AE Hines on Morri Creech’s The Sentence

“Death is a nagging grit, that grain I keep / worrying furiously into the pearl of art— // how is that for an opening sentence?” [p. 5] Thus begins Morri Creech’s latest collection, The Sentence (LSU Press, 2023), a rich exploration of mortality presented in well-crafted poems of prose, free-verse and traditional forms. Multiple poems appear under the book’s title, as a refrain, and these repeated “sentences” frame its three sections, as Creech examines the implications of this extended metaphor. The poet reminds us that we are all sentenced to the same end. And death, our common fate, haunts these pages. In fact, Creech’s skillful, detached narration, coupled with his rich musicality, often leaves the reader feeling as though Death is standing just behind, staring down and reading along with them. Whether it is the speaker’s own shadow, a row of beauty shop mirrors and the self, repeated and receding into infinity, or a house on fire by the sea, the objects of Creech’s meditations are as varied his forms, and the work’s sonic texture — his use of rhythm and rhyme —delightful to the ear.  

This poet seems obsessed with (and suspicious of) time and the egoic self — their ungraspable natures, an immutable sense that time is running out. The “Omega,” as Creech says later in his opening poem, “toward which the Alpha / stumbles whenever one says the alphabet.” [p. 5] Few collections open with such a compelling and comprehensive glimpse of the themes that will pervade an entire book. As such, one finds with his first section, Creech preparing a foundation, an expansive structure to house and examine his persistent questions. He proves a trustworthy guide as we explore the dark corners alongside him.

In section two of the book, for example, Creech shifts his focus to the life and death of Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet, who, in 1938, was arrested and sentenced to five years of hard labor after publishing a poem critical of Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. In a moving sequence, section two’s title poem, “The Sentence,” [pp. 33 – 38], we find six numbered poems, each with six evenly lineated couplets and alternating end-rhyme. There is an elegance, visually, to these verses on the page. And in poignant scenes hallowed by Creech’s sonic mastery, they echo not only the distant past, but challenges we face today—as democratic societies, and artists, face an alarming rise in authoritarianism. In fact, one senses, reading the inner third of The Sentence, which includes an homage to Franz Kaftka’s novel, The Trial (and its persecuted protagonist, Josef K.), that Creech is delivering a warning: our basic freedoms, our ability to speak truth to power, remain at risk. In doing so, Creech exposes a complacency, perhaps even our complicity, when he tells us in “After Lorca,” [p. 64] that “Heaven and hell both lie in the same bed.” 

  Unlike many contemporary poets writing today, Creech revels in the power of formal poetics to create compelling music. Rhyme, repetition, meter. Traditional forms, such as ghazals, sonnets and pantoums. In The Sentence, the poet takes this love of form and a fine musical ear, and braids them together with meticulous craftmanship. This skill is most evident in the third and final section of the book, which begins with a series  of fourteen sonnets, entitled “Near the Summer Pavilion” [pp. 69-82]. First published in the Antioch Review, Creech, in this sequence, innovates the sonnet crown, declaring his own variation. The poet has loosely described this form as an “inverted double crown.” Where a traditional crown is presented in a series of seven sonnets, interlinked by repeating the final line of each as the first line of the next, Creech delivers his sequence across fourteen sonnets, repeating lines two through fourteen of the first poem as the opening lines for the next, and the next, sequentially, in numerical order. Here’s the opening of “Near the Summer Pavilion.” 

Near the Summer Pavilion


The sun slants over the Kingfisher hotel.

At seven a.m. on Garden City beach

summer seems cradled in an oyster shell; 

the last thirty-five years stretch out of reach.


You run five miles past tourist shops that sell

painted sand dollars for fifteen dollars each, 

past fortune tellers with nothing much to tell

and a radio stammering on the edge of speech


as the half-moon flicks its ash into the sand—

isn’t this how it was when you were ten

and shirtless, wading waist deep in the ocean?


The minute hand has inched past the hour hand

on the town hall clock. Now subsides to then.

The morning smells of trash and suntan lotion.

And, the first two lines of the second sonnet in the sequence:



At seven a.m. on Garden City beach

The drunks are stumbling home with their regrets.


And, the third: 



Summer seems cradled in an oyster shell

that time pries open with a shucking knife. 


The late James Longenbach, in The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf, 2008), defines poetry as “the sound of language organized in lines” [p. 3]. Not that poetry is defined as “language” ordered into lines, but that it is the sound language makes, whether spoken aloud or simply heard in the mind of the reader. Creech demonstrates a deep understanding of this distinction with his use of rhyme and repetition in “Near the Summer Pavilion.” By repeating every line from the first sonnet as the first lines for the next thirteen, Creech artfully explores the counter implications of each opening gesture, in what becomes a remarkable display of the poetic mind in motion. Formally, each sonnet opens with a traditional octet (across two quatrains), and ends with a sestet (in two tercets). But it is the alternating end-rhyme, combined with the repeated echo of those openings that imbues the sequence with its dreamlike quality. Both visually pleasing and musical in its workings, Creech’s technique creates a sustained energy throughout the series, one that sweeps the reader along, page after page.  In this final sequence, as with the entire book, Morri Creech gives us in The Sentence what we love most about poetry: images that surprise and delight, music that carries us deeply into ourselves, fresh perspective on difficult subjects, in language that enlivens and puzzles. Within these pages, we find the voice of a mature artist and expert craftsman, a poet who skillfully weaves the shadow of mortality — our shared sentence —into an urgent reminder that we are still here, and vibrantly alive.

AE Hines is the author of Adam in the Garden (Charlotte Lit Press, 2024) and Any Dumb Animal (Main Street Rag, 2021). He has won the Red Wheelbarrow Prize and Palette Poetry’s Love and Eros Prize, and has been a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. His poems have been widely published in such journals as The Southern Review, Rattle, The SunPrairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly. And his literary criticism can be found in American Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Rain Taxi, and Northwest Review. He received his MFA from Pacific University, and resides in Charlotte, North Carolina and Medellín, Colombia.