Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rusty Morrison, _the true keeps calm biding its story_

WINNER OF BOTH the 2007 Sawtooth Poetry Prize (judged by Peter Gizzi) and the 2008 James Laughlin Award (judged by Rae Armantrout, Claudia Rankine, and Bruce Smith), the true keeps calm biding its story obviously comes highly recommended. Were a prize mine to bestow, I might have kept looking, but the book compels respect and is worth reading.

One notices the volume's fixed form right away -- nine sections, each of six poems, each poem titled "please advise stop" and nine lines long (three sets of three lines apiece), line nine always ending "please advise," lines 1-8 always ending with either "please" or "stop." The poems are right-justified, so down one side one sees always a kind of column --

stop
please
stop

stop
stop
please

-- or some other combination.

The "please" has a wide semantic swing between the "please" of authority pretending to be polite and the "please" of desperate pleading, and the "stop" an even wider one, sometimes the voice of authority, sometimes the cry of a victim, sometimes telegram-ese for a period. As "please" and "stop" both tend to ask/demand something of the reader, the recurring conclusion "please advise" always tends to leave the ball, so to speak, in you, the reader's, court. "Well?" the poems seem to keep asking, "Now what? Can you make any more sense of this than I can?"

What sense there is to be made has to be made from the ground up, for the strict rigidity of the form is matched by the near-perfect disjunction as we go from line to line, from poem to poem, from section to section. Details of interiors flash by, scraps of etymology, a glimpse of landscape, a wink of introspection, any number of arresting images ("a huge walled-off deity affixed at the edge of my outer life stop").

But a thematic pulse is established as references to the death of the speaker's father recur, as if the book were in a wide elliptical orbit around that death. But -- it occurs to me -- an ellipse has two foci. The death of the father is one, but there seems to be an unnameable other as well. Is the other the poem's self-imposed form itself?

"After great pain, a formal feeling comes...." Is that the key here? Everything comes down to Dickinson (or Wordsworth or Eliot) sooner or later.


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