The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story
Winner of the 2007 Sawtooth Poetry Prize
Winner of the 2007 Alice Di Castagnola Memorial Award, Poetry Society of America, selected by Susan Howe (for manuscript in progress: the true keeps calm biding its story)
Winner of the 2008 James Laughlin Award
Winner of the 2009 Northern California Book Award for Poetry
In the aftermath of her father’s death, the speaker of Rusty Morrison’s exquisitely formed poems takes a step-by-step accounting of her transformation as she reconciles herself to loss. This book-length sequence is the silvery underside of elegy, a lyric of living acceptance paced with “the linen texture of right silences.”
“Rusty Morrison’s the true keeps calm biding its story brilliantly restores the energy of telegraphic communication, launching line after line toward a potentially infinite horizon of meaning. Her careful handling of form allows knowing to remain both openly discrete and discretely open. This is a joyous read and a remarkable book.” —Peter Gizzi, judge of the 2007 Sawtooth Poetry Prize
“The contemplative visionary quietism of Rusty Morrison’s work recalls the graph paintings of Agnes Martin while remaining absolutely original. Reading meditative and tremulous lines in the manuscript such as:
nearness is a funnel into which I keep pouring us stop
each vow of truthfulness is darkly overhung with a rampart of prophesy stop
the visible is overtaking and undertaking me at the same time please
I think of how perfectly they answer to William James’ description of our consciousness in the ‘different pace of its parts. Like a bird’s life . . . made of an alteration of flights and perchings.’” —Susan Howe
please advise stop
like water-spiders on a pond the hours pass overhead stop
with each perfected dexterity I thin the surface that carries me stop
traces of anotherwise indiscernible consensus collect under my fingernails please
his face isn’t lost to me but traveling now and mostly untended stop
hereafter will I apply rules and avoid content stop
braid wildflower stems peeled of petals stop
scrub gently with a brush to relieve us of the historical present please
listen for the entire circumference of the screen door’s arc but hear only its slap stop
even incoherent babbling is usually phonetically accurate please advise
Copyright © 2008 by Rusty Morrison
“In the nine groups of six poems, all titled ‘please advise stop,’ that form Morrison’s remarkable Sawtooth Poetry Prize–winning second volume, the now-archaic yet ever-mechanical language of the telegram is used to plumb the vicissitudes of grief and grapple with the death of the speaker’s father. Each line of these unpunctuated, nine-line poems ends with ‘stop,’ ‘please’ or ‘please advise,’ appealing to some ghostly reader for assistance. The rhythm and torque Morrison (Whethering) creates is exquisite and evocative. Often dark and aphoristic, these lines shift between momentary observation (‘the water puddle sways like an earthbound kite stop’), pained seeking (‘night might still be floating somewhere above us its blood supple and aromatic stop’) and near action, perhaps in the hope of relief (‘I stare until I consider the scene truly acknowledged stop’); always, anguish is an instrument for change. Most haunting are the poems’ final, pleading words: ‘into the dark trees invite the darker birds please advise.’ Morrison’s vamp on grief not only draws readers’ attention to the tenuous capacity of language to manage loss, but also leaves the reader moved by what comes to feel like an intensely intimate work.” — Publishers Weekly [starred review]
“For Morrison, meaning is brief; it exhibits a momentary opening—everything might rush in and join with everything else in single meaning, or else it might disperse:
there are thoughts he must have entered though they were only half-open stop (39)
Each line needs to come on the heels of another line, to prop it up and to make it disappear. They need to ‘stop’ and they need to be interrupted, but they also need to rush forward into the next line without delay:
how to tell what must be kept and what must be kept provisional please advise (53)
This necessity both builds and tears down meaning, but that is not as important as the poem’s anxiety over the terminal nature of the poetic line:
a silence from which I am excluded can teach me only exclusion’s precision stop (54)
. . . In writing this review, I have two hopes. One, to approach an apprehension of the motion Morrison produces; two, to recommend the true keeps calm biding its story to anyone and everyone concerned or even slightly interested in what is happening with the line.” —from the review by Thomas Cook in Luna
“Morrison’s poetry is demanding to the degree that it feels ephemeral and crucial; to the degree that it feels simultaneously saturating and austere. These poems cull a rhetoric all their own, and do not traffic in metaphor so much as enact the metaphorical in duress: the indefatigable enterprise of bearing and bearing across, slowed to the uncanny largo of a Bill Viola, and at the same time as disstyingly incessant as the stream of a Jenny Holzer. This is poetry and likewise poetry as medium for some fantastic investigation of communication in excess of even poetry’s own generous parameters.”—from the review by Michael Snediker in Pleiades
“‘[F]irst I will need to write any of the letters neither of us wrote to the other,’ she says halfway through the book. Instead of writing letters, of course, Morrison is writing poems. Each one feels like a brittle piece of something broken. Yet Morrison’s writing is hardly brittle. She captures the ordinary and pounds it into phrases that are immediately powerful and familiar. ‘[S]ky speaks with an accent like worship,’ she writes. She also writes of ‘lizard fixed to a stone as if it were the stone’s lung.’ Elsewhere, she says, ‘the petals of poppies orange the eye with after-color.’ Morrison’s strong, subtle phrases wait in each poem to ‘orange’ the mind’s eye of the reader. Equally powerful are the rhythm and symmetry Morrison builds into her poem sequence, which she separates into nine sections. Each page features a poem consisting of three stanzas with three lines each. But the poems are not titled, so they may just as easily be read as a single long poem—with nine poems total—or they may be read as fifty-four individual poems. The variations create different resonances to the poetry. Each line of the poem ends with either ‘please,’ ‘advise,’ or ‘stop.’ She uses each word to create different effects. For instance, at times, ‘stop’ is used in place of a period, achieving the same simple effect. But at other times, a well-placed ‘stop’ gives a poem the uneasy feeling of a telegram bearing unfortunate news. Other times, ‘stop’ just gets in the way. At its best, ‘stop’ does several wonderful things at once: ‘any object inclines away from memory the more energetically I imagine its features stop’”—from the review by Chris Mackowski on The Hipster Book Club
When I decided to return to grad school in 1997, I had been a high school teacher for 19 years. My years of teaching at the secondary level were deeply rewarding, but the work was all-consuming and it left little time for any other creative activities. Though I’d been a committed poet in high school and college, I found no time for writing once I began teaching full time. During those years, I enthusiastically encouraged my students to do two things: to bring writing into every facet of their lives, and to follow their heartfelt ambitions about their futures.
In my early 40s, I began to feel the need to take my own advice—advice that I didn’t have the courage to follow in my 20s. For me, this meant facing the poet I’d always wanted to be. I started slowly: I joined a wonderful writing group, took poetry writing classes privately and through UC extension. And, rather than simply rereading my dog-eared copies of beloved poets whom I’d found in my youth and in my early college years, I began to read current, mostly innovative, writers.
Brenda Hillman’s Bright Existence and Death Tractates and Ann Lauterbach’s “The Night Sky” essays in APR are three of the revelatory reading experiences that I still remember most vividly from that time period. And these two poets’ writings, past and present, continue to be deeply important to me. I also allowed myself time to begin to read the philosophical writers whom I’d always intended to study. Gaston Bachelard and Maurice Blanchot were two of the first, and I still return to both.
In ‘97, I took the big risk and applied to the Saint Mary’s College MFA program, which I chose primarily because Brenda Hillman was teaching there. I remain enormously grateful to Brenda and to all of the teachers with whom I studied during those two years. After graduating from the program, I left behind the security of my tenure as a high school teacher, and began teaching part-time, working as a free-lance reviewer, and since 2001, I have been the co-editor and co-publisher of Omnidawn Publishing, which my husband and I began.
My first collection of poems, Whethering, won the 2004 Colorado Prize for Poetry, selected by Forrest Gander. Most of the poems in that collection began while I was a resident at the Djerassi Artists Program in Woodside, California. I am very grateful for the gift of time that this residency gave me. I found myself writing long poem cycles for the first time in my writing life. Those cycles were influenced by my rather eclectic reading, which included George Oppen, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Maurice Merleau-Ponti. At Djerassi, which is located on the California coast, I experienced more deeply than ever before the ways in which the natural environment speaks its languages to the physical body, to the senses. I wanted to examine my physical / perceptual reading of those languages, while attempting to hold in the foreground of the poem the natural objects that most powerfully stimulated my desire to respond. I found myself coming to a deeper appreciation of the paradox of response-how every bridge I attempt to build with language creates a border, how every articulation of a sensation is a separation.
In the true keeps calm biding its story, my second book, I’ve continued to be interested in the ways that a poet uses her awareness of the separation between presence and presentation, between the real and the realized-whether that awareness comes from the recall of direct experience or from writing’s exploratory practices. I appreciate what Enrique Martinez Celaya calls “the friction between the things that happen to us and the stories we invent to make sense of them.” This friction is often a poem’s most intriguing material. How to expose it, explore it?
This brings to my mind Rosmarie Waldrop, whose work I deeply value. I’m thinking at this moment of her statement that a poem “can make the culture aware of itself, unveil hidden structures. It questions, resists.” I imagine that a concomitant benefit is that the poem can help to make the poet herself aware of hidden structures that she operates within, can help to unveil her hidden structures.
But how to come to such awareness, to create a poetic space in which this work might be done? When I am struggling to answer that question, I find myself returning to Robert Duncan—his poems and his writings on poetics, his apprehensions and appraisals of what happens to language brought to bear upon what he calls the “troubling plentitude of experience” and its “gaps.” In his essay “Ideas of the Meaning of Form,” Duncan quotes Thomas Carlyle, saying “See deep enough, and you see musically; the heart of Nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it.” Reading Duncan, I am reminded to look in order to hear, and to hear in order to see, as I follow in the poem’s motion-the surprising shifts of its sonic connections and interrelations—a music taking me beyond what I had previously perceived as the limits of my ear’s and eye’s aptitude.
This cycle of poems began with the words that end each line: “stop,” “please,” and “please advise.” Their urgency—their complex of entreaty, desire, anxiety, and even a bit of humor—generated a perceptual position, and a form, that allowed a kind of articulation and compression that I hadn’t previously been able to sustain. Sometime soon after I began these poems, my father contracted pneumonia, and then he died within a few days of being admitted to the hospital. He had other physical problems, illnesses, but there’d been no reason to expect he would die so suddenly.
In this poem cycle I was able to work through some of the shock of such an enormous absence made so viscerally present. And, as the manuscript evolved, I found this work to be a means of questioning my perception of the interrelationships among many of the other presences and absences that make up what I understand as reality.
In some respects, the form of these poems may remind the reader of a telegram. In many ways, the poems did emerge as a communication to an elsewhere, or I might say, a communication to the now-right-here—the moment’s immediacy—which I too often fail to realize.
So much in life seems to come randomly—so many of the tiny and sudden pleasures, the insights, the shocks and losses, the life-changing events. Yet, random as they are, I’m haunted by a sense that there’s value in observing the line of interface between these differences. I’m interested in borders, those made by the random meeting of discordant experiences. I’m intrigued by the shape, the pattern, and the trajectory of those almost imperceptible dividing lines.
I’ve used the writing of these poems to pursue not only what might be discernible as eddies rippling the constant streaming of life experience, but also as a means to pursue the nature of the evolving ‘self’, that mask upon the face of the inscrutable ‘otherness’ to which the messages of these lines might also be addressed.