ALASTAIR MORRISON is a literary scholar and also a medical student. He holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and taught at universities in Canada, the US, and Denmark before enrolling in the MD program of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His critical writing has dealt with modern and contemporary poetry, the humanities in medical education, and relationships between literature, illness, and medical work. His own poetry has recently appeared in the Literary Review of Canada. He lives in Hamilton with his spouse and two children. You can read his poem Beavers in the April 2023 issue.
Would you like to tell us a little bit more about your poem? For instance, how or why you wrote it, or perhaps provide some extra context?
Where I live and in many other places, the cost of housing has increased parabolically in the past few years. For some people this means homelessness. It also has dire implications for the nonhuman world which enters our homes and neighbourhoods, or vice versa. For people in my situation, it means that the once-default condition of home ownership is unattainable, or at least a great cause of stress. This poem comes from a number of conversations I’ve had and overheard about these changes during the past few years, and a growing interest in the figures of speech we use, sometimes to relate but more often to separate them. So on the one hand, I wanted to convey how this language feels false, how ugly domestic cliches don’t quite hide the backdrop of our choices, how untenable it is to believe that our little projects don’t shift larger currents of common life. On the other hand, thinking totally otherwise might be untenable too. To always weigh the public cost of one’s private satisfactions might be genuinely unbearable. I’ve never bought a house, but I’ve felt the dissonance between those two perceptions. I wanted to hear them both at once.
Why was the poetic form the best fit for this particular piece of work?
I think what I had first was an impressionistic idea of rhythm – likely after the first line or two. It needed to be something conversational, but also rather slow, a bit morose, in a tone of voice very ready to take things for granted. I’m a compulsive syllable-counter but consistent meter was obviously wrong here. In fixed meters, irregularity is the easiest way to focus attention: the smooth engine breaks down, there is an eruption, or an interruption. This is great for miracles and catastrophes. It’s great in Paradise Lost. But I was writing a poem about partial acknowledgments of things only already partly known, so rhythmically I had aims almost opposite to these. There would be a grey, meandering, nonchalant sort of backdrop, and then these moments of automaticity, or of clicking into gear. I hoped for something similar with rhyme. Regular rhyme is propulsive, but when the reader doesn’t expect rhyme it can be almost a stab to come across, an intrusive kind of recognition. That kind of sudden, borderline unwelcome familiarity felt very appropriate to the experiences dealt with here.