“Shake Hands With Your Heart”

By Dave Morrison

Juke Books, 2015

60 pages, trade paperback, $14.95

In the beginning was the sound for Dave Morrison.

It started in Massachusetts in the 1980s, when his rock and roll bands were beating up the Northeast bar-lounge-concert circuit (so energetically, it might be added, that in the next millennium a Japanese boy band would study old tracks and declare Morrison’s Juke Savages their biggest influence). The music was raucous but finely crafted, and the lyrics mattered.

If music is not exactly just a young man’s sport, its professional routines and requirements at least have the capacity to make Army Ranger-like demands on body and soul. So when the strain and drain start to tell, then for many there’s a moving-on point. In Morrison’s case it happened late in the 1990s.

“Being a musician had given me value as a human,” he confided to me recently when I asked him what launched his poetry, “so if I wasn’t that, then … what was I? At some point I realized that what I had to show for it was my stories, so I started to write.”

The word “lyric” is bi-creative: It refers in the popular sense to the words of songs, and it’s also a technical term for a genre of written literature – lyric poetry. This is the etymological evidence that music and poetry are identical twins. Just before the turn of the millennium Morrison took some classes at the New School in New York City (“40-year-old freshman,” he observed), and pretty soon the song lyrics were transforming into page-turning verses.

In 2004 he moved to Camden, and 11 years and 10 collections of poetry later, the song isn’t over. His poetry vibrates with the same kind of energy that we used to blast from on stage, channeled now through the words themselves.

Morrison has a lot to say about writing: “Please get to the point,” pleads the speaker of “Celebrity Poem,” who has just read a poem of high-profile literary accolade, “What are / you feeling, observing? What / frightens you, disgusts you, / bores you, something, anything / other than this vomited thesaurus.” In another mode, he offers a good bit of humble observational philosophy – “shake hands with your heart,” as the new book’s title poem advises.

But it’s his narratives and character sketches that really project the energy of life, words and world. “My Heart, My Heart,” for an example, is the monologue of a man – middle-aged? – detecting “this flutter in my / chest, right where my / you-know-what lies.” Fearing a cardiac event, he pleads with the you-know-what not to betray him now, not to abandon the body’s rhythms because of stubbornness, misunderstanding or plain trickster prank.

… Oh,

my heart, my heart, forgive me

… Please be my

metronome again, my clock,

my Motown drummer. Let’s you

and I walk steadily into the

afternoon light.

In this little story of an arrhythming heart are all the forces that were absent from the celebrity poem: fear, remorse, energy for life, plain-spokenness, and in this case a well-wrought conceit tying together the body and the music of life. The speaker is a one-man band.

And that figure carries over to the writer himself, who after riding rock and roll into poetry has recently gone out of his way to reconnect the words to the music in his Poetry Rocks project. In my world, the sound of a poem forms two-thirds of its meaning anyway, so if well-spoken poetry is better than silent reading, then a poem spoken over guitar chords is the ancient essence of the art. Hopefully tracks of this beautiful sensibility will become available soon.

Meanwhile, “Shake Hands with Your Heart” and Morrison’s other collections are available through online booksellers, some bookstores and writerrocker.wix.com/davemorrisonpoetry.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].


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