Monday, May 19, 2014

SURRENDER by Ellen Birkett Morris


by Ellen Birkett Morris 

Finishing Line Press, 2012

ISBN: 9781622290772

28 pages


I've never met Ellen Birkett Morris, but I'd heard her name as a fellow Kentucky writer. When she emailed to ask if she could send me a copy of her poetry chapbook for review, I accepted her invitation.

Karen L. George


Review of Ellen Birkett Morris' Surrender

Ellen Birkett Morris writes poetry, fiction and short plays from her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Her fiction has appeared in Antioch Review, Sawmill Magazine, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, and Santa Fe Literary Review. Her story, “The Cycle of Life and Other Incidentals,” was selected as a finalist in the Glimmer Train Press Family Matters short story competition. Her ten-minute play, “Lost Girls,” was a finalist for the 2008 Heideman Award given by Actors Theatre of Louisville and was given a staged reading at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati. Morris is the author of Surrender, a poetry chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Her poetry has appeared in journals including Thin Air Magazine, Clackamas Literary Review, Alimentum, Juked, Inscape, and Gastronomica. Her work won top poetry prize in The Binnacle Ultra-Short Edition in 2008 and was Semi-finalist for Rita Dove Poetry Award. Her poem, "Origins," was nominated for the 2006 Pushcart Prize. Morris has received grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women and Kentucky Arts Council. She is a recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship for her fiction given by the Kentucky Arts Council. Morris works as a public relations consultant and writes regularly for

 The poems in Ellen Birkett Morris' debut poetry chapbook, Surrender, resonate with the emotional intensity of longing, compassion, tenderness, and reverence around the many types of surrender we experience inevitably as humans. The poems move from childhood through adulthood, using various forms (tercets, quatrains, prose poems), held together by common tones and themes such as love, loss, and reverence for our roots. 

The opening poem, "Everything Must Go," refers to the sign at a garage sale. The narrator describes one item for sale:  "The electric blue bathing suit / hangs from a post." The poem has a wistful, nostalgic mood set by the image "The chest juts out, a trick of wind / or padding," and how the narrator imagines the teen who once wore the swimsuit: " / face, honeyed braids, long legs, her bare / feet with toenails painted pink." The poet also invites us deeper with the phrase "inviting me / to look at what others had cast aside." "Cast aside" refers literally to getting rid of this old item of clothing, but also hauntingly suggests people, places, and things outgrown, rejected, or surrendered to through the years. The title, "Everything Must Go," foreshadows the stories of loss and letting go in the poems that follow, by implying that eventually everything in life must go. The poem's sense of longing is intensified by the repeated long "a,"  "e," and "o" sounds that make the reader wonder what memories this garage sale has churned up in the narrator.

Morris writes about some of the surrenders many experience as teens:  in "Sixteen" surrendering to an awakening of sexual desire, and in "Down by the Lake" where kids surrender to getting high.

In "Surrender," the title poem of the book, the narrator surrenders her daughter to the school bus, feeling "invisible," her "white T-shirt a flag of surrender. / Surrendered to love, / I leave my daughter at the curb." And this image of the mother sending her daughter off is beautifully paired with the reverse image at the end of the poemher daughter waving to her mother "as she sends me off into the world."

This connection of a mother to a daughter is also the subject of the prose poem, "Measurements," in which a daughter remembers how her mother hand-measured ingredients, and "When the time came, she taught me her tricks. No shiny measuring cup could match the glory of my mother's words as I dropped my first handful of flour into the bowl. Perfect. Just perfect."

The poems "The Movies" and "Louisville, KY, USA" celebrate the surrender involved in romantic love. "The Movies" ends beautifully with two people who have been in a relationship for many years we suspect, coming home from a movie and making love. The poet portrays them as totally comfortable with each other, snuggling:

                         ...We lay in our warm bed, sheets
            soft with age, and watched the leaves cast
            shadows on the bedroom wall.

There is such comfort and tenderness in the image of "sheets soft with age," because besides being literal it suggest the couple's relationship has softened as it matured.  The last image of leaf shadows can be interpreted as both beautiful and at the same time a foreshadowing perhaps of darker times that come into everyone's life, which will be dealt with in later poems.

"Louisville, KY, USA" also has the same wistful, drowsy feel of the "The Movies," of two people who have lived and loved together for many years, waking together "in our familiar bed, / warm with Saturday sleep." This poem also portrays the narrator's surrender or acceptance of the fact that her partner is aging, as she is, by referring to "your gray chest hair...wrinkles around your eyes," and the lovely ending line, "we lie together slowing." The "together slowing" suggests both the image of their heart rates slowing after lovemaking, and the idea of slowing down in other ways as a result of aging.

The chapbook's central theme of surrender is carried in poems of loved ones as they age, become ill, and die. In "Your Mother" the poem's narrator asks her husband to tell her about his mother. The poem is written in second person, addressing the husband as "you," which creates a lovely sense of intimacy between the poem's characters, but also between the narrator and the reader, and the husband and his aging mother who's in a nursing home. At the poem's center is the haunting image of "old people propped this way or that, / like brooms in a closet, waiting to be chosen." This is such an effective image because as sad as it is to envision these people doing nothing but waiting to die, "waiting to chosen" also suggests to me a kind of hope, that they've lived their lives and are ready to move on to the next phase, whatever that might be. And brooms also denote something useful and essential, perhaps alluding to the fact that these nursing home residents the poet describes as "smiling, sad-eyed or dreaming" have moved pat their years of having a purpose. "Your Mother," as so many other poems in Surrender, is filled with tenderness and reverence for our roots, the places and people who have nourished us, as seen in the second stanza:

            How you brushed her long grey hair.
                        Then held up a mirror, smiling,
                                    As she once did for you.

This tenderness accompanied with sadness continues in the poem "Leaving," in which the husband empties "his boyhood home." The poem ends with lines full of longing emphasized by the repeated use of the consonant "l":

            The fall light is filled with golden dust,
            dried leaves, ash, the yellow of goodbye.

The "yellow of goodbye" mirrors the mother's tea roses of the preceding lines, which the poet says were "started with a cutting / from her mother's garden." This image is both beautiful and sad in itself, but I also wondered if the husband and wife in this poem took any cuttings of the roses, to keep the tradition going, and since that's never mentioned in the poem, that omission intensified the poem's sadness for me. The poem takes place in the fall of the year, which also echoes what the reader feels is the impending death of the mother. At the poem's center the wife surrenders to letting her husband surrender to the experience of emptying his mother's house, lines that effectively use repetition:

                                                I ache to touch
            my husband, but leave him to his leaving.

Surrender contains a series of poems in which the narrator deals with the loss and letting go of her fatherone of the most difficult kinds of surrender we experience as humans. In "Your Last Day" she describes his death in the moving last four lines:

          ...felt free to go. Two hours later
            you gave a final exhalation.
            It was a sigh, really.

            A sigh.
The way the above lines are laid out on the page, each one shorter, creates a winding-down effect visually that mirrors the father's last breaths, that though certainly sad, also contains a beauty, a peacefulness echoed in the repeated "sigh." The poet's use of the word "sigh" is an example of how much a poet can pack in one word, because sighing, letting one's breath out audibly, can suggest sorrow, weariness, regret or relief. People sigh with yearning, or in response to someone or something beautiful, such as a work of art or music. The word "sigh" also echoes back to the chapbook's title, Surrender, as in letting go of breath, in this case the father's final breath, in which the poet also masterfully suggests (without saying it) the daughter's accompanying sigh.

In both "Fatherless Girls" and "Hollow Bones" the daughter of the poem speaks to her recently deceased father in second person, addressing him as "you," again creating a breathtaking feeling of intimacy. In "Fatherless Girls" the daughter imagines heat lightning as "Those small fires you set just to say hello," and in "Hollow Bones" she muses that if her father had "hollow bones" like a crow:

                                             ...I could lift you from your bed
            Carry you outside to feel the sun
            See the clouds drift across the sky
            Watch the shadows lengthen

The very next line in "Hollow Bones," that follows the above image of rising and light is one of falling and darkness: "But you fall into a darkness I cannot penetrate." This poem, as others in the book, effectively use contrasting images of light and darkness. This poem, as many others, also establishes the poet's connection and appreciation of the natural world and its cycles which echo human life cycles. For example, in the elegiac poem "August Leaves" the narrator walks by a lake, remembering her father. The opening lines contain lilting sounds of repeated consonants, making it sound like both a dirge and a lullaby:

            August leaves
            Singed around the edges
            Slow baked by summer sun
            Float in the air
            Land in the quarry lake
            I pace the shallow water

Lines like the above emphasize the duality of life, how sometimes opposing sensations are intricately connectedjoy and sorrow, pain and beautyespecially at times such as the death of a parent, when we're most vulnerable and yet these times are often when we grow the most as humans.

The theme of reverence for your ancestry, first introduced in the second poem, "Measurements,"  carries through the book in poems such as "Detroit Skyline," "Oxblood," "Man Without a Country," and "Stones in My Pocket." In "Oxblood" the narrator's memory of one of her ancestors, perhaps a grandfather, is brought back by "the mention of shoe polish." She remembers his "wooden / caddy. The bristled brush...tins of polish, the deep red / my favorite. Oxblood...The soft clothes like diapers." These concrete images of sight, sound, and smell ground the poem and bring it alive, present to the senses much in the same way objects such as old photos can bring back people, places, and events as if they were present.  "Detroit Skyline" is just such a poem based on a photograph:

                        You look straight into the camera,
                        squinting against the sun, hair blown
                        by the wind, the Detroit skyline behind you.
                        You are eight. The city is king.
                        Summer afternoons are endless.

The simplicity of the last two above lines are so powerful, creating a staccato effect that echoes the starkness of the city behind the "you" in the photograph, suggesting the "head-on" way he experiences life.

In this chapbook's second last poem, "Stones in My Pocket," the narrator travels to the land of her ancestors:

                                                            ...My father gone but a year,
                        I go in search of ghosts, track his namesake across the water.
                        The journey of seven hours took my people seven weeks
                        In a famine ship.

The connection to the past, and reverence for her ancestors continues into the narrator's own imagined future in the poem's beautiful closing lines:           
                        I can only hope that someone from the future
                        Will seek my name on a gravestone,
                        Look out at the land, imagine me there,
                        Feel the wind on her face like the breath
                        Of a loved one as he leans in for one last kiss.

This image of "one last kiss" hauntingly mirrors the mother's kiss in "Your Mother" and the breath of the father in "August Leaves" and "Tour Last Day."

The last poem, "Inheritance," goes back in time to the couple's wedding day, and a later realization of what they inherited:  "The deep strain of melancholy / that runs through our genes." This poem and the book ends with the following haunting image that echoes back to other mentions of shadows in earlier poems such as "The Movies":

                        As a shadow staggers in the doorway
                        Returned not to celebrate or mourn,
                        But to curse the day we were born.

This image is a powerful contrast to the poem's preceding image of joy and promise of the wedding celebration: "Drunk with abundance, weaving / Arm in arm to the music we sway" a fitting end to a book full of life's dualities and dichotomies:  love and loss, abundance and illness, birth and death, connection and disconnection.

Ellen Birkett Morris' Surrender draws us into places, times, and spaces splendid with the beauty of the natural world, entangled by the surrenders of our lives as humans, luminous with yearning, tenderness and awe.


 Karen George lives in Northern Kentucky. Since she retired from computer programming to write full-time, she has enjoyed traveling to historic river towns, mountain country, and her first European trip. Her chapbook, Into the Heartland, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2011, and her chapbook, Inner Passage, is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. You can find her  work in Memoir, The Louisville Review, Tupelo Press 30/30 Website, Wind, Border Crossing, Permafrost, Blast Furnace, Adanna, and Still. She is co-founder and fiction editor of the online literary and arts journal, Waypoints.


  1. Just taking a look back at your close and thoughtful analysis of these poems. Thanks for the wisdom and consideration you brought to the task.

  2. You're welcome. It was a pleasure reading your poems and writing about them.


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