Skip to main content

i’m still growing
by Josiah Morgan

A 'full-throttle' collection of 'quiet meditations and violent outcries of desire'.

By March 27, 2024April 9th, 2024No Comments

This is the fifth book of poetry by Josiah Morgan (Kai Tahu, Ngāti Maniapoto) and the first to be published in Aotearoa, the previous four having been published in the United States. The voracious appetite for reading and writing that’s almost necessary for someone to have published five books at the age of 22 is evident in this collection. Its poems oscillate between quiet meditations and violent outcries of desire; they draw on a rich and often perplexingly varied tapestry of many others’ poetry, songs, plays, Tumblr posts, and text messages.

Morgan’s something of an archivist, and one who’s not shy of treating his own work as archival material. The long, central work of this collection, ‘inside the castle’, runs alongside a kind of ticker-tape bibliography long and far-ranging enough to be called a library. It includes the Marquis de Sade’s 1904 novel The 120 Days of Sodom as well as Pasolini’s film adaptation of the same; it includes Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN tour; it includes the Quran. One entry simply reads ‘Texts from Men’.

Other entries of this bibliography reference Morgan’s own previously published – and unpublished – poems. I was tempted to say that this is an unusual move for a poet quite early in his career, but the truth is, to reference one’s own unpublished work is an unusual move for a poet at pretty much any stage of their career. It’s a choice that makes clear exactly how seriously Morgan takes his own artistic growth, but also that he sees himself as a part of a larger canon, a canon unlike the ones most university English courses focus on, multimodal and highly internet-based and as fragmented and unpindownable as much of his own work.

You get the sense that this poet’s less concerned with creating a static, long-lasting product than with the perpetual act of pulling language together and seeing what it can do. In ‘inside the castle’, each rhythmic cadence is subsumed by the next, each image soon swept away to make room for another. Columns of brief, left-aligned lines give way to pages of spreadeagled text which are followed by dense, long-lined strophes. Sex and violence overlap. Voices and text messages of lovers mingle with each other.

Morgan doesn’t want to stay in one place for long. Shapeshifting and voyaging intertextually, the poet’s voice is eager to try on as many selves as possible. In the time it takes to turn a page, we’re transported from the zone of frantic desire –

you lick lick all over the place I wish
your tongue was an element frying me
everywhere I go but I’m just sitting here
watching you fry up a baby

– to something more distant, more academic:

What, if I held it, would hold me
among this shiver of binary?
And even if, incidentally, I was seen,
I would vanish in the glare of
that computer existence.

And, critically, Morgan’s attuned to the sound of things. He knows how to get a good rhythm going on the cold page:

Loose lips sink ships. Unlisp your limbs, lover. Loose
lips sink ships. Shudder my shadow. My shadow’s an
udder to un-stutter your lips, lisper. You limped to
shutter my shocks, sinker. You sunk to shadow my
trips, tip spiller.

In an interview published in The Post earlier this year, Morgan says i’m still growing arose from an attempt to ‘develop [his] international work for a national audience’. ‘Inside the castle’ was actually published in the States as a stand-alone book before finding a second home in this collection. Here, it’s flanked by three sections – one before, two after – which house shorter, discrete poems.

Morgan’s shifts in voice and attempts at different forms throughout the collection give the first and last sections a flightiness that doesn’t quite satisfy. The second poem of i’m still growing is its title poem, and it’s rich with what will, I think, be seen as the hallmarks of Morgan’s voice as he continues to establish himself. There’s a generous amount of twisty language play, and on a larger scale, there’s the idea that language is how we clamber through life: it delineates our relationships to the world and to others, and allows us new ways of existing.

my mother she had no idea
i still needed to find something

it was missing it was comma
my daddy said i needed it to talk
i didn’t know where to find it

This poem acquaints us with a quick-moving, innovative voice. After it, though, we veer away to briefer poems which feel a bit like exercises, their tones less urgent, their language more practised. ‘archery’, the villanelle that follows the title poem, is technically successful, and the next poem, ‘by degrees’, is a lofty analysis of the poet’s character through geometry, but both of them, restrained and tidy, lack the urgency that’s so exciting about ‘i’m still growing’ and other, longer pieces here. When Morgan allows his voice more than one page, more than a quick moment, as he does in ‘god touched my foot’ or ‘change apparatus’, it really sings.

and calling all back
from across countless waters
back to the dark, cold
there is something wrong
from nature yes there is something
wrong in the body

Publishing when you are young means allowing your growth as writer, your early experiments and missteps, to be made public. Morgan is aware of this and embraces it. (Within the bibliography of ‘inside the castle’, he even addresses his discomfort with elements of a previously published poem by quoting it with certain words and lines blacked out.) But that’s true of all publishing, no matter how fully formed a writer might appear to be. Every writer is still growing. Every new book is just the next stage.

Growing, for Morgan, means seeing the walls of the world, running into them. There’s quiet, bubbling frustration—tempered with gentleness—in the poet’s voice as he notes the limits of freedom in a poem titled ‘it’s 2024 and i’m busting my balls trying not to cry’:

i wonder
what it is like to be one of those bees                         always trapped
in our house
struggling against the windowpane                to get somewhere
else and freer
it must be very confusing                       not to know
that the new world is                               closed

But despite the poet arguing with the limits of his world, he’s rarely trapped by language. This is a poet who could, it seems, take off in any direction or a few at once. His poetry is stuff to wade through, not skip across lightly, but its energy—the always deliberate choice of word, tone, image—is rewarding, thrilling, generous in its own full-throttle way.

i’m still growing

by Josiah Morgan

Dead Bird Books

ISBN: 9781738618224

Published: March 2024

Format: Paperback, 122 pages

Sophie van Waardenberg

Sophie van Waardenberg is a poet from Tāmaki Makaurau. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University in upstate New York, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of Salt Hill Journal. Her debut chapbook, does a potato have a heart?, was published in AUP New Poets 5. She lives in New York City.