Book Review: After Urgency (Rusty Morrison)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

One wants to say that a review of a book by Rusty Morrison should consist of three words, "Just read it." Those familiar with The Book of the Given or the true keeps calm abiding its story, know exactly what this means. Morrison's ability to use imagery from the natural world in unique ways to summon emotions and her facility with form that encompass the entire book are difficult to match. In Morrison's recent book After Urgency (Tupelo Press, 2012), these abilities are on full display. And for the reader unfamiliar with her work, it may also be Morrison's most accessible. Perhaps for this last reason, an attempt to review After Urgency is not indefensible.

One of the things that makes After Urgency accessible and, indeed draws in even the pedestrian reader, is that most immediately the book is a meditation on the death of her parents, a topic to which most people have a natural affinity. Morrison herself provides some of the background that was the impetus for the book:

I was in the room when my father died. Then a little more than a year later, my mother died and I spent a long time with her body. In both experiences, I had an uncanny sense of being "still alive", while in the presence of a corpse. This sensation amplified my experience of every object in the room, and amplified my sense of the silence that seemed to be the material interface between the living and the dead.

Given this background, it is difficult to see that anyone who has experienced the death of a parent would not be drawn in by the opening lines of the first poem, "In-solence":

Living past their deaths isn't a deed I accomplish modestly.

the least emergence of memory is a great oak, elemental, obsessively

I was listening for rain. But it's a stroking of hair, a rhythm deep
in my breathing.

Impossible now to say a thing, without a quieting hand
falling upon it.

Death, of course, is one of the great themes of poetry, but one need not have read Donne or Rilke to be moved to thoughts of the metaphysical when someone who has been an integral part of their life dies. One of the immediately frustrating aspects of burying a family member are the simplistic platitudes to be endured by well-meaning acquaintances, but equally frustrating is one's own in ability to think beyond the inherited ways of conceiving death. Morrison, a poet known for her nuanced work, is keenly aware of this, "I wanted to break through the common order and logic of my language use, to break through the easy language that comes from my culturally inflected beliefs about what death means to me."

As with many people, Morrison finds that immersing herself in the natural world provides a space for her reflections. She is an astute observer of this world and Morrison's spare, subtle descriptions are genuinely wonderful to read; she has not come to nature with a Wordsworthian nose for metaphor. Her approach is much more like what R. H. Blythe in his classic exploration Zen in the English Literature and the Oriental Classics called the objective subjective.

Mockingbird, scissoring its last call, clips the orderly fall
of my fiction of completion. A surge and then silence, both
shelter unseen in the foliage. I see a progressive acceleration
in the colors of sunset, until stillness disappears.

How to let roots break through the underside
of my ideas of them.

And as a writer, she also asks:

How to demand of composition that its contrivance come apart,

but leave the pieces intact?

How might I live death all the way to form?

Morrison's fascination with form, which as been a hallmark of all of her previous work, is also one of the delights of After Urgency. She has such a wonderful facility with words that the reader is often immediately plunged into her language, but like Morrison who stands in a field and takes in the landscape, the reader eventually become aware of and drawn to the larger structures of the book.

After Urgency is divided into five parts with sections two and four more or less mirroring each other. Each section has a device that holds it together. The first section is comprised of ten numbered poems with titles that all follow the pattern of "In-sensate" or "In-significance" with "in" carrying the ambivalent meanings of both within and not. Section 3, "Appearances" is a relatively short four part poem. The fifth section mirrors the first in having ten poems, but in this case the poems are paired through titles that invert the subjects, for example, "repeating verdancy" and "verdancies of repetition" or "derivations in agriculture" and "agriculture of derivations."

The most complex structure, however, is sections two and four which essentially form one continuum and are linked to the first and last poems of the book, both of which take their titles from the title of the book. Sections two and four each consist of fifteen poems headed with the same five titles. The poems that share the title "Commonplace" are found on pages 17, 22, and 27 of the second section and pages 39, 44, and 49 of the fourth section. If all this sounds a bit aridly academic, the experience of discovery among these connections is not. The revelation of new patterns puts the reader through the types of thinking that Morrison, as the book's narrator, puts herself through.

The first instance of "Commonplace" begins

Quieting my gaze invites a smoky aura from the aspen
—an augur for allowing
what can't be anticipated

While these lines prepare readers for the unexpected, they still leave one in the position of being able to experience the poem on the page as complete in itself. As readers come upon further poems of the same name, they begin to realize that the structure of each "Commonplace" poem is the same: four three line stanzas with the middle two stanzas indented. Moreover, one can move from one instance of "Commonplace" to the next, skipping the intervening material and reading it as one complete poem. Such shift in perspective forces a reader to take a completely new look at what they have been reading. With the six poems titled "Aftermath," a slightly difference structural strategy is taken by giving the poems subtitles: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, equation and ratio. Not surprisingly, the addition poem uses vocabulary of branching, while the subtraction poem deals with loss. Even so, as with the "Commonplace" poems, reading these poems as a continuous sequence provides an alternate reading to the initial progression that the book provides.

If this description of the architecture of After Urgency sounds like an attempt on the poet's part to replicate a Thomistic argument from design, the reader need not fear. Morrison is perfectly aware of the Wittgensteinian admonition, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," but at the same time she understands that meaning-making i s an inherent characteristic of the human mind. Looking out at a spare landscape she concedes, "Narrative established/ in each chance attitude of grass." To some extent, she is able to subvert narrative in seeking out pattern.

It is in these feints of the mind with the unknowable that Morrison produces some of her most seductive and thought-provoking lines. For example, even with its almost aphoristic ending, lines like the following from "Appearances" are almost haiku-like:

Standing under dogwood, amid the crocuses.
      Inside summer's nerve cell.

Hidden, the underside of leaves
      remain spacious.

My dead aren't the source of my grief, but only travel it
      the way wild grasses travel the hillside.

Despite the enthusiasm for postmodern deconstruction and discontinuities that Morrison displays in works like The Book of the Given, it is her ability with the traditional tools of the poetic trade – and not as a mere craftsperson but as an artist – that will make the poetry of After Urgency exciting to interested readers who may not know Derrida from a doughnut. Consider the opening lines of "In-strictures":

Demanding from my mother's death a first order place within
the place where I have lost myself,

and there will build my house.

Composing it neither blood, nor testimony, nor memory,
nor retrieval

The rhythm of the lines is evocative of both the Gettysburg address ('that from these honored dead we take increased devotion") and the The KJV ("and upon this rock I will build my church"). The use of repetition and alliteration induce a somatic response while the images and semantic cargo of the words work on the mind. The inversion of phrases help to maintain an emotional distance that prevents a Romantic gush on a highly personal topic. If Morrison's patterned architecture is the warp of the book, then passages like these are the woof.

Virtually every volume of poetry that Rusty Morrison has written has been a literal award-winner. After Urgency is no exception, having been picked by Jane Hirschfield for the 2010 Tupelo Dorset Prize. That alone may be enough to recommend it. It's tempting to end this review by simply repeating, "Just read it" but perhaps the philosophical challenge inherent in the lines that begin the book's final poem is the best invitation of all:

There is no end to waiting, no mind outside the mind
traveling its gravel path, stroking its strewn flowers,

startled even by a seabird's wing-extended shadow.