“Inkballs” by Robert Morgan

As children we would seek the galls
from oaks we called inkballs,
for the layer of purple color
just beneath the surface where
the dye was thin almost as a coat
of paint, but so rich and bright
we thought a single drop could write
a royal message, prophecy,
a poetry of authority,
if we could just collect enough.
But underneath the ink the stuff
was just a spongy cotton filler
with a sleeping larva at the center.
We liked to think that we could pen
immortal words, if and when
we had a supply of the oak’s ichor.
We thought the worm was waiting there
to drink the transforming elixir
as it ate its way out, bursting forth
from the core of its small earth.
But we could glean no more than a hint
to make a kind of stain on skin,
no epics penned, our prophecies unwritten.

As in his two most recent volumes of poems—Dark Energy (Penguin, 2015) and Terroir (Penguin, 2013)—Robert Morgan’s poem “Inkballs” unfolds subtly but forcefully, patiently yet powerfully. Morgan’s tone of a gifted and highly focused raconteur—indeed, one of the best qualities of his poetry—is often more complex than first readings suggest. Morgan’s motifs, which elucidate deeply the complex dimensionality of landscape, history, writing, science, and the craft of writing itself, complicate what might appear at first to be simply recorded memory. But as in the best poetry, and certainly in “Inkballs” and the well-known “Honey,” the words spark in me a similar “glowing” of the imagination. While the poem makes statements, it adds shadow and hue with reflective economy. “Inkballs” is, in part, an ars poetica that speaks to the heart of nature, human wonder, and the beauty and often fleeting access to the writing of poetry itself.
– William Wright

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.