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
- Publishers Weekly starred review
- “Please Advise Stop”: Claudia Rankine, American Poet
- Rebecca Porte, Boston Review
- Amanda Maule, Diagram
- Something Beautiful
Rusty Morrison’s the true keeps calm biding its story (Ahsahta, 2008) is a lyric refusal of the “stop” that death proposes. This elegiac push against the silence that is the deceased father evolves into a critique of the limits of language. “My father’s death stays demanding,” writes Morrison, and that demand necessitates this haunting struggle with silence that proved unforgettable.
After the death of his father, Samuel Beckett wrote, “I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him.” This is the sense one has reading Morrison’s collection, but instead of fields and ditches, one finds the self-pacing within the father’s house. Morrison’s poems, though their aphoristic form defies any sense of a linear narrative, turn on the climbing and re-climbing of stairs in a house that now stands for the field of the lyric.
The creaking, moaning stairs become metaphor for the poems themselves. The speaker/reader, climbing and descending the stairs, echoes the impossibility of lyric access to the dead; remember Orpheus. The speaker’s perceptions, descriptions, and conclusions are all language moments attempting to reach the unreachable like some telegraph machine that sends out messages without anyone to receive them.
At times, it feels as if Morrison might be advising her readers about the frustrations inherent in any engagement with the elegiac. Such poems discover that they do not mourn the dead but rather mourn language’s inability to transcend the speaker’s world: “my father’s dying makes stairs of every line of text seeming neither to go up or go down stop,” writes Morrison.
The built-in self-consciousness inherent in Morrison’s collection, its awareness of its inability to communicate beyond the fact of its occasion, the death of the father, remains for me the most heartbreaking experience of this collection. Each of the nine lines, grouped into three tercets per page, ends with one of these three words: please, advise, stop. In fact, each page begins, in the top left corner, with the request “please advise stop.” The word stop functions both as self-admonishment, in which the stop seems to erase what precedes it, and as pause, as in a telegram’s indication of a period or comma.
The language at the top of each page can be read as telegraphic—as simply, please advise; read this way, the phrase sets up the page as a play between the request and the lyric that follows. In this way, each page is directed to the father, the reader, the world as a single iteration, and the “please advise” morphs into a salutation. Equally evocative is the notion that the opening heading presses against the lyric that follows—please advise stop—as in one part of the speaker’s consciousness speaking to another part. The part that generates the lyric speaks against all rational knowledge of the futility of reaching the deceased father. The opening seems to be advocating for the abandonment of the lyric that follows it or for the sort of climbing out of the self that grief wills. Because this form (left justified heading/right justified lyric) never deviates throughout the collection, one gets the sense that the driving grief that has compelled these elegiac poems will continue even when bracketed by the opening request that is then echoed by the final plea to advise on every page.
please advise stop
it was only from out of my thoughts that I could climb stop
not from the room please
my father’s dying offered an indelicate washing of my
the way the centers of some syllables scrub away all other
his corpse merely preparing to speak its new name at the
speed of nightfalling please
each loss grows from a previously unremarkable vestigial organ
will I act now as if with a new limb stop
a phantom limb of the familial please advise
Oddly, what reconstitutes the power of the lyric (never mind that it was never abandoned despite all requests to stop) is the speaker’s self-conscious use of metaphor. Because each noun in these poems houses itself as well as its metaphoric possibilities, the speaker eventually follows language beyond the house into a world where nothing looks back at her from the house of the dead father: “landscape gave a brief account of itself then went on falling behind my back stop,” writes Morrison. The 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: “reason can’t bring something on the verge of real but unwilling to become it stop.”
the true keeps calm biding its story is one of those rare books of poetry that allows you to exist inside each line. Each utterance, whether concluded by stop, please, or please advise, functions as a pause in the consciousness of loss. I understood this collection as a need to metaphorize grief, yet it brings me closer to the actual world. Each time I return to it, I find myself holding lines in my mind as I would an object in my hand, considering its relationship to what surrounds it, to the world, to myself. Morrison compels us “not simply to lie on grass but to finesse from the fine blades a rescue stop.”
The James Laughlin Award recognizes and supports a poet’s second book. The judges for the 2008 Award were Rae Armantrout, Claudia Rankine, and Bruce Smith.
Reprinted from the Spring 2009 issue of American Poet, Vol. 37. Copyright © Claudia Rankine 2009