Stranger in a Strange Land: I Imagine My Brother as an Island by Morris Bailey

A shimmer of vulnerability permeates the poems in Montreal poet Morris Bailey’s debut chapbook I Imagine My Brother as an Island. Bailey was born in the U.K. and is of Jamaican ancestry. This information offers a base of reference in the collection’s theme of identity. At times, Bailey approaches this theme with a sense of displacement that seemingly takes us out of this world, as he does in the opening poem, “Running Away from Ourselves”.

You, I and all the others direct our gaze up into an atmosphere 
which appears decorated with small dots, where in some other place
seven wanderers similar to our vagabond home whirl noiselessly in curved paths
around a faraway, lowly and low-luminosity incandescent
similar to the sun — one abandoned at a church door by its mama,
too poor to look after it.

"Running Away from Ourselves"

The title poem is one of the standouts in the collection. A prose piece in the form of a page-long single run-on sentence, it takes a more grounded approach while still offering some very striking imagery early on with “the glittering coral of his hair barely visible beneath the surface of the deep-blue ocean that breaks on the reef of his toes, batters calluses to slow erosion;” and later moves “from the outskirts of the modest, pebbled beach, to as far as the barren cliffs of his shoulders, a knot of craggy muscle incised by hard work and washed salt sea spray;” until finally concluding, “I am blanketed by moans, bound in the dark and stink of my own filth, I struggle to call to him, to beg him wait for me, brother, wait, but my bonds are too strong and my throat too dry.

Poems set in the land of his ancestry include “Bob Marley Beach” where little “ragamuffins” are “ready to swarm at the signal that this or that / tourist is a soft touch.” and “A Funeral in Jamaica,” where “I don’t really remember the mountains / from my first visit here, I think the smoke / hid them, or I was just stunned by the sea / at Ochi – an unlikely blue.” It seems that even in places where Bailey should feel most at home, he finds that he is a stranger in a strange land.

In the chapbook’s afterword, Patrick Burman of the 2 Susans Poetry Circle group – which Bailey joined in the spring of 2017 and acted as facilitator from December 2021 to September of 2023, but had to withdraw “due to the onset of serious illness,” — describes Bailey as “a serious poetic craftsman who wants to press the right words into the most artful places suggested by his intuition and poetic forms.” This is most evident in vibrant phrases such as “To feel the world tense in gut-punch words.” (“The Verdict: We Saw What We Saw”); “I might be your escort: imagine, / me looking all Fred-Astaire-ical / in tie and tails—” (“Sometimes I Wish I Were Black”); and “The alley with its licking penumbra, velvety, not unlike / hope, made me think of the unexploded mines we both / buried.” (“Astute, Like the Ocean”).

The poems bear repeated readings to best appreciate the humour and compassion he brings to his writing … spare but promising collection.

Although the bulk of these poems are written in free verse, Bailey is also adept at stricter poetic forms, such as the pantoum in “An Obol, Just in Case.” His scope includes social commentary with “The Verdict: We Saw What We Saw,” where the importance of being a witness can feel like a liability. He also delves into introspection in “My Interlocutor,” a witty yet sombre characterization of his inner voice. The poems bear repeated readings to best appreciate the humour and compassion he brings to his writing and I encourage readers to go deep into this spare but promising collection.

Morris Bailey’s startling first chapbook is unlike nothing you have read before. At once heartfelt and incisive, playful and tragic. Bailey plays with words and form to fascinating effect. A riveting collection from a unique voice.

Publisher: Turret House Press (fall 2023)

StevenMayoff(he/him) was born inMontreal and moved to Prince Edward Island, Canada in 2001. His books include the story collection Fatted Calf Blues (Turnstone Press, 2009), the novel Our Lady of Steerage (Bunim &Bannigan, 2015), the poetry chapbook Leonard’s Flat (Grey Borders Books, 2018) and the poetry collection Swinging Between Water and Stone (Guernica Editions, 2019) and the novelThe Island Gospel According to Samson Grief(Radiant Press, 2023). As a lyricist, he has collaborated with composer Ted Dykstra onDion a Rock Opera,which will receive its world premiere at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto in February 2024.