On the Poetry of Norman Morrissey and Silke Heiss

A Dialogue of Love Poems (2012)
Learn the Dance: Another Year of Love in Poems (2013)
Hogsback Hiku (2013)
Simply in Love: Love and Poetry Play On! (2014)
To the Far Horizon: Poems Further Unfolding a Love (2015)
Love Letters to the Earth (2016)
A Shell Held to the Ear (2017)

In South Africa is a group of poets called the Ecca Poets, a group that has been together for thirty years now. Norman Morrissey was a founding member of the Ecca Poets. He died in 2017, spending the last six years with his wife, Silke Heiss. She, too, is a poet, and the two of them created seven books of poems in which are collected their poems, mostly to and for each other. The exceptions are Hogsback Hiku, which has poems about the place where Morrissey and Heiss lived, and Love Letters to the Earth, which are nature poems.

Love is a unifying theme in all of these collections, though. The love poems between husband and wife are obvious enough, but Hogback Hiku are love poems to a particular place, and Love Letters to the Earth announces its theme in the title.

In the love poems between husband and wife, we see a very distinct difference between the two poets. Morrissey in these poems is a minimalist — he writes short, clear, rational verse as though he were a little unsure about expressing his feelings. Heiss, on the other hand, is a maximalist. Her poems burst with energy and imagery that fully expresses her feelings of love to her husband.

Being a maximalist writer myself, my own preference is for Heiss’s poems; but this doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the concision of Morrissey’s verse, especially as I continued reading and began to appreciate more and more his minimalist aesthetics. At the same time, because these poems are a sort of dialogue between a loving husband and wife, one hates to “pick a favorite” so to speak, because you feel like you are betraying the one for the other, and thus betraying both a little, since you know that part of what each loved in the other was the ability to render words into poetry.

To compare, let’s compare a pair of poems on the same theme: kissing.


‘Trout’ sounds
like the German ‘traut’,
which means ‘familiar’ and ‘trusted’.

So when you lurched
your tongue
into my mouth
like a fly on the line —

I leaped up, willingly lusted.


When we kissed in the gloaming
— each busy
about our own immediate recent track —

you said it was good to be attacked
by someone
you trusted

Ever since
I’ve a new spring tautening
in my back

In Silke Heiss’s “Trout,” we start off with a bit of a language lesson, a foundation for the punning behind the poem. A doubleness is thus established in the poem — between two languages, English and German (signifying the fact of Heiss having been born in Germany and thus no doubt being a native German speaker), as well as the doubleness inherent in the aural punning of the sound “trout,” whose double meaning builds the rest of the poem, and the double meaning inherent in all metaphor, including the metaphor of the kiss causing her to act like a fish on a line. One will also notice that she’s drawing attention to sounds in the poem, saying such in the first line, where she draws the aural parallel between “trout” and “traut”. Do notice, though, that she has a strong repetition of the “l” sound: lurched, line, leaped, and lusted, but also fly and willingly. When you pronounce these words, the tongue lurches out to touch your top lip — she thus has you enact the lines “So when you lurched / your tongue”. There is full body participation in reading/speaking this poem.

Morrissey’s poem, Spring, is much more spare and he uses much harder sounds. Words like “track,” “attacked,” “trusted” and “tautening” create tension. All of this builds, of course, to the final stanza, where this tension both reaches its explicit peak, and is simultaneously released in the overall meaning — that this new love is making him feel younger (one meaning of “new spring”) and making him proud, standing taller, walking more upright (which is what a tautening spring would do to a structure). Further, the title “Spring” lends itself to yet another definition” since if one is being “attacked,” the one attacking would spring on you.

Both poems make use of double meanings of sounds, though Heiss does so using two words from two language, while Morrissey triples down on the meanings of the word “spring.” Each, as we can see, is complex, but their complexities emerge in different ways, though in both it’s through sound.

Of course, any good poet is building his or her poem up from sound. I have found the best poems I have written where those where I intended first and foremost to play with sounds (especially when compared with poems that came about to express an idea). In these two poems, though, it seems most likely that the sounds emerged naturally from the emotions each was trying to express. One gets the feeling that Heiss is more expressive of her excitement over this new love relationship, while he is much more on guard, tense, and thus not quite as openly expressive of his own excitement, which is nonetheless there.

We see, as we progress through the years, through each collection of poems, the ups and downs found in any relationship, but the continued enthusiasm of Heiss in her poems to him, and his increasing willingness to express his feelings for her, are evident. Consider this poem from the last book the coauthored:

Make me know

You back from your ramblings of duty
make me know
my days

are quietly held in shape
by your being here
— how

the world and its meanings
are not just my

This is a much softer poem by Morrissey, one that expresses his tenderness and appreciation for Heiss. His days are now structured around her, and he feels her absence when she’s gone. The word “how” hanging there by itself, with that extra pause created with the dash that comes at the beginning of the line (rather than at the end, where most poets would place it) creates an implied question “how?” — as in, how can I do anything without you now? — only to have the “how” shift into “how//the world and its meanings/are not just my /responsibility,” meaning he feels a certain burden having been lifted off of him by having her in his life. He perhaps sees, in the poetry she writes (and in the woman he knows), a shared meaning and understanding of the world that will carry on even past his death, so long as she is alive, so long as she is writing poetry.

This collection of poetry is well worth your time. Both poets are masters at their craft, and both poets create strong imagery to help make their meaning. There is an attention to language and sounds that contributes to this natural meaning-making, and though both are academics, neither is writing “academic” poetry in the worse sense of the term. Rather, they allow the music of the poetry to speak the unspeakable, and the meaning to emerge in that liminal space poetry creates between what language says and what it cannot say and, thus, must be silent about. This is the role of all great poetry.

It is a shame Silke Heiss only had a half dozen years with Norman Morrissey before he passed away. It is equally a shame that we have thus been robbed of Morrissey’s continued emotional growth that had been a consequence of their relationship. Perhaps we can comfort ourselves in the fact that Heiss continues to write per splendid verse.

I am the author of “Diaphysics” and “Hear the Screams of the Butterfly,” and a consultant, poet, playwright, and interdisciplinary scholar.

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