New Maine Times Book Review: 'Fail'

Posted Wednesday, February 13, 2013 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: 'Fail'

by Dana Wilde

 “Fail: poems,” by Dave Morrison; JukeBooks/lulu Press, 2012; 80 pages, trade paperback, $20.

Dave Morrison of Camden has been cranking out evocative and insightful poems for some years, since he shifted his primary focus from power pop to poetry. His latest collection, "Fail," provides a nice, if somewhat disquieting, window into the tenor and vehicles of his creative wits.

First, his wits. Morrison has a gift for seizing an emotional moment and dramatizing it. His best poems observe human rough edges and reveal them in little verse stories and vignettes. This was evident especially in the previous collection "Clubland," and "Fail" has some of the same ingenuity of perception. "Backstage," for example, depicts a guy watching another performer on the phone reassuring her child she'll be home soon. It's a poignant moment told from the point of view of the observer, whose emotional response to an emotional scene closes the poem: "what he wanted to do was /applaud."

This touches the heart, like we say, partly because the poet has grasped the situation, and partly because the situation is so straightforwardly and cleanly given: Morrison finds exactly the right details and spareness of words to convey the emotions of both the observer and the woman.

Similar in this collection are "Benefit Show Saturday Night," "She Was Right" and "Job," which unfolds the whole, poignant, cosmic irony of the everyday in 14 well-made lines (giving here the opening and closing of the poem):


She worked in a convenience

store on the moon.

She was the only one

who answered the ad. …

She was literally bored to

tears, but the paychecks

came like clockwork.


At the other end of an arbitrary rhetorical scale (made up by me) in this collection are a number of poems which explicitly treat the title theme, and this is the disquieting part. Some of the poems bleed away from narrative observation and take on a self-expressive, sometimes openly didactic voice that appears to belong to the poet himself rather than to the storytelling speaker of the dramatized poems. Where "Backstage" unlocks emotions, the title poem, "Fail," (for example) describes the rational steps taken to come to terms with some unspecified failure. Some nice metaphors characterize the failure (" I have chucked all the broken / furniture and ill-fitting clothes / overboard"), but the poem lives almost wholly on the rational surface of the poet's consciousness. It intently tells us what the speaker thinks about this feeling of failure without telling us what happened.

This reading experience is quite a bit different from the experience of the little emotional dramas. Its intent is to unfold the thought process about a feeling, rather than to evoke the feeling itself. Edgar Allan Poe made this distinction when he pointed out that poetry aiming to state a Truth is a quite a bit different thing than poetry aiming to evoke an experience of Beauty. And true to Poe's insight, in Morrison's poems the voice that observes emotional drama and the voice that expresses the thoughts of the speaker turn out to be two distinctly different kinds of poem.

I suspect, based on the number of poems here that are less emotional and more explanatory in their rhetorical approach (e.g., "Prediction," "Pursuit," "For the 9-Year-Old Victim" ("I / recognize the same fear and / violence that killed you / crouching in my confused / heart")), that the unspecified failure in "Fail" involves the art of writing. If so, this is disquieting because:  What is he thinking? Dave Morrison channels humanity better than just about any local poet I can think of.

Contrary to his apparent fears, his success is marked out in this book. A poem on the same topic as "Fail," but only one-sixth as long, says everything "Fail" says and far more because, like "Backstage" and "On the Job," it dramatizes the actual inner dimensions of the feeling. "Poetry Let Me Down," in full, says:


He asked me why

I drink.


It's a tarp, I say, tied

over a pile of feathers

in the wind.


Turns out no

cop wants to

hear that.


Gorgeous! This poem bears out Poe's insight that the experience of beauty -- i.e., the emotional tenor of a poem -- is far more powerful than any statement of moral truth.

Hopefully these feelings of failure arise out of a down phase, which all artists endure, and are not a sign of encroaching discouragement on Dave Morrison's part. He has seven other collections of poetry and a beautiful oeuvre of rock and roll music that are clear evidence of success. And this, on an encouraging note, includes a soon to be released collection of  "greatest hits," "Hot Tears of Shame," which he'll introduce at 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 8, at the Owl and Turtle Book Shop in Camden.

"Fail" and Morrison's other books are available through and his website, To get a taste of how the poetry develops out of the music, check out 


Dana Wilde’s collections of essays, "The Other End of the Driveway," is available in paperback and electronically from For a new poem from Maine each week, please visit A Parallel Uni-Verse,













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