R.B. Morris is a really cool dude.
One of Knoxville's favorite sons, Morris is The Scruffy City's own singer, songwriter, musician, actor, playwright and poet.
Maintaining a mysterious level of prophetic poise, Morris brought his unique, nonchalant brand of genius to UT's Writers in the Library event Monday night with an effortlessly stylish reading of excerpts from his fifth collection of poems, "Mockingbird."
"The variety one finds in R.B.'s music is echoed in his wide-ranging artistry," said Christopher Hebert, Jack E. Reese Writer-in-Residence and lecturer in the English department.
With his air of mystique and stock hold of artistic trappings, Morris has been described as "fashionable and self-aware" by MetroPulse columnist, Mike Gibson. He has also been praised by the Grammy-winning songwriters Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle.
Among his many accolades, Morris held Dr. Hebert's current post of UT Libraries' Writer-in-Residence from 2004-2008 and was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame in 2009.
While much can be said about Morris, the man and artist, his art itself warrants its own attention.
"Every now and then I get a kick out of putting one of these together," Morris said of his book, with the air of a tortured artist. "And this one was a long time coming."
In the aftermath of the 1982 World's Fair, Morris found creative refuge in the artists' colony that arose out of the cluster of restored Victorian homes on the edge of Fort Sanders. He would often sit and ponder the mockingbirds that abundantly inhabited a holly tree in one of the house's backyards.
"I was able to study the bird life, especially the mockingbirds," Morris said. "There was a voice, a character, an attitude and the poems just came out for a while, so I pursued it."
Morris wrote the poems over a series of several years, putting many of them to music at his live concerts in Nashville. After losing the folder in which the poems were kept, Morris said he would never be able to recreate their splendor. Thankfully, the poems were recovered and have since been edited, added to and bound in a tasteful paperback, illustrated by his wife, Karly Stribling.
"Mockingbird" resonates with Morris' keen ability to see beyond the obvious and expose the latent and existential.
"We can all find things that are present, but absent from what we generally see," Morris said. "While hidden from others, the mockingbird's song was always existent for me."
To Morris, the mockingbird represents unattainable, artistic perfection, creating the ideal muse for his thought-provoking collection.
"He is the great mirror of the world, God's mouthpiece," Morris said of the mockingbird. "He is able to take what he hears and make it his own."
Morris' mockingbird poems are rhythmic and provocative, dripping with a jazzy, musical cadence.
"The mockingbird is one of nature's great musicians," Hebert said. "At Morris' hand, (he) becomes a sort of troubadour, a trickster of mythological proportions."
"Mockingbird" is yet another example of the stylish effortlessness of R.B. Morris' talent and artistic passion. It reads like a drag off of a long, cool cigarette with all the rhythm of a bluesy streetcar.
In the words of Morris' "Mockingbird," "It just so happens I like my work, is that so wrong? The city doesn't understand artists."