portraits of red and gray: memoir poems by James Morehead

James is a friend and offered me an ARC of his collection in exchange for an honest review. You can purchase the collection here.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

James Morehead’s second poetry collection, Portraits of Red and Gray opens with the explicit acknowledgement that this is a collection of memoir poems. Frequently, memoir collections like this tend to gild the lily a bit, expending lines and energy on memories gone golden with age and losing substance in the process.

Happily, Morehead avoids that emotional pitfall, writing instead with rare honesty about everything from a high school summer job far from home, to the wonder of a grandmother who can cook without recipes or measuring cups, to a grown man’s detour across the Normandy beaches and the echoes still ringing there. Morehead revels in extreme specifics, finding universal truths for his readers in the details of his own life and past. Not everyone has spent a summer in a Wyoming town with a population under 30 people, but the second to last stanza:

I do other things,

And nothing,

For hours and days and weeks.

If that isn’t a universal feeling, then I’m not sure what is.

A friend and mentor in poetry once told me that many of the best poems you will ever write feel like they already exist. Like they are such perfect truths, that when you put them to paper they feel like they come from a place beyond the self. Call it faith, call it the universe, call it the collective consciousness of humanity, but they existed before you wrote them down, just waiting for the write scribe to lay them on paper.

That is how Morehead’s Portraits feel to me. Like somewhere in the cosmos, these poems have always existed, waiting for the right man to find his words and give them to the world.

Stunning in execution without devolving into saccharine platitudes, look out especially for the titular “portraits of red and gray” about the poet’s trip to Soviet Russia in 1983, the wry humor and heart of “into the heart of Temagami”, and the warmth of “Torta di Riso”.