(REVIEW) Earth Sign by Naomi Morris
In this review, Allie Kerper explores constellations of anxiety, pleasure and pain, life and non-life, in Naomi Morris’ new collection, Earth Sign (Partus Press, 2019).
> People don’t talk enough about the globs of uterine tissue that fall out of you when you’re on your period, slugs you can feel as they ooze from the body into the outside world: toilet, towel, shower floor. Naomi Morris evokes these gory signs of life and not-life within the first two lines of her debut pamphlet Earth Sign, setting the scene in her poem ‘Jam <3’ with ‘I’m staring at a jam spot: / blood clot, strawberry guts.’ The poems in this pamphlet, too, seem to have leaked from the body and plopped onto the floor, measuring the distance between inner worlds and outer, exposing the beauty in life’s formless messes.
> Earth Sign gives these messes shape, though not without reluctance. Of the jam spot, Morris writes, ‘I wish I could leave her / in that sweet pulp.’ She could be referring to a poem, in that nebulous state before the poet makes it a poem – staring at an image/feeling/idea and knowing it’s only perfect before it’s wrestled into language, left scarred where its possibilities have been amputated. But Morris’s writing doesn’t bear those scars, as it exposes those of mind, body and earth. These poems are controlled in their wildness, gentle in their precision, unflinching in their pain.
> However, telling a poet not to be anxious about their writing is fruitless and, in this case, entirely beside the point. Never mind that no good poet feels sure of their work (‘A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.’ –Yeats, ‘Adam’s Curse’). The anxiety in ‘Jam <3’ prefaces the anxiety that pervades the pamphlet, with the speaker’s wish to ‘remain / untouched’ foreshadowing discussions of the things she feels marked by: toxic relationships, medical conditions and procedures, disobedience to expectations, all of which Morris portrays as symptoms of the larger problems of desire, embodiment and living in the world. ‘Untouched’, the final word in ‘Jam <3’, is a door behind which the rest of the poems stand like rooms, displaying the different ways a body can both hold trauma and joy.
> Trauma and joy, but primarily trauma. ‘My body remembers what happened / previously from the moments that / sift through me like a flu-shiver’, declared ‘April 15th’, a poem about how certain memories write themselves into our physicalities, surfacing each year with and like seasons. ‘All Types of Water Are Beautiful’ ties mental and physical pain (‘place a mirror facing the window to see the sky from your / bed’, ‘run / a bath with only hot water to feel like mutton boiling, / fighting burning womb with burning’) with the pressure to perform a certain kind of femininity (‘fear the kettle, shun the oven’). The oven works simultaneously a symbol of homemaking, a metaphor for pregnancy, and a clever conjuring of the ghost of Plath, the omnipotent symbol of female literary madness. The speaker might ‘shun the oven’ for fear of how she might use it, or the forces she feels to be driving her there. The oven could also stand for Plath herself, reminding readers that it’s boring to compare every mentally ill female poet to Plath, and also that it’s horrible to use someone’s suicide device as shorthand for her name and legacy. The anxieties around traditional femininity resurface a few pages later in ‘Homemaking’, where the title leads into the lines ‘curls me at the edges like burning / paper.’
> Elsewhere, the lines between pain and happiness blur, as so often happens in bodies. In ‘Moon Water’, ‘it is fuckingfreezing’ and the speaker is ‘thinking about / diseases, waterborne’ while summoning blessings from goddesses and using crystals to manifest intentions. In ‘Pisces Season’, the speaker describes a kind of tranquil alienation as she loses herself in someone who is fundamentally, elementally different from her. These two poems are some of the most spiritual, grounding belief in embodied practice and eliding astrological symbols with physical bodies. In astrology, those who are born under earth signs are meant to be steady, solid, and planted firmly in the realm of the physical. Earth Sign both demonstrates and questions these properties.
> In ‘Aries Season’, the speaker announces with firm confidence, ‘It’s March not summer. / I can scare away the devil / with my vulva.’ Her longing is the longing of the earth: ‘Look how beautiful and bountiful / and round and full / of expectation // this fecund season is.’ The speaker knows what she wants; her feelings are rooted and not going anywhere. ‘Braidburn’ echoes this rootedness: ‘I could fall asleep easily on the skin / on this tree. Even the wind / cannot rouse me.’ There’s a sense in these images of communion with earth, of certainty, of unshakeability. Throughout the pamphlet, feelings speak through material objects: a phone, rose quartz, an empty fruit bowl, a lollipop. Physical experience ground the mental and emotional.
> But of course, this is a book about anxiety, often marked by a lack or loss of definition. In ‘April 15th’, remembering something traumatic, the speaker becomes ‘headily / involved in a state of pseudo-pregnancy.’ Reality distorts, and the speaker is no longer fully within her body, but detached somewhat, only ‘headily / involved’, while her body detaches from the present moment. ‘All Types of Water Are Beautiful’, rife with fears about what it means to be a woman and to have a body, is written as a block of text where sentences are separated with interpuncts, rather than full stops, and nothing is capitalised. Breakdown of form reflects breakdown of mind, body, and ability to live as the speaker feels she ought to. In ‘The Resort’, a poem about the anxiety of an unfamiliar place, the speaker recalls that she ‘was fed up with the word thebefore everything’, mistrusting the definite article, and by extension definition itself, at a time when things seem deeply uncertain. These poems demonstrate a fight to stay grounded, the speaker’s fight to remain within herself.
> Earth Sign maps anxieties in constellations and vice versa. It casts spells to set intentions for the future. It conjures confidence, embraces vulnerability, interprets dreams and memories and shrinks the distance between them. It displays the ‘sweet pulp’ of life, scoops it up, turns it into something pulsing, complicated, and beautiful.
Earth Sign is out now and available via Partus Press.
Text and image: Allie Kerper