Telegraph as Ouija: Colie Collen reviews Rusty Morrison’s The True Keeps Calm Biding its Story


The True Keeps Calm Biding its Story, Rusty Morrison, Ahsahta Press

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In November’s issue of The Blue Letter, an email from Rusty Morrison is quoted in the editors’ introduction, “I often experience, in the poems I most often return to, a sense that the writer is working down through the layers [of] his or her cultural selvings, and so, in a sense, disrobing.” In The True Keeps Calm Biding its Story, Rusty Morrison’s newest book, the speaker need not undress; the voice we hear is entirely naked before the book begins, and practically disembodied at that. At points, the speaker seems shocked to have a physical form at all.

so cold the air is granular against skin’s gray stop

I bang this sheet of tin and call it listening stop

In her bio, Morrison writes that she was working in this particular form, with poems written as telegraphs to “the now-right-here–the moment’s immediacy,” when sideswiped by the unexpected death of her father. Appropriately, she offers Brenda Hillman’s Bright Existence (which Hillman was at work on when a close friend suddenly died) and Death Tractates (a collection about that death and its consequences) as examples of “revelatory reading experiences.”

Yet Morrison avoids mention of the great similarity, and the difference, between these texts and The True Keeps Calm Biding its Story. Where Hillman says she “could not make the two [collections] cohere,” Morrison is able to use what was a formal experiment as a means to tackle the impossibility of death. She is able to communicate not only with “the now-right-here” but with a host of persistent, conscious and subconscious vectors. Her father’s sudden death necessitated an investigation of disappearance, memory, inheritance, and the simultaneous evasions and compassions of the natural world.

my father’s dying offered an indelicate washing of my perception stop

the way the centers of some syllables scrub away all other sound stop

Through repeated references to scrubbing, polishing, and washing, the reader comes to understand Morrison’s particularly privileged and painful position: one defined by exposure, one with the pronounced ability to see and mark boundaries, one in which history and reality as previously defined are moving away in one-point perspective, and one in which language becomes an achingly inexact, albeit necessary tool with which to take advantage of the senses’ new sensitivity.

At moments, the elements at work in the telegrams speak as though no intermediary were present. (“The natural environment speaks its languages to the physical body,” Morrison writes in her bio.) Through most of The True Keeps Calm Biding its Story, however, what is most apparent are the merely semi-permeable boundaries between the self and all possible pen-pals, living or otherwise.

the chainlink fence holds separate the severed air stop

the flower stems will always seem to break at the water line stop

Often, these boundaries have a sort of agency of their own. Though they may be entirely transparent, separation is enforced, and each can seem to break what passes through it, as happens to flower stems in a vase. Refraction, the passing from one medium to another, is as proper a metaphor as any for what seems to occur in these poems.

any edge can be sharpened to rip right through sky’s cellophane stop

touch this last flash of sunset where it cracks the glass city stop

At times, a language of violence and frustration is enacted against the speaker’s ambivalent ideas of boundaries and their permeability. Can they be cracked or ripped, and passed through, or are they illusory? In this first example, any edge can be sharpened, yet in the second, the break is made by the last flash of sunset, a force upon which the speaker has no control. A lack of authority and a lack of response from beyond result in the expression of frustration and desperation at points in The True Keeps Calm Biding its Story:

stripped of its leaves and branches the sky is all the more hidden please advise

I think I hear nature repeat but it merely stares back at me please

Nature in these poems remains elusive, regardless of physical attempts to enter it, and despite an evident respect for the natural world. A great familiarity with earth, plants, and the night sky exists in these poems, and yet nature fails to bring any direct sort of comfort. The natural world merely stares, and that merely conveys the great lack that the speaker in confronting.

when I’m attentive as if to a lecture how little will green have revealed stop

a silence from which I am excluded can teach me only exclusion’s precision stop

there is a motion in his death like a microscope focusing stop

In this way, so much of the text is about the world’s retreat: Objects and emotional landscapes seem to move away in a kind of constant single-point perspective. Though the motion of a microscope focusing seems the opposite of retreat, it does represent the swift movement into a world beyond communication. And language, as means of communication, becomes useless when a boundary such as death exists between the speaker and her target.

emotion is derived from the Latin exmovere meaning to move out of or away from stop

the banister offers its stability even as it flees up its flight of stairs please

my father’s dying makes stairs of every line of text seeming neither to go up or down stop

a correct word would steady more than itself like a banister please

In this instance, language fails entirely to convey, in its meaning as to move. Text as means of sense-making is undercut—lines of text seem neither to go up or down. Words can provide support, stability, but only if entirely correct. And stability exists in parallel with a fleeing movement, a great sweep upward.

Indeed, the remarkable correctness of language in The True Keeps Calm Biding its Story is its most incredible feature. Each individual line is condensed to a nearly symmetrical assemblage. Each poem is similarly made up of these constellated lines. Their stability is inherent, though each leads into the emptiness of mystery. Repeated descriptions (frilled edges, cursive letters, an open window, a stage) which flicker through the whole offer a slim patterning. None of these poems stands as well in isolation. The extraordinarily delicate exposure of Morrison’s voice provides a ground on which to read the world. The True Keeps Calm Biding its Story is its own namesake: a small quiet patience within infinitely larger concentric universes of quiet patience.

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