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A Lifeline of Words

Poet, author, teacher, film critic and arts activist Morton Marcus (10 September 1936-28 October 2009)

The following piece was first published in Bookshop Santa Cruz circa 2002 in California.


Surreal or sublime, the poetry of Morton Marcus can be many things to many people. Like all art, it conjures magic on an emotional, intellectual and technical level. But it’s the gut level that counts. On that essential criteria, this Santa Cruz poet’s work evokes laughter, tears and, always, thought.

Marcus’ new and eighth book of poetry, Moments Without Names: New and Selected Poems, is his first since he garnered the 1999 Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year award. This collection of 110 prose poems, 65 of which are new, shows off his gifts in narratives about the presence of family, the immortality of storytelling, and the rendering of the ordinary as extraordinary.

Moments Without Names is a tightly structured book of five parts mirroring the progression of a human life. Marcus’ poems are sometimes ironic, sometimes hopeful, sometimes macabre, but always pulling the reader on a lifeline of words into the light for a new look at the world.

“I love to look at the small things in life but never leave them small. I that that’s (the book’s) strength,” Marcus said recently. “I don’t think American poetry is doing enough of this. I don’t think it’s using imagination enough. I refuse to be strait-jacketed by a supposed reality. All forms of art are about the use of imagination and so that’s where I go in my work.”

“A poet’s role is in the community,” Marcus explains. “Poetry should change your life. It should change your spirit. I really liken the poet to the shamans and holy men and prophets in other cultures that have taken that seriously.”

Marcus as poet/shaman writes in many voices that speak through him.

“In ‘The Distant People,’ (“The dead are not so far away. They stand in the shade under the trees across the field and watch us laugh and chase each other in the sunlight. . . . “), the people underneath that tree are not my family. They are Australian aborigines,” said Marcus, who has read his work across Australia. “They feel they are caretakers, not owners of the land. They’re taking care of it for the ancestors and for the future. They have to pass that on to their children.

“They have to preserve order and stability. That’s what I’m doing as a poet.”

Many of the poems in Moments Without Names, such as “Who Says We’re Not Lucky,” “Memory” and “Fire” (“. . .Who are the gods that rule us? I say they go by the names of Chance and Whim. The first we can do nothing about, but the second lives inside of us, clenching and unclenching like a restless fist…”), read as though the September 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia inspired them. But they were written long before those incidents, proving that good poetry is often timeless and always relevant. And their stories live on.

“. . .In the town there was a storyteller, an old man who told outrageous stories about brooms that were girls in swinging skirts and giants who were snoring volcanoes. . .I know that in time the stories could become more real than the town and its inhabitants, especially if the townspeople, like my student, travelled to different places in the world and told them to the people they met. . .”

Marcus tells his stories in varied forms, including fiction and theatre, but most of his poetry is in verse. Shouting Down the Silence, his first volume of lined poems since 1988, will be published this year by Creative Arts. Next year, the same house will publish Bear Prints: New & Collected Verse Poems, which will include all seven of his verse books.

All his creative work meant Marcus, who taught film and literature at Cabrillo College for 30 years until his retirement in 1998, had to train himself to live on four hours of sleep a night. “Either I was going to write or I wasn’t going to write. You have to find the time to do that. If you can’t find the time, you just don’t sleep.”

Marcus also co-hosts a weekly poetry show on KUSP radio and a biweekly film review television program on local cable called Cinema Scene. On top of all this, twice each month on Saturdays, he facilitates discussions about the latest films at the Nicklelodeon in Santa Cruz.

Away from this whorl of activity, Marcus loves to know that his poetry has found an audience. Some readers, he said, have telephoned him at 2 or 3 in the morning and thanked him for writing poetry that saved them on the worst night of their lives.

“How do you face your life?” he asked, referring to his prose poem, ‘Flypaper.’ With scorn or praise?”

That’s the choice, he insists.

“My option, of course, is celebration.”


Who Says We’re Not Lucky?

By Morton Marcus

An Egyptian airliner plunges into the sea, killing all three hundred aboard. Ten thousand people in various Turkish towns, their apartment buildings toppling in a thunderous quake, are squashed to death as they sleep. Rivers named Mississippi and Yangtze and Danube flood farms and villages, drowning countless animals and people. In China, an entire city of more than one hundred thousand people collapses into rubble. In Cambodia, three million men, women and children are hacked and shot to death by a political regime, their only memorial acres of white bones littering open fields or poking up from bogs and shallow riverbeds. And in World War II, six of the eleven million gassed by the Nazis accounted for three out of four of the world’s Jews. I, and maybe you, are the fourth, the one who remained alive. Or you’re the Turk, the Cambodian the Chinese. Who says we’re not lucky? So far we’ve been lucky enough to survive.


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