Reviewed October 19, 2012 by Ben Rutherfurd.
Rusty Morrison’s recently published collection, After Urgency, evoked for me Emily Dickinson’s words, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes. / The nerves sit ceremonious and still.” As the title suggests, these poems were written in the aftermath of pain and the midst of mourning, following the deaths of the poet’s parents, and the quieter, more reflective poems feel as though they were shocked into clarity. Formal in its composition and coolly austere in its tone, After Urgency is a collection of elegies that reflect on personal struggle but dwell in the scenic surroundings of Morrison’s home in Richmond, California. Immersing itself in the natural world, the book becomes a meditation on the ability, or inability, of the sensorial to transport us beyond grief.
How does grief assault the senses, broadening or narrowing our perception? What can the transformative power of the imagination offer personal struggle, and should that imaginative power be trusted? One of the ways After Urgency meditates on these questions is by both employing and interrogating figurative language. While the use of metaphor or simile is rare, its occurrence often feels aware of itself as a heightened and, perhaps, false experience of the world. As in the first half of the poem “In-Solace":
How fragile, the orphaned banks of an evaporated stream.
The flesh-cuts in a once cultivated vale. Dirt, uproarious in wind.
Dangerous, to make every object into a doll with a name,
a meaning with a past, a met equivalent,
and call this witnessing.
A witnessing that thinks it can brush away its objects, like mayflies.
Having noted her own potential slip into melodrama with “fragile,” “orphaned banks” and “flesh-cuts,” Morrison turns her attention to the dangers of metaphor itself, even with some self-mockery, as the image of the doll suggests her attempts are mere play. Of course, Morrison does allow herself the simile at the end of the passage, in which objects of scrutiny are brushed away “like mayflies,” but this image seems to carry with it the knowledge of its own naïveté—that this is the sort of false expendability that figurative language threatens. The most effective poems in the book are those that, like this one, tow the line between poetry and prose, employing long lines that occasionally allow for enjambments. I continually return to the first poem of the book’s first section, “Nowhere to Say Daughter,” for how the trajectory of each line makes it a lyric unit unto itself:
Living past their deaths isn’t a deed I accomplish modestly.
The least emergence of memory is a great oak, elemental, obsessively conceived.
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. My sky of going forward comes unwound, releasing its long tether of origin.
Which won’t be called back. Like a dog running after a lark.
The episodic quality produces a tone that is at once authoritative and resigned. The passage also demonstrates Morrison’s mastery at fusing the deeply descriptive with rhetorical activity. Indeed, while Morrison’s more layered ruminations are sometimes overwhelming—“I can understand this only by posing as // . . . a passenger still asleep to the gesture // I am traveling to become”—an exciting aspect of After Urgency is Morrison’s capacity to concretize the abstract. As when “A faceless distraction is noisily prowling/ through the rooms in my mirror/ that I’d already set in order”; or when “the past’s frequency and the future’s finality—the always/ and never again of my mother wearing her scarf—coexist here.” If her attempts to give form to her emotional terrain become tedious for us to wade through, the difficulty is tempered by Morrison’s ability to see each thought to the end without letting the music go slack.
I want to look at a short poem that is founded on the aforementioned conundrum of figurative language—that is, Morrison’s hesitation to metaphorize her environment—but with a different formal structure. The poem is one of many titled “After Urgency,” all of which send long, syntactically taut sentences careening through couplets:
Looking out the BART train window, I see a train
passing in the opposite direction, with its wide windows
clean enough and its cars empty enough to suggest that I
see through the other train’s far window something more
than the landscape that returns to normal once
the other train has passed—something similar
to what arises behind my competing ideas about death
as I watch them pass at cross-purposes within me.
While this poem may seem limited in its goals, intending only to assemble an image, the progression of that image deserves attention. This is the only overt occurrence in the book of an urban setting, and the choice to use the dissonant word BART seems an announcement that we are not in any sort of figurative landscape; this train is as far from the symbolic as possible. Yet Morrison does, with the isolated words “something similar” left hanging at the end of the third couplet, allow the simile. Despite her insistence that we are not in a figurative realm, there is the awareness that the reader will nonetheless draw the metaphor. Still more impressive about this small poem, however, is the way Morrison uses the many lenses of windows to impede not just the speaker’s vision but our own, by distracting us from what the actual simile is: not the trains’ similarity to the “competing ideas about death,” but the literal landscape and the landscape of death itself, neither of which receive any description. Like Morrison, we are kept blind to both. The poem is a good example of how, when she gives up her stately, episodic lines and interrogates a single image, Morrison experiments with both her own and our perceptions.
Yet it is the stately and episodic that are borne out in After Urgency. One of the enjoyable formal features of the book is how the silences and pauses Morrison sets in between her lines coincide with the shifts in her thought. In the best cases, the airiness of a poem, with rare and controlled enjambments that let us linger on the breaks and offer dual readings, allow such a close proximity to the pace of Morrison’s thinking that her abstractions have a near physical quality. Which makes perfect sense, given the overt attempt to fuse the sensorial with the conceptual, a lyric mode with a rhetorical mode. Here is the beginning of one of the “Aftermath” poems, subtitled “Ratios,” where the use of end-stopped lines and white space tracks Morrison’s cognition at an almost uncomfortable closeness:
I use fretfulness to broadcast to myself
my whereabouts in my mother’s house.
But a breath drawn to edge of lung’s expansion,
needn’t immediately fall back
but might examine expansion’s oblivion.
While the first line is broken to get the off-rhyme between “myself” and “house,” and to be matched rhythmically with the second line, logic then seems to take the place of music, and the lines become formal. Why the comma end-stopping the third? It makes us physically participatory, forcing us to pause after taking that breath with Morrison, and hold it in for a second. The breaks are so logical and follow her considerations so acutely, sectioning the second sentence into its noun phrase and two verb phrases, that the slowness becomes eerie, the clarity of mind suspect. Here is the rest of the poem:
I step outside. A Weave of wind rushes against my ear—
if its wicker were only wide enough to offer
hand holds for climbing out of my body’s briar.
A hummingbird hovering in the bottle-brush shrub—
that appearance of invisibility
is its wings.
The final image of the poem returns us to one of Morrison’s central concerns: the disparity between reality and our perception of reality. That disparity is—and this seems to be Morrison’s dilemma—what affords the imagination its transformative powers, but that transformation threatens mutability upon our experiences. Though never resolved, this disparity drives After Urgency, and forces Morrison to continually question her environment as a source of reprieve from pain, as though “To move a figure of thought out beyond my own senses, / then back again, is to observe only my own pulse.”