Las Cruces, NM: Noemi Press, 2011. 74 pages. $12.00.
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Rusty Morrison’s quiet, strikingly honest third collection, Book of the Given, navigates grief, love, and fear of estrangement from one’s partner after the death of a loved one. Morrison weaves two theoretical texts—Georges Bataille’s Eroticism, Death, & Sensuality and Tears of Eros—into her lines, lifting and writing toward phrases that serve alternately as points of departure and as anchors for the poems’ observations. Unlike other project-based books, Book of the Given reveals its constraint as its neatly divided ten sections unfold, rather than forecasting it ahead of time, alternating between poems that formally accommodate Bataille’s texts and prose poems that pick up the threads of the theoretical conversation.
In Morrison’s “scripted” poems, Bataille’s presence emerges through the italicization of phrases, followed by the reprinting of the relevant passage in its entirety. This formal choice highlights the juxtaposition between Morrison’s language and Bataille’s language: when the two writers diverge both in intent and content, when they engage in more direct conversation. Unleashed from this constraint, Morrison’s “unscripted” prose poems are haunted by the theoretical texts, like an overheard conversation half-remembered. Without the formal reminder of Bataille’s presence, these poems have more freedom to navigate through a complex range of emotional and observational registers, from sensual and sensory details grounded in the experience of the body to the heady abstractions I’ve come to associate with Morrison’s work.
One of the effects of these alternating sections is to create an ongoing tension between the speaker’s intellectualism and her emotional responses to love and loss. Like Bataille, Morrison attempts to probe the uncomfortable relationship between sex and death:
No word to draw out
the dark flock
of our threat. Inside the flock,
only vibrations intone where we might stroke.
Your hand on my belly’s skin
and my dead—who are they? Faceless as sex—will rise to it.
of the clarity in a mirror’s glass, which would
locate them firmly in the realm of inner experience.
The “faceless” dead who haunt the speaker’s inner life are brought to the surface by the touch of her partner’s hand. Through this complex call and response, the poem both reenacts and alters the structure of thought in the original source material: “Eroticism as seen by the objective intelligence is something monstrous, just like religion. Eroticism and religion are closed books to use if we do not locate them firmly in the realm of inner experience.” Just as Bataille argues for the re-valuation of inner experience in order to counter the authority granted to scientific observation, Morrison attempts to capture how a lived experience, like sex, is internalized by the speaker in the wake of tragedy. The speaker unapologetically makes room for eroticism in the face of death, attempting to crack open the language that will allow her to probe her own experiences more deeply.
In many of the poems collected here, language forms a barrier between lived experience and its expression through art, as much as it gives rise to elegy and contemplation. There is “No word to draw out / the dark flock / of our threat”: language fails the speaker as she confronts the deaths of those she loves even as the threat to her mortality compels her to “plunge into the silence that most frightens us.” Morrison, who lost both of her parents last year, has dealt with their deaths more directly in her newest collection After Urgency, which won Tupelo Press’s Dorset Prize. The themes of loss and grief explored in After Urgency are also palpable in Book of the Given but much less explicit. The grief of the speaker is quieter, though no less real, in the presence of a loved one:
Situating ourselves in any object
is always a threat. Pretend instead
that words can make a humanness between us.
That hand as “hand”
might hold us,
a little longer.
As in the poem above, the speaker’s attempts to create the world through language define the terms of her relationship; her lover’s hand is not just something to reach out and hold, but a crucial component of the language that cuts a path back to the speaker’s generosity for her partner.
A sustained meditation on the longevity of love relationships, Book of the Given records and invents the rituals that must be performed to sustain them. The collection’s first prose poem, for example, stages a baptism: “Each morning, I hold aloft an infant image of us, as you baptize her new again. Let stillness fall from her, I chant, ripen her vulnerability. The revival music you are playing on our old jukebox is luring an unusual number of souls from my secret neighborhood.” By juxtaposing religious ceremony with the familiarity of a home record player, Morrison invites us to witness a relationship as recognizable as the lines that describe it are surprising. Throughout the five sections of “unscripted” prose poems in Book of the Given, Morrison maintains this impression of shared intimacy. Her clarity and honesty create moments of beauty, tempered by the knowledge of regret:
I want to sit beside you, looking you in the eye, as close as that. Which means not looking past the point where it becomes only looking that is looking back. Left with room enough, we might witness how much our own interior distances demand of us. There was an apple in the branches of my dream, going the long way on its own to ripeness. Reaching ruined it.
As is perhaps evident both from these lines and from the poems that draw on Bataille, there is a holiness to interiority in Book of the Given. Morrison’s work not only investigates “how much our own interior distances demand of us” but also how our attempts to capture those distances fail. To this degree, the speaker’s notion of time deeply affects her private acts of encountering the world. She is complicit in her own internal making and unmaking. “No matter how closely I watch your hand move toward mine,” the speaker muses, “several of its emotions I miss. Memory, for instance. The way it hides us, but only from ourselves.”
Morrison’s epigraph, taken from a Rosalyn Diprose poem, captures the ongoing battle between self and other that propels Book of the Given through its interrogation of difference: “in assuming that the other is the same, one reduces the other to the self, / one takes from the other.” Thankfully, Morrison’s book is a generous book. It recognizes the epistemic violence described in Diprose’s poem, frets about it, tries to avoid it. To this extent, Book of the Given is a unique offering: there is the surface, the “clarity in a mirror’s glass” and there is the “realm of inner experience.” There is what is said, and what is left to silence. What is taken from life, including what we are capable of taking from others, and what we breathe back into it. Much of the collection attempts to honor not only the inner experiences of the speaker, but also the inner lives of those who populate her thoughts—lives that remain unknowable and distinct, no matter how finely crafted the bridges built to access them.