Rusty Morrison's the true keeps calm biding its story (Ahsahta,
2008) is a lyric refusal of the "stop" that death proposes. This
elegiac push against the silence that is the deceased father evolves
into a critique of the limits of language. "My father's death stays
demanding," writes Morrison, and that demand necessitates this
haunting struggle with silence that proved unforgettable.
After the death of his father, Samuel Beckett wrote, "I can
only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him." This is the
sense one has reading Morrison's collection, but instead of fields
and ditches, one finds the self-pacing within the father's house.
Morrison's poems, though their aphoristic form defies any sense
of a linear narrative, turn on the climbing and re-climbing of
stairs in a house that now stands for the field of the lyric.
The creaking, moaning stairs become metaphor for the
poems themselves. The speaker/reader, climbing and descending
the stairs, echoes the impossibility of lyric access to the dead;
remember Orpheus. The speaker's perceptions, descriptions, and
conclusions are all language moments attempting to reach the
unreachable like some telegraph machine that sends out messages
without anyone to receive them.
At times, it feels as if Morrison might be advising her readers
about the frustrations inherent in any engagement with the
elegiac. Such poems discover that they do not mourn the dead
but rather mourn language's inability to transcend the speaker's
world: "my father's dying makes stairs of every line of text seeming
neither to go up or go down stop," writes Morrison.
The built-in self-consciousness inherent in Morrison's collection,
its awareness of its inability to communicate beyond the
fact of its occasion, the death of the father, remains for me the
most heartbreaking experience of this collection. Each of the
nine lines, grouped into three tercets per page, ends with one
of these three words: please, advise, stop. In fact, each page begins,
in the top left corner, with the request "please advise stop."
The word stop functions both as self-admonishment, in which
the stop seems to erase what precedes it, and as pause, as in a
telegram's indication of a period or comma.
The language at the top of each page can be read as telegraphic—as simply, please advise; read this way, the phrase sets
up the page as a play between the request and the lyric that follows.
In this way, each page is directed to the father, the reader,
the world as a single iteration, and the "please advise" morphs
into a salutation. Equally evocative is the notion that the opening
heading presses against the lyric that follows—please advise
stop—as in one part of the speaker's consciousness speaking to
another part. The part that generates the lyric speaks against
all rational knowledge of the futility of reaching the deceased
father. The opening seems to be advocating for the abandonment
of the lyric that follows it or for the sort of climbing out
of the self that grief wills. Because this form (left justified heading/right justified lyric) never deviates throughout the collection,
one gets the sense that the driving grief that has compelled
these elegiac poems will continue even when bracketed by the
opening request that is then echoed by the final plea to advise
on every page.
please advise stop
I was dragging a ladder slowly over stones stop
it was only from out of my thoughts that I could climb stop
not from the room please
my father's dying offered an indelicate washing of my
the way the centers of some syllables scrub away all other
his corpse merely preparing to speak its new name at the
speed of nightfalling please
each loss grows from a previously unremarkable vestigial organ
will I act now as if with a new limb stop
a phantom limb of the familial please advise
Oddly, what reconstitutes the power of the lyric (never mind
that it was never abandoned despite all requests to stop) is the
speaker's self-conscious use of metaphor. Because each noun in
these poems houses itself as well as its metaphoric possibilities, the speaker eventually follows language beyond the house into
a world where nothing looks back at her from the house of the
dead father: "landscape gave a brief account of itself then went
on falling behind my back stop," writes Morrison. The spectacle
of death, its impenetrable silence, continues to exist for the
speaker but is news to the world. The speaker is enveloped by a
mode of perception that allows her only to seek communication
with the world through the deceased father; this is a problem
of grief, the speaker comes to realize, and not a problem of the
world itself: "reason can't bring something on the verge of real
but unwilling to become it stop."
the true keeps calm biding its story is one of those rare books of
poetry that allows you to exist inside each line. Each utterance,
whether concluded by stop, please, or please advise, functions as a
pause in the consciousness of loss. I understood this collection as
a need to metaphorize grief, yet it brings me closer to the actual
world. Each time I return to it, I find myself holding lines in
my mind as I would an object in my hand, considering its relationship
to what surrounds it, to the world, to myself. Morrison
compels us "not simply to lie on grass but to finesse from the
fine blades a rescue stop."
The James Laughlin Award recognizes and supports a poet's second
book. The judges for the 2008 Award were Rae Armantrout, Claudia Rankine, and Bruce Smith.