Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, June 13, 2014

Rusty Morrison, _After Urgency_

RUSTY MORRISON'S WORK again shows a gravitational pull towards form here, as in the true keep calm biding its story (LLL, August 4, 2010). All the poems in that book were written in a fixed form created for the occasion of that project; After Urgency contains several such forms, as well as having an overarching symmetrical or chiasmic structure as a volume.

The volume begins and ends with poems called "After urgency," written in couplets, each line with (to my ear) six accented syllables. Of the five sections thus bookended, the first and the fifth have poems written in eight to twelve longish, widely spaced lines, with titles that vary a theme (e.g., "In-solence" and "In-solving" in Part One, "Derivations in agriculture" and "Agriculture of derivatives" in Part Five).

Parts Two and Four have fifteen poems apiece, but the poems share five titles: "Commonplace," "An intersection of leaves not likeness," "After urgency," "Field particulars," and "Aftermath." We go through the series of five titles three times in Part Two, and again three times in Part Four. Additionally, each title-group has its own form.  For instance, all the "Commonplace" poems have four three-line stanzas, the first and fourth usually containing a reasonably ordinary and simple poetic perception, the second and third, inset a little farther, usually bending that perception a bit, questioning it, re-directing it.

Then, in Part Three, a kind of center pivot: a poem in four sections, each section in three two-line stanzas.

What raises the stakes is that, just as the true keeps calm biding its story revolved around the final illness of her father, After Urgency revolves around losing her mother as well. So, on the one hand, we have fairly specific and demanding self-imposed formal restraints--on the other, an unchartable stormfront of inchoate emotion.

The book enacts a kind of drama.  The forms visibly insist on being followed, page after repeating page, but the speaker also objects that the forms are inadequate to the emotions, de-naturing or falsifying them. "How to demand of composition that its contrivance come apart // but leave the pieces intact? // How might I live death all the way to the edge of its form?" one poem asks; another imagines the relief of being "Released from the guilt of order and arrangement." But how can we be released from that guilt, when poetry moves towards form the way water runs downhill, and form always begins to generate its own meanings?-- "perilous, sometimes, to make any motion at all. //Any movement becomes design. // Any design an ethos."

The opening poem places the speaker on a house's threshold, "neither // immersed in nor protected from the suffusion / in the air of nearly imperceptible rainfall," and for much of the volume we are looking out at the natural world, principally skies and trees, for clues or reassurance or just something that seems adequate to the emotion of the moment.  Occasionally we are indoors--Morrison captures with what was for me scary accuracy the feeling of going through the possessions a dead parent has left behind, in an arboreal image that could almost be the nucleus of the book:

I fill cardboard boxes with my mother's things,

which are almost porous to time's passage

through this nearly emptied house.

I stop several times--a form of branching.

Which is also a form of being severed.

Among the oldest of poetic forms is the elegy, with its movement from grief to acceptance, and something like that happens here, but Morrison resists letting the logic of the form overrule the particularity of her feeling. Feelings subside, the normal resumes, but are we really reconciled to our loss?  Maybe not: "What passes for understanding is just the restored anonymities in summer rain." Nonetheless, the world is changed for us, wears a new aspects: "Background is stealing out toward the wood myth, // more treeful now than ever."

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