometimes the “you” as in “Travelling by Train,” but is often not. This isn’t a book about ego, about the self as individual, and perhaps that is why it doesn’t ever read as “show-offy”—because there’s no one thing/ person that these poems point to. Instead, these poems point to poetry itself: they are sonnets, they are odes, they are, most of all, asking to be read and read again so you can sink into the layers of craft that blanket each line.
Storm Toward Morning is available now through Copper Canyon Press.
Alana Folsom recently graduated with an MFA in poetry from Oregon State University, where she was Editor-in-Chief of their literary magazine, 45th Parallel. Her poetry has been published in The Journal, Hobart, and Apogee, and is forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review; her critical writing has been published in The Iowa Review and the Rumpus. Follow her at @axfolsom.