On Cameron Morse’s Bad Astrocyte

If there is ever a poetry collection we need close by us in the night, to stir us from our creeping dread, hands down it is in Cameron Morse’s Bad Astrocyte (Woodley Press, 2021). Though dedicated “for the diagnosed” (i.e., of glioblastoma, a highly malignant brain tumor), we are all Morse’s beneficiaries. Master of the minimalist enjambment, Morse escorts us on a fast-track tour from kitchen to hospital room, hoofing it through Home Depot with a toddler in tow—no ordinary flicker of bulbs here, but a full-on floodlight to get us through. His is the poetry of our dying that exposes both the surprise and the inevitable. Starting with his opening poem, “Temporal” (as in timely or the brain lobe inside our temples that are responsible for memories) through to the “Magnetic Moments” of the last page, Morse inter-stitches ah-ha delights with a sinking feeling. Yet, rather than breaking our hearts, he blows us away with his uncanny ear for how our minds ricochet, lighting up for the mundane and messy amidst reality’s bite—so very “alive/in this confection/called cancer”—reminding us that we are both sacred and temporary, like those astrocyte brain cells that turn traitor and invite in the enemy.      

In the temple the dark

chapel of cloudy

morning but also that other

world incessantly

set up against one that is

From this his opening stanza, Morse does what Robert Lowell dares is harder than writing a good poem—a good line. Six of them actually. One after another, each one discrete and stand-alone beautiful. Stanza after stanza each with its own shadow story, its own irreverence, Morse dives deeper into the heart of the poem, the muck of life. In so doing, he collages stanza-snapshots of a toddler son “holding/himself his pee” with snippets of facts about glioblastoma (“a high rate of recurrence”) doled out by his “very busy young neurosurgeon.” Add a touch of gentle parenting (“Thought you were a penne guy/now you’re going/full-blown rotini on me”) and presto—this brave storied collection. 

If Kevin Young likens death to Vampires—”as sexy and dangerous and immortal”—Morse shows us his bad-ass fangs. Even the title of this Morse’s seventh collection shows teeth (glial-cell-gone- Hannibal-Lecter-bad). Between MRIs and more radiation to a displeased hospitalist, Morse weaves in lullabies for his “shocked/awake inconsolable/infant daughter” while nursing a gadolinium hangover. The everyday signs of domestic machinery breaking down, from washing machines (“trapped in the same/broken cycle”) to garden hoses that won’t uncoil, sing of Morse’s emotional range: off-key, fully human and implicated. But don’t be fooled by the banal; Morse’s imagery doubles as symbolically human as well as deeply concrete. Bodies and brain cells literally break down.

Poet-as-teacher Morse shows us how to disobey death orders: avoid mirrors on steroids, line your casket with camo in an implied “return to nature” theme, and still take the time to teach a toddler that any fallen shape makes fine snow angels. Yet, while these poems stand far more firmly in the genre of ars poetica than instructional manual, read and reread this collection and you too will learn “to make a bed/out of death” and keep vertical. With Morse, we “won’t lie down”. Nope, he threatens: “I’ll write my way/through this or at least all the way/up to the edge/and jump”. Not waiting on death or ceremony, jump he does as he delivers the daily dirt with a plug for making poetry our jam. 

For some of us, poetry is our RXBAR, our portal into patience, a chance to weave the horrible with beauty, as Ocean Vuong and Gregory Orr suggest. For some, poetry even saved us. Cameron Morse, however, shows us how cancer and clogged toilets saved him. And so, he goes on (long past his expiration date) to sing the body alive and magnetic.       

Carole Symer is a practicing psychologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan and teaches at New York University. Symer’s essays, articles and poems have appeared in Across the Margin, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Dues Review, Michigan Chronicle, Mutha Magazine, Sky Island Journal, The Passed Note, Wild Roof Journal, Poetry is Bread/Nirala Anthology (In press, edited by Tina Cane), and elsewhere. She is the 2020 recipient of the Ann-Maire Oomen and Katey Schulz Interlochen College of Creative Arts Scholarship Award, author of the Chapbook Glint (Small Harbor Publishing, 2021), and a student of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.