Photo by William Bagnell
Winner of the Dorset Prize, selected by Jane Hirshfield
The aftermath of death leaves many of us dumbstruck—turned inward and inarticulate. Having lost both parents, poet Rusty Morrison attempts to find in that shocked silence a language scored by the intimacy of that aloneness with death. Each poem-series in this book of multi-part sequences evolves a new form, stretching every sentence past expectation so as to disrupt the truisms of grief and find affinities in the shifting flux that death discloses. Readers are offered what the poet experienced in the writing process, not relief but a heightened intensity. Beyond elegy, Morrison’s new work embodies the volatility of death in life, which mourning allows us to experience.
The question underlying After Urgency is how to go on—a question that presses even when we can do nothing else—and each poem in this collection posits a hard-wrestled, multiplying answer of gorgeous continuance. Rusty Morrison instantiates idea and feeling in ways unlike any other poet now writing. The intelligence and aliveness here are omnidirectional. Inhabiting extremity with speech’s own vision and musics, Morrison’s image-assertions are uncanny in their inter-mixing of inner and outer, of precision and threshold-awareness. This is a hallmark book of grief and life.
—Jane Hirshfield, final judge of the Dorset Prize
What contract does lyric language make with the world? From out of this series of elegies for her parents, Rusty Morrison derives the contract’s first tenet: “Essential in the verbal performance of any statement/is its mortality.” From the poet’s poignant reckoning with her own concomitant mortality a Keatsian full-throatedness emerges, but what makes Morrison a post-modern is the way she pairs lyric’s mimesis of interiority with philosophy’s relentless self-scrutiny, “demand[ing] of composition that its contrivance come apart.” The resulting poems revise the basic terms of mourning and the generic tropes of elegy. “Not ‘death’ as the word it was,” she writes, “but an opening where the whole history of ideas might pass through, undetected.” This openness to ideas underwrites Morrison’s refusal to be satisfied with metaphor, simile, and personification, fundamental tools of the Romantic lyric. “Is the visible all reproduction?” she asks, and, in the wake of this question, cites figuration’s failure to render visible anything more than the poet’s own fancy: “Visiting again the hawthorn, which I will not/embed with the more vivid, the charmed life,” she writes ruefully, “this will be my model for every pact/I make with emptiness.” “Released from the guilt of order and arrangement,” After Urgency transforms the private ritual of mourning into its own form of ethics, a practice as old as Antigone, and as tragic.
After Urgency is a wonder of nuanced meditations. It is tempting just to fill up the rest of this paragraph with a few of Morrison’s many—very many—exquisite observations of sights and emotions: “On the back of late day, a clabbered shine”; “A sky low enough for an ant to walk across”; “I stop several times—a form of branching / Which is also a form of being severed.” But space should be spared to stress the astonishing originality of the book as an elegy (“I say ‘Father,’ the view roughens in reply. / I say ‘Mother,’ and the sandy shoal underfoot tosses and flows, school of startled minnows”). Nearly numb as they descend one by one down the ladder of the page into an abyss of silence, the lines are nonetheless continuously arresting in their delicate analyses of grief, its inflections and inexhaustible dimensions, its scald and duration, the way it triggers and owns perceptions: “Heard the earth inventing gravel”: “crickets / scratch against sunset’s bronze.” If there is a phenomenology of grief, Morrison is its furthest explorer—even, its master.
Finalist for the Commonwealth Club of California’s
82nd Annual California Book Award.
My mother died last autumn, my father, in April the previous year.
My dead, I’ve begun to call them, though the words leave me
only more solitary in my dormitory of day-walking as I watch
the shadow-riding fog drown the valley. I hear the wren’s call
traveling down its instinct-ridge, which is quickly too narrow
for my ear to follow, though I’m seeing the grass shift, as if
with an aroused sentience. A little anarchy as an ant, sudden along
my forearm, opens a fault line between its existence and mine.
To move a figure of thought out beyond my own senses,
then back in again, is to observe only my own pulse. Yet
I can use this activity as a measure of the agility, if not
the accuracy, with which I observe the living and the dead.
Reading Rusty Morrison’s After Urgency is like experiencing the unsettling calm after a storm: the sky has turned a disarming shade of blue; the ocean, which took everything, looks deceptively innocent. Wasn’t me…, it says. And there you are, surveying the damage and picking up the pieces, realizing just how much has been lost. Maybe you find some artifact you’d forgotten existed, something that, after having looked at it so long, you stopped seeing altogether. Words, objects, and memories get lost in the margins between before and after.
— Lisa Katz, The Critical Flame
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.
— Michael Northen, Wordgathering
“Morrison is aware, intensely so, of how her mother’s death is being filtered, reshaped, and artificially designed by her own solitary and troubled mind. At the same time, After Urgency
points to the value of what cannot be pinned down by language.” —Jacqueline Kolosov, Cincinnati Review
…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.
— Ben Rutherfurd, The Volta
Morrison’s poems work because they move us. They move us because they pivot back and forth between the poetic and the plain-spoken. That modulation of tone and tension is hard to pull off. In less capable hands such work can feel too tensile. But here, especially in tender moments of directness, the poems let down their armor.
After Urgency’s matrix of loss and beauty made me think of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Like Rilke, Morrison has achieved something miraculous by converting absence into presence. She makes poetry a prayer for this life.
— Dean Rader,
At times I feel like Morrison is observing death in its natural habitat (the world) and taking notes. In one of six poems titled ‘Aftermath,’ Morrison ‘fit[s] an elm, like a lens, in the sightline between’ herself and her mother’s death, studies ‘fallen twigs and leaves/ turning open their shadows,’ and asks a willow to hold still: she does all of this while ceaselessly observing death and its effects on her surroundings.
— David Wojciechowski, Laurel Review
In After Urgency Morrison tells us that if death is a border, then grieving exists between borders. Grief is a “friction” like her mother’s scarf: “As the past’s frequency and the future’s finality—the always / and the never again of my mother wearing her scarf—coexist here.” After Urgency is Morrison’s struggle to live in the present (“I try to walk lighter, while still occupying each step”) even as her mind flicks over and over the details of death and her loss.
— Pia Aliperti, NewPages
This third—and best—volume from California resident Morrison (Whethering) is also by far her saddest, reacting to the deaths of her father and mother. Morrison’s quiet, melodious pages, in verse and in one-sentence paragraphs, with nested, repeating titles for sections ( ' An intersection of leaves and likeness ' is one), shift back and forth between thoughts about death and grief, on the one hand, and efforts to live in the present, on the other, as the poet tries to stay aware of each perceptual detail. One of several poems called ' Aftermath ' considers ' A pattern on the wallpaper in my mother’s house.// Already diffident with my distance from her death. ' More often Morrison tries to illuminate what she has found outdoors: ' Tree-line, water’s edge, places that borders will gather against./ What a body might verge upon, it can neither tame nor rest. ' Hoping to find a new center, a less melancholy way to see the world, Morrison often reveals instead ' the anxiousness in my fixing on thing after thing ' : her methods and goals can bring to mind at once the European experimental literature of grief (Jacques Roubaud, for example) and the restless language of a West Coast Jorie Graham. Often she ends up dejected, and the poems portray dejection well; sometimes, however, her alliterative flourishes à la Hopkins, her quick cuts between the outdoors and the inner life, her ventures into phenomenology, bring a consolation we might not expect.
— Publishers Weekly