Rusty Morrison's After Urgency

Review by: 
Virginia Konchan

Book coverAfter Death, Music:
Tightening the Slackened Strings of the Lyre

The landscape of Rusty Morrison's newest poetry collection, After Urgency, is one rid not only of music but the hope of its return.

From “Verdancies of repetition”:

Struck again and again, destiny might never chime.

Toss consonants against the vowels for luck of true correspondence.

Rhyme-fellows remain distinct even at a distance, like two wings frame
the jay’s flight.

Harbor the hidden accentual in the beautiful repose after vowelling.

Musicality (prosody, in lyric terms) is “marked” in Anglo-Saxon poetry by accentual meter, a rhythmic structure wherein the lines are organized by stress and alliteration: repetition without “accentual” difference, as the poet describes recurring in this poem, is figured as death, and poesis, within this frame, as a random pairing of sonic effects (the order of chance or “luck”) without the magnetized “chiming” or “destiny” of meter (rhyme, rhythm). The lost concordance of language renders life or its carapace (form) “beyond” the emergence, and emergency, of language, making the poet’s predicament that of relevance, and acceptance of the logic of the “dead” (strangely akin to the logic of capital): “The first law governing the dead must be proliferation, the second,/ illusion.  A shaft of shimmering irruption alters everything.”

Derrida’s différence is the trace that marks out the “difference” between plurality and singularity: an “absolute difference” would signify a beginning and an end to the endless slide of metaphor and rhetoricity (were Derridean discourse to account for beginnings and ends). Deconstruction for Derrida was a mode not of critique but of “double affirmation” based on the revelation of difference: the very “constitution of textuality” in the words of Irene E. Harvey, in which the twofold process of timing and spacing (the “economy of difference”) in lyric terms, must too be separated. 

Within the context of mourning parentage (a trope that bears up under the weight of the personal and the deconstructive loss of “origin” in “Aftermath”), however, is the acknowledgment that the poet’s very vocation (“to say the thing, as thing”) pales in the face of the objective world, to which referential language remains a footnote (“Outside my atmospherics,/ the world”).

The poet’s corralling of the universe into conceptual frameworks through metaphor (substitution) or metonymy (objectification), can’t account for indeterminancy of reference or the motility of the living poem itself:  language in this sense becomes parasitic, if not violent:  (“floating upon the entirely un-governable and un-consenting”; “Dangerous, to make every object into a doll with a name . . . and call this witnessing”). Writing and speech (categorically separated since the Greeks), for the sobered speaker of After Urgency, are both subject to the limitations of logos:

Essential in the verbal performance of any statement

is its morality. The little circle of time that talking makes,

like a hunger-producing food.

If the poet’s social role (however unacknowledged or anterior to the symbolic order, for Shelley) historically has been to give speech to the unspeakable, through symbolic language that makes meaning out of purely affective sound, Morrison’s collection suggests that language is either no longer adequate to representing the “world” (“letters fall down the well and drown”) or that such representations are no longer necessary (“casting my needfulness as decoration.”)

The modernist poets’ dream that poetic language was “equal” to the world or that meaning could not only fit but remain closed within boxes of signification (concepts or words), has, today, given way to the elegiac ars poetica, writ large, of contemporary poetry, wherein language-as-event is now considered impossible (or the striving after the eternal impossible, futile). What’s left: a poetics of erasure, not of the poem or its “traitorous focal point” but rhetoric; the poems that constitute this collection are bleached not only of their own signifying powers (“Analyses can’t govern a scald, a cornea scar, a floater just off-focus,/ at the site-level of existence.  Is existence.”) but of the hubris of perspectival validity, the sunlight that “so easily abolishes philosophy” leaving, after nightfall, only the “stain of perspective.”

Recalling Barthes’ description of photography as a “message without a code,” the sublime of this collection (nature, unbidden) is both message without code and code without message:  From “Fielding particulars”: “No tree in a message./  No message in a tree.”

The funereal atmosphere of After Urgency (“For our death party, I wear briar embellishments”) may be premature: without poetic language to mark the inessential difference of one’s body from other bodies, and its dependence on the natural environment to enter discourse, it becomes impossible to articulate being (ours or another’s): we must, then, keep marking the failure of language to capture the objective world and celebrate this survivalist paradox as aesthetics—the poem’s, and our own, disappearance-in-time.

Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Boston Review, the Believer, and the New Yorker. She is a Ph.D student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  

After Urgency
by Rusty Morrison
Tupelo Press, 2012
$16.95, ISBN978-1-932195-41-5