EDRIC MESMER Engages
The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story by Rusty Morrison
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, 2008)
After Urgency by Rusty Morrison
(Tupelo Press, North Adams, 2012)
To tye our grief to numbers, measures, feet,
Is not to let it loose, but fetter it —Urian Oakes: Two Books by Rusty Morrison
What is the modern elegy, if the term modern need be invoked at all?
What, our examples of elegy, their antique relevancies?
How does the processional of Rusty Morrison’s The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story (Boise: Ahsahta Press, 2008) and After Urgency (North Adams: Tupelo Press, 2012) construct a secular mourner amid the monumental silences of the commonplace?
Approach Norma Cole’s hanging sculpture Collective Memory (2004), myriad sentences emerge severally.
Strands of fabric printed with quotes from Eliot, Stevens, Oppen—that pantheon, Modernism—hang a-mix that nearer thought, contemporary: Etel Adnan, et al. One strand within my slant of sight: “It took me years to learn how to construct the sentences which would be useful to relate our story to ourselves. Barbara Guest.” Mereness of breath pushes back the densely culled tickertapes—affixed to flattened grate above and strung with gravity—revealing a further quote obscured within: “Thought[s] are things—sometimes they are songs. H.D.”
So hang and move the sentential structures of Rusty Morrison’s The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story.
Like that grate from which our gravitas might dangle, the words “Please Advise Stop” serve for title throughout this collection. “The language at the top of each page can be read as telegraphic,” Claudia Rankine notes; “a lyric refusal of the ‘stop’ that death proposes” (Rankine). Rather than rewriting the elegy, Morrison may be writing elegiacally the secular utterances of grief.
walked barefoot in the spill of loamy earth between redwoods stop
accompanied by no sermon stop
my repetitive gesture will eventually wear through its surrounding world please
Addressed, the earth; redressed—rebuffed—the offering, religion. Only the serial motion of routine, its attempt to order or adhere to reality, turns into a sort of prayer by way of the recurrent end tag, “please.”
These “end tags” may be read as telomeric—a processional parting from. This is the right-margined page; these phrases of continual sentencing. Morrison’s elegy is disconcerted, a representation itself of loss, represented as it is by the residual, structured trellises of image by which a griever might grasp her way back toward the day-to-day.
Most jarring to many a mourner, the way loss coalesces in and among our routines. How does Morrison’s elegy diverge from or compliment earlier elegiac modes? such models that might include Katherine Philips, Urian Oakes, JohnKeats.
Take for example, in “In memory of that excellent person Mrs. Mary Lloyd of Bodidrist in Denbighshire, who dy’d the 13th of November 1656, soon after she came thither from Penbrokeshire,” where Katherine Philips writes of the schism between mourning silently and speaking grief,
I cannot hold, for though to write be rude,
Yet to be silent were ingratitude (Philips, 111).
The threat of unmemory quakes the poet from conceit: “‘Tis hard to write, but harder to forbeare (Philips, 112). The elegy of the everyday is bountiful and ubiquitous before the modern (Philips having written most of hers for those gone to early graves). By contrast, Morrison’s reworking might signal a generational loss; specifically, in this first volume, an adult daughter mourns her father. As with Philips’, a domestic mourning is made public:
as if it were a stranger’s hand my hand again replaying the reaching out it failed to do stop
gauging the weight of each inherited object ignoring the object itself stop
dwelling increasingly on the floor between memory involuntarily pushing memory
Philips’ elegies crossed the private-public spheres as a form of memorializing; in the words of scholar Elizabeth Hodgson: “Philips creates inward monuments to the dead that are somehow also in public view” (Hodgson,107). Morrison’s image-complexes may resist the monumental.
Morrison’s elegies claim a public space for private mourning, but one that reminds us of the persistence of the everyday, a refusal of the monument as such.
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
It is the everyday imagery that reminds the speaker most of her constant separation. The monument is dispersed. The monument falls within the domestic. “I” becomes the monument, moving through that screen door’s arcing cadence.
Of Philips Hodgson also writes: “[t]he poem appears to make the mourner, not the dead, the liminal site of social anxiety” (Hodgson, 126).
Similarly, this poetry of intimate witness—
there are thoughts he must have entered through they were only half-open stop
my father who entered but then there was what only a death could leave stop
as I watched stop
Morrison’s mourner might: seeks refuge from the mausoleum of elegy’s imagery: “featureless is the vault in which I want to hide myself undetected stop” (TK, 16); flee into the everyday: “the banister offers its stability even as it flees up its flight of stairs please” (TK, 24); weigh the solace of objects against the object of solace: “what fingers tapping on a prayer-book will do to the prayer stop” (TK, 30).
The American Puritans sought refuge in metaphysical monuments.
In elegy, Urian Oakes wrote:
But live he shall in many a gratefull Breast,
Where he hath rear’d himself a Monument,
A Monument more stately than the best,
On which Immensest Treasures have been spent (Oakes, 211).
This may be the inverse of Philips’ mourner—the public loss made private through metaphysical wayfaring. The whole world is changed by such loss, the monument its contrast: “Mourn that this Great Man’s faln in Israel: Lest it be said, with him New-England fell!” (Oakes, 220).
Morrison’s mourner might triangulate this, finding loss is the crux between what’s changed and unchanged; what is passage.
with only the slightest effort I might abandon every father stop
or read them all cover to cover please
eyes turn like the telling of stories first inward then out stop
The language here is not sacred but ordinary. Like Holbein’s Christ, the enormity and proximity of its unadorned tragedy bears nothing that might elevate, alleviate our all-consuming pathos.
“Why has this death occurred?” asks Jeffrey Hammond in The American Puritan Elegy: “What does it mean? Or, more darkly, does it mean anything at all?” (Hammond, 208).
The totalizing threat of loss is precisely that it may mean nothing at all; that life may go on, without notice. “[T]he long inhale of a cigarette the short exhale of a sunset stop” (TK, 27). “Such poems discover that they do not mourn the dead but rather mourn language’s inability to transcend the speaker’s world” (Rankine).
Mourning is situational: arising from a specific occasion, it usually fades as the mourner adjusts to the loss. Melancholia, by contrast, is linked not to a particular event in the world but to perceptions regarding the very nature of the world. We see melancholia as pathology, and might indeed spot its presence in the Puritan elegist’s call for mourners to move from the situational response—what we would call “healthy” mourning—to something larger and more systemic.” (Hammond, 208)
After Urgency (2012) might then be said to open upon a new threshold; that transition to that something more systemic:
I hear nothing of the electrical storm’s hemorrhaging,
then am nearly deafened by the reverb of a cricket-wing’s rasp (AU, 59).
So melancholia might acclimate the mourner to its altered state:
An ear, as a cavity, might attune to its own
empty space, and thereby grow more familiar
with the resonances in other absences (AU, 17).
Richard Burton, compiling his Anatomy of Melancholy, thought melancholy to be self-contained and cyclical with sorrow:
an inseparable companion, the mother and daughter of melancholy, her epitome, symptom, and chief cause. As Hippocrates hath it, they beget one another, and tread in a ring, for sorrow is both cause and symptom of this disease (Burton, 225).
This is where the mourner’s grief subsumes trope of landscape—
My dead aren’t the source of my grief, but only travel it.
The way wild grasses travel this hillside (AU, 34)
still with recourse to the diluvial—
Tree-line, water’s edge, places that borders will gather against.
What a body might verge upon, it can neither tame nor test (AU, 35).
For the moderns, mourning had become oblique—to escape clichés of war and mourning and propaganda; as Anita Helle writes:
The blurring of private sorrow with public mourning is a familiar concept from historical studies of war elegy, where individual deaths often bow under the weight of the collective (121).
For Morrison’s mourner, this saturnalia bends the collective under the weight of the individual; it is that Puritan rejection of the world, “New-England” felled, just as it is also that Philipsian monument made public:
My mother is dead. My father is dead. To say the thing, as thing.
This is weakness.
Death as decoy,
floating upon the entirely un-governable and un-consenting (AU, 43).
As Rankine wrote of the preceding book,
[t]he 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…(Rankine).
So the outer world and the inner begin a doleful negotiation, as pieces of the natural world become the deplored imagery of the psyche’s distortion:
The eucalyptus offers neither shade nor windbreak.
But traceries of peeling bark, so delicate
as to form within me an inner arch (AU, 28).
Thus in brief, to our imagination cometh, by the outward sense or memory, some object to be known (residing in the foremost part of the brain) which he, misconceiving or amplifying, presently communicates to the heart, the seat of all affections (Burton, 219).
That focal point through which the elegy has passed may be the modern. How far it now seems from Keats, from Wordsworth; the former’s “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—” (Keats) with abluted pastoral, the monkish pantomime, the eternal against the razor’s edge of the mortal—all nodes of grief along that chambered calculus of human pi:
All the vowels of cows disappearing into landscape, no dissonance.
Sharpening a vague attention on the brightness of a rising star
is the opposite of mastering the emotions involved (AU, 40).
(Herein, I have not said Lucy’s name.)
There is much to be said of silence in these books, elisions images flood. “The elegist is silent, not because his heart is too empty to say anything, but because it is too full. He seems to understand everything until he comes to put it into words, and that may betray his want of understanding” (Shaw, 112). It is the paradox of such grief to have to speak, to be unable to.
[…] and there is no end to tossing
pebbles and shells that are not the ocean
into the ocean of pebbles and shells (AU, 69).
Burton, Richard. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Eds. Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1951.
Cole, Norma. Collective Memory. 2004. Mixed media. The Poetry Collection of the University
Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, Buffalo, New York.
Hammond, Jeffrey A. The American Puritan Elegy: A Literary and Cultural Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Helle, Anita. “‘Blasé Sorrow’: Ultramodernity’s Mourning at the Little Review, 1917-20.”
Modernism and Mourning. Ed. Patricia Rae. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2007.
Hodgson, Elizabeth. “‘In every breast her monument’: Katherine Philips.” Grief and Women Writers in the English Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. EBook Library. Web. June 2015.
Keats, John. “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art.” poetryfoundation.org. Poetry Foundation. Web. 10 November 2015.
Morrison, Rusty. The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story. Boise: Ahsahta Press, 2008. Print.
—. After Urgency. North Adams: Tupelo Press, 2012. Print.
Oakes, Urian. “An Elegie.” American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Harrison T. Meserole. University Park: Penn State Press, 1993. Second printing.
Philips, Katherine. The Collected Works of Katherine Philips, The Matchless Orinda. Ed. with textual notes and commentary by Patrick Thomas. Volume I: The Poems. Essex: Stump Cross Books, 1990.
Rankine, Claudia. “Please Advise Stop: Claudia Rankine on Rusty Morrison.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, 16 June 2010. Web. 23 June 2015.
Shaw, W. David. Elegy & Paradox: Testing the Conventions. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
 Urian Oakes, from the poem “To a Reader.” American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Harrison T. Meserole. University Park: Penn State Press, 1993. Second printing.
 A third collection, Book of the Given (Las Cruces: Noemi Press, 2011), not under review here, could be read as completing a trilogy with the titles at hand.
Edric Mesmer is the author of of monodies and homophony (Outriders Poetry Project, 2015), coeditor of Minnows Small as Sixteenth Notes: The Collected Poems of Norma Kassirer (BlazeVOX, 2015), and collator of the journal Yellow Field. Poems recently appear or are forthcoming in AMP, The Volta, and Zarf.