Rusty Morrison, the true keeps calm biding its story, Ahsahta Press, 2008

Reviewed by Amanda Maule

[Review Guidelines]

In her second book of poetry, Rusty Morrison gives readers a fresh look at using formal techniques in poetry. These poems are very controlled:

  1. Every poem is comprised of three tercets.
  2. Every line is unpunctuated and ends with "stop", "please", or "please advise" mirroring the format of a telegraph.
  3. All the poems are right-justified.
  4. Each poem is titled, "Please Advise Stop."

These poems better resemble one book-length poem than a collection of singular poems.
      Too formal? I would say not, because the formal techniques rarely distract from the content and composition of these poems. She juxtaposes formality with the internal chaos of dealing with her father's death. By putting what I would consider uncontainable content into such a strict container, she both gives the reader some comfort with a conspicuous pattern and challenges the meaning of pattern. For this reason alone, this oddly organized book deserves the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets.
      Morrison most frequently employs imagistic lines, frequently prodding nature for an outlet to express grief. These images often live in the space between the sublime and the surreal—pairing admiration and pain:

elm leaves more hidden by other leaves aren't dark but more deeply lit stop


the long inhale of a cigarette the short exhale of a sunset stop

When she engages in more abstract than concrete concepts, she does so with such an intimacy of voice that the reader begins to feel that he or she is the speaker:

if the story wasn't intended for me why was I holding my breath stop


receive without asking kindness to look under its mask stop

Her exploration of grief, especially in the lines where I or you appear, resonates and is thunderously realistic. Her language is emotionally charged and thought provoking without over-burdening her readers and becoming elegiac. Her voice is quiet but engaged in every perspective she takes. While reading, I often felt as if I witnessed, if not shaped, these perspectives.
      Morrison's lines read as fragmented perspectives, but they are linked by her formal technique and their consistent voice. The movement was difficult to trace for me outside of her more narrative sections in which the father character appears. These narrative lines sometimes lack the imagistic potency of the others but engage readers through their narrative thread.
      Play with language gives the already long lines vast implications in Morrison's verse. Very few lines are singular expressions, even aside from the obvious urge to map out her choice among "stop," "please" or "please advise" (which challenged me but was not distracting Instead of writing the line, "each leaf cat-faced and purring stop," Morrison surprises her readers and adds layers when she writes, for example, "each leaf cat-faced and purring shine stop" [my emphasis]. Her most effective lines add layers that open on multiple reads, but some lines and even tercets ease up and live in the same image family.
      Morrison shoves sentimentality and depression away by ushering in surprise and intrigue. The poems in the true keeps calm biding its story seem endlessly engaging because Morrison knows how to shape images that surprise without confusing. I was left reading and re-reading. What more testament is there?