“Our Artisans Suggest You Linger in Each Hall:” Karin Falcone on James Morehead’s The Plague Doctor

James Morehead’s The Plague Doctor is a celebration of the ways art can be experienced. Inspired by street art, desert ruins and many forms in between, the poems in The Plague Doctor move with an awareness of the collaboration between the observer and the maker. Paired with black and white images, Morehead’s poetics is colorful and auditory.

Ekphrastic poetry’s conundrum is the trap of simple description, but Morehead confidently complicates that from the start. The title poem leads the collection, landing between two visual interpretations of the image of “The Plague Doctor:” one the full color cover of the book, and the other a black and white ink drawing, all three inspired by a photograph of a friend’s COVID-era Halloween costume, which is not shown.

Morehead writes:

“It is the mask I can’t shake.
Spectacles for eyes and a beak filled
with dried flowers and spices –
lavender-rose, mint-camphor,
musty sweet in decay
stuffed snug to dispel miasma
and plague spreading smells...”

The work touches the ancient origins of the masked healer during the black plague, its interpretation as a timely Halloween costume, then a privately shared photo: the image the poet “cannot shake,” and finally the work of two visual artists he tapped to render it. Such richness sets the tone for the book: the multiplicitous ways one can interact with the creations of others.

In “fox, bear, wolf and pine” (after Mark Kulas) Morehead holds a set of blank greeting cards with Kulas’ illustrations, and imagines “inside I’ll write in rich red ink” paired with Kulas’ stylized howling wolf design. He takes a turn as a greeting card poet here: a fun assignment in rhyme.

The jumping off points are largely contemporary. Is that Taylor Swift playing pinball? Yes it is! A tribute to a Led Zeppelin song? Cool! A visit to the ruins of a gold bust town in the Sonoran Desert, and a sculpture garden in Canada? Such travel is revelatory. There is even a poem written from the point of view of sourdough starter “scooped bubbling into a freshly cleaned jar.” No need for a degree in art history, and Google searches are optional.

I am obsessive about all things Gen X, and Morehead falls into this beloved tribe, we who knew life before the internet, who are fascinated by machines and clocks and paper, and are used to doing things ourselves, from baking to coding. In “I hold the last sheet of parchment paper” he expresses the power of making a mark with what you have at hand, and the risk:

“I start with today’s date knowing any mistake
will force me to begin again
with nothing to write on
                                                            but plain white stock”

This last section of the book is about those personal choices and transformations, and by the last poem the narrator envisions himself a machine, reminiscent of the character Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation:

“for hidden beneath the clean shaven skin

are gears, actuators, circuits, and optics.”

The Plague Doctor lay somewhere between a chapbook and full-length book, so this end came as a kind of shock. I felt much like the narrator in “hiding from the curator” who says “but I’m not ready to leave.” With its brevity and illustrations, this multidisciplinary work invites a second look.

Morehead said in an email, “the visual design was a critical element of the book and is part of the book.” He turned down one publisher because he “wanted 100% control over the visual design... Think of it as a director-actor-screenwriter-producer all rolled into one. I had control over the cover – and commissioning the cover art... I had control over the interior design and all of the photographs and commissioned art. I managed the art licensing agreements – everything.”

Such Gen X DYI ethos is familiar to me. It is close cousins in spirit with zines and book arts projects, but Morehead points out that he “invested in all the things to create a quality book” and it shows. All of us working in multiple genres or non-standard forms can find inspiration that this book was brought to fruition as intended, without compromise. Much like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Morehead published his own work under his own imprint. As Ferlinghetti once suggested, “Create a new language anyone can understand.” I believe Morehead has achieved that.

Morehead is the creative and technical force behind Viewless Wings, both a podcast and web journal that has drawn poets both new and well-known with a clean, readable design, and inspiring pull quotes from his interviews.

In “where canvas ends and bush begins” Morehead writes:

“forest creeps toward the painter
                        with fallen seeds that burrow deep”

Surely the art is shaping the artist as a personal journey, and it is doing the same for the observer, growing like that sour dough starter, in black and white, to the beat of rock and roll.

Karin Falcone Krieger’s recent essays, poetry and visual art have been published in Tofu Ink Arts Press, Viewless Wings Podcast, Tupelo Quarterly, LITPUB, Newsday, Contingent Magazine, BlazeVOX, The Laurel Review, and in the anthology, “A physical book which compiles conceptual books” (Partial Press, 2022). She taught writing as an adjunct instructor for 20 years, and was an adjunct union representative. She has an MFA is from The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, and published the zine artICHOKE from 1989-2008.  She is a master gardener, personal chef and suburban homesteader. Links to these and other projects can be seen at www.karinfalconekrieger.com