“In Alt-Nature, Morgan deviates from mainstream representations of nature in a masterful re-tooling of vision and perception.”
Born in Appalachia and raised on military installations, Saretta Morgan is like a lightning rod or pin in a map, drawing the reader to her physical locale. In Alt-Nature, her latest book of poems, the figurative coordinates cross in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, where Morgan wrote these poems and worked as an organizer with the grassroots humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths.
For the spaces left on the page between lines spreading loosely, the poems present like little deserts themselves. All together, they create one sweeping expanse across arid pages, beige and smooth. It is clear that these poems have a purpose as a body of work and center around a certain theme, yet whenever a poem may be geared for an insider, there are still handholds for her visitors: a river, a thigh, a birthday.
Who is going to love this book? People who read the kind of poetry that comes from the literary frontier, but who also dislike the word “frontier” and also “literary.” Morgan's craft is refined, however—as is noted in the quality of form, style, and emotional effect. Willingly, we go with her, we believe her, we want the story she offers. Through the poems, the desert becomes a practice of sensuality, one that never seems to decouple from its shadow side, the physical pain of humanity, or its inventions such as violence and ownership.
The poet examines the conditions of place and interruptions of boundaries, taking a deeper look at what at first may seem merely inhospitable. She shows us that for love and survival, we must consider the complexities and be humbled by a desert that knows things we cannot. “Only deserts witness the slow and complete life of water.”
In several poems, Morgan calls upon scale for effect, for physical dimensions, proportions, measurement of range, intensity, magnitude, and hierarchy. No physical object or body is without scale, no place is without it. Scale is relative, as is one’s relationship to land and bodies. This is true for perspective and proportions or how a thing fits or doesn’t fit into its surrounding environment. Hierarchy is or is not an arbitrary arrangement, or is it? Intensity is inevitable in the natural world. All of this comes through in Morgan’s poetry, the scale—or magnitude—of the poet’s assessment of the object, system, or phenomenon.
Scale applies to land, bodies, homes, and even subconsciousness. Wherever we look, and whatever we touch, there is, as long as a subconsciousness is active, a there there. But who is there? How hot is it? How forsaken and dangerous? How shameful or lonely?
Then there’s the question of what defines a place, particularly for displaced people. In “The language on fax cover sheets waiting in the hall” Morgan addresses the deployment of her fellow service members to Africa. She writes, “Black people I knew and didn’t know were expressing romanticism / without a lick of irony in their tone.” When there is no language ready, the poet finds it in the most unlikely places, such as the fax machine in the hall.
Throughout Alt-Nature a certain unease pervades. The poet manages to create a space where intention seems futile, accountability belonging to everyone and, therefore, to no one. In “Consequences upon arrival i),”
“We slept through the engine-breaking. The conflicting nightmilk
intrusions. Woke morning after morning to swarms of fruit-sucking
bees. They too on their way downriver to welcome the morning in a
Tender ensembles to articulate the water’s edge.
We woke to the doorframe at the edge of dunes, which we’d always
believed was a metaphor. But there ajar along the sagged sand fencing.
We said this with care, though the sagging was one of hostility. We said,
Someone should fix that.”
It’s clear that a patient reader will have more to gain in the reading, though the poet does not demand it. What to make from lines such as these:
“The horse stamps out from waxy brush. Viral smell in the cuts up her
Tell me, baby duck, your wrecked unsleeping door. . . .
Love, if you are where I am.
Even your smallest of errors.
Your most wrecked door.
The rock faces are opened.
The genres are all up for aerial eradication.
To the forty-yr-old fish. To the abundant bufflehead and ring-necked
ducks drifting south across the sunset. I love you.”
There’s a great deal to appreciate, including a poem in conversation with Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem. Also, Morgan’s ekphrastic poems referencing images of African American cavalry in Arizona taken for the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photo Collection held by the Library of Congress (additional information was taken from the Humane Borders Migrant Death Mapping database).
The poet’s inspiration maps everything from locations, such as a network of camps established by Indigenous water protectors, to the work of filmmaker Elegance Bratton and the American Jazz poet Gil Scott Heron. Among the trail markers Morgan leaves for us are lyrics from a song by Joan Armatrading, “Wontcha Come On Home.”
In an alternative nature we find an unconventional approach to that which has (up until now) been considered natural. Through the poems, we become explorers within unconventional ecological practices, adherers to alternative philosophies about nature and the environment. In Alt-Nature, Morgan deviates from mainstream representations of nature in a masterful re-tooling of vision and perception.