A few weeks ago I was browsing through the library “stacks” at Webster University, in St. Louis, and I pulled from the shelf a book of Selected Poems by John N. Morris (1931-1997). This was a new find for me and what makes it even more interesting is that Morris taught at Washington University, here in St. Louis, for some 30+years. I have enjoyed reading his poems and will delight in sharing some of them with you over the coming months. He is compared and likened to the British poet Philip Larkin, and for that reason alone I will seek out his writing as I have thoroughly enjoy Larkin’s work. Morris has been described as follows “Reserved and courtly, a wearer of bow ties and straw hats, and is known for poems distinguished by their economy, bridled anguish, and flashes of wit.” Today, I share with you his poem The Alterations the last stanza in particular offers many words for reflection. Pause and ponder these lines carefully. What might the poet be saying to you? I guess once upon a time most suits were tailored long before off the peg and department stores made suits affordable to many.

The Alterations
This is the superior shop,
The glimmering long room
Where they will make you a man.
They will turn you out one
Properly, some regiment
Dangling at the collar.

Stitch by stitch every size
They assemble by hand
In their own workrooms.
Rank after rank the sober array
Of 40-Regulars
Is drawn up for your inspection.

Although you take your time
Choosing among all this subtle distinction,
Something is wrong with the hang of the thing,
This perfection will not sit
To the wry neck and dropping shoulder.
These it falls to the fitter to alter.

Sharply his chalk defines
How you depart from the pattern.
He confides to his book
Each fault of conformation.
On breast and scapula
He designs a bold distortion.

In the workroom someone must undo
What someone did well. Stitch by stitch
He resembles it to your imperfection.
Now it is properly yours.
In disguise you square your shoulders
It becomes you, this deformation. John N. Morris – from Selected Poems.

Lord God we marvel that
you tell us we are made in your image.
We know however, that we carry within us
many faults and foibles.
You promise us forgiveness and renewal and
we rejoice in this truth and seek to embrace
it in heart, mind and soul.
We thank you for your patience with us
and your unmeasured love which wraps
around us like a blanket of love.
Today we confess our sin
and receive your forgiveness and are
transformed by your grace.
Let us make real your image within us in the way we live,
in the love we embrace, and the forgiveness we extend
to one another. Amen.

One thought on “Alterations!

  1. I’m pleased to be introduced to a new poet, and have enjoyed reading a bit about him here and more after a quick google search. I found an interesting interview conducted by one of his students, several of his poems in the archives of the New Yorker, and a piece in a Wash. U. Publication. And now it seems to me that perhaps the last stanza is autobiographical, maybe a metaphor for himself. I really don’t know.

    As a short person, I often have to visit our local tailor, most often for shortening sleeves and hemming. She is kind, friendly and skilled, and talks in her native language while making quick, short chalk lines on my clothes. I wonder what she is saying, and thinking. And then she tells me the cost, often apologizing for what seems to me very little for the work required. Then she asks when I need the job completed and if I tell her to take her time and I am in no rush, she gets excited and shows me the racks of clothing she has yet to complete; often elaborate formal dresses for local proms, men’s jackets, and things that seem to me impossible to alter. It never takes her longer than a week at most.

    As for the last stanza of the poem, I can relate because I often leave the shop thinking, what a shame that she has to undo what someone else did well. It makes me feel a little guilty and it reminds me that my mom was right when she said to me many times, “You ought to learn to sew.”


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