Rachel Moritz and Juliet Patterson, Elementary Rituals/Dirge, Albion Books, 2013

Reviewed by Caroline Wilkinson

[Review Guidelines]

Among poetic forms, the sonnet alone is known for its "turn"—the shift from an initial complication toward resolution—but most poems express the essence of this turning. A speaker shifts from one state of understanding toward a new one. The border between states can fall after several stanzas or a single line. In very short poems, such as Lorine Niedecker's "Easter," a turn of thought can happen, surprisingly, after only a few words. The mood and significance evoked by Niedecker's bright and lofty title changes when a robin, glimpsed in the first line, moves. Easter comes back down to earth when Niedecker writes of how the creature:

      raised up
        a worm

In their new chapbooks, poets Rachel Moritz and Juliet Patterson—both influenced by Objectivists such as Niedecker—move through different states of loss and rebirth. With Moritz's chapbook Elementary Rituals, six poems explore the death of a father and birth of a son; and with Patterson's Dirge, one longer poem moves through a father's suicide. These individual pieces shift on their own, taking the reader through moments as startling as the worm being plucked up by Niedecker's "side-eyed" robin. But one of the strangest shifts with these chapbooks comes in between poems. This moment arrives when the reader, finishing one chapbook, moves to the next by turning the book over and on its side.
    Elementary Rituals and Dirge come together in a single volume with an unusual binding. Stitched dos-à-dos, the two chapbooks share a back board while their front covers fall on opposite sides of the book. These opposing sides bear the same image: a rectangle that resembles a section of wood. The resemblance, in part, gets stamped on the reader's mind by a poetic image in Dirge. Patterson opens the poem with a line that falls across the page, usefully long, like the thing being described:

The first bridges were probably made by nature—something as simple as a log
fallen across a stream.

Patterson's line resembles prose and, in a different context, is. Like the bridge that has experienced a previous life as a tree, this line has appeared in an earlier nonfiction piece by Patterson, "For the Last Time," an essay published in Arts and Letters. Dirge is, according to the poet's own description, "an erasure and adaptation" of this essay. The most brutal facts in the poem and essay are the same: a father has hung himself from a bridge "twenty-seven feet high, stretched over a busy thoroughfare." What is literally different from the original, other than the significant cutting of the prose and added lineation, pertains to point of view. While the essay is in the first-person—a reflective "I"—Dirge is in the second-person, a startling "you."
    So instead of Patterson's father committing suicide, "yours" is. Such a shift may be intolerable to certain readers. This chapbook is not for those who must keep their distance. Patterson uses image, line, and white space to make the loss at the poem's center—your loss—more bearable. The poem reveals aspects of nature that console in a basic manner. The moon and sky and even the unbroken cold provide comfort through their endurance. The moon goes on and on, impervious perhaps, but the ability to continue on seems hopeful given the poem's despair and deathly violence. In these lines about the father's last day alive, the moon half-shines through the speaker's and father's despondency:

In the early hours of the morning, your father arrives home from work (he
worked the swing shift at a data recovery company).

Tuesday turned to Wednesday.

The moon was in the last quarter.

The sky was clear, but pitch black.

Not until the end of the poem—when the speaker has come to an idea of mortality that, while "disturbing," is "freeing" —does nature become less cold and matter of fact. Dirge ends with a sharp beginning, as the speaker—still expressed as "you"—glimpses a new moon among the trees. Building its own bridge, this closing connects to the opening in which Patterson examines the root word of bridge: bruw. In that exploration, three words that share this root arise "in the blunt arms of morning: stage, landing, gangway." The poem on its last page presents a tricky vision of nature:

Through a gangway of trees, your mind wanders. 

Early moon, illuminated snare.

Now that the speaker has found some resolution, the moon has become both menacing and highly memorable. The "illuminated snare" catches in the mind more than the "moon in the last quarter" that shone alongside the facts of the father's suicide. The white space throughout this beautifully austere poem gives the reader a place in which to connect scenes and images. The silence of this space endures like the sky through long lines that recall the branches and trunks of trees.
    Is the "you" that slips into "your mind" by the final page of Dirge its own kind of "illuminated snare"? One cannot read Patterson's poem without close empathy for the speaker and father. The word "snare" quietly echoes this demand for immediate empathy: the mechanism that pulls an animal into a snare is called a "noose." Patterson is looking at suicide in a manner that recalls a passage from her nonfiction essay. Analyzing the phrase "to commit suicide," she writes in "For the Last Time":

To commit suicide denotes an act of commission, an implication of criminality, perpetuating the notion of suicide as a metaphor for moral weakness and failure. Shakespeare used the phrase "self-slaughter." Professionals and advocates of suicide awareness offer other alternatives; "self-inflicted death," "ended his life," "died by suicide," or "completed suicide." To better understand suicide, they argue, we have to realize that the cause is unbearable suffering, possibly in the presence of mental illness.

Dirge refuses to let the reader escape the despair of the suicidal father. While the factual depiction of nature that accompanies his end can be seen as a comfort—an expression both of endurance and of light in the dark—it is easy to see how this comfort could turn into a seemingly endless curse. To find a vision of going on and on in a cold daybreak can be inspiring or devastatingly bleak or both.
    The "you" in Dirge not only draws in the reader, it speaks to the chapbook bound to its shared spine. The way in which these works literally connects seems to put them at odds. Elementary Rituals is printed vertically with the plank on the front cover upright, while Patterson's poems are printed at an angle. Read horizontally, Dirge forces the pages to move upwards like the months on a wall calendar. Moritz's poems begin with the great life of the vertical, bursting forth with "First Emanation." From the speaker's "heart" comes:

petals of lily,
tongue or ray, the flower's consuming
rare bleed...

The lines tumble down the page with no periods and few commas. This intense expression of life continues into the second poem, "Dormant," which also does not have much punctuation. As the title suggests, however, the essential life of this poem is a more contained—at least for the moment. The speaker, we learn, is going to give birth to boy whose arrival brings fear. There is no halting his approach: "I pictured his raft, miniscule pilgrim / sailing across / 'and without fear, who are we'."
    This vision of the pilgrim recalls a mythical river Styx where souls are ferried. The resemblance to Styx begins to make sense when we learn of a death in "Dormant." The news arrives in the same images found throughout Dirge:

                                                                             ...the moon
sort of sails over branches

more elegantly, the silence of domestic lawns
is nothing like the silence of death after
not being close enough

To anyone who has read Dirge first, it is immediately apparent that this death is not the suicide from the other chapbook. Moritz's line about "not being close enough" does not resonate with the tight empathy in Patterson's work. While Dirge draws the world inward toward a sense of ensnaring danger, Elementary Rituals moves from an expression of life into an expression of life and death and dispersal. The final poems in the chapbook show a furious "emanation" not only words but of silence and distance. The last poem, "Before," begins:

This fading

Subsequent lines are few and far between. This poem has only twelve words on its first page. The last five of those words speak of what is gone: "from thy grave / of memory."
    This chapbook—this bridge—marks a clear departure in style and content for Moritz and also for Patterson in terms of her poetry. While Patterson has addressed the subject of her father's death in nonfiction, her poems generally have not offered narratives or characters other than an observant speaker. Her poetic realm has been that of the precise image usually placed in short and striking lines. Through these images, she has revealed the path of the mind, often playfully. In "Balcony with Fish" from her thrilling debut collection, The Truant Lover, clear images show the path of the speaker's eye:

Three fish lie on a plate
in front of an open window
on the balcony
through which we can see

a path leading to a gate
surrounded by trees.

While Patterson has played and awakened with her poetry, Moritz has focused the gaze and grounded it in moments that often possess a great deal of emotional weight. She has shown an incredible ability to represent pain as both acute and constant in lines that magically contain such material. The poem, "Abduction," from her emotionally powerful chapbook, Night-Sea,begins:

Wolves howled at night.
How people's faces change.
One room, one window and one door.
The short and simple annals of the poor.

For a poet with such reserve to create a diffuse expression of grief is a remarkable turn. The result is as exquisite as "the flower's consuming," as violent as a "rare bleed."
    The dos-à-dos bindings has its origins in the prayer book, and Elementary Rituals/Dirge has the reverent quiet and scope of a devotional. Here is a prayer book for despair in which one death speaks to another over a natural bridge: a moment in which two deaths occur, a connection of chance and mortality. The result is a brutal meditation on death. Its brutality cannot be separated from the physical book, which is as roughly elegant as a natural and necessary bridge. The volume's recycled paper is too thick to let the reader forget the tree. Taken as a whole, Elementary Rituals/Dirge works like a sonnet that pursues the subject of death on the harshest level. A body is left behind on a bridge. A father who was not known well is dead. Like a sonnet, the book offers a turn between its two parts, a turn as material and as strange as the body: the reader continues from one work to the next by moving the book, that body of the word.