Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Memory as Motion: A Reflection by RJ Ingram

Memory as Motion: A reflection on Rusty Morrison’s After Urgency (Tupelo Press, 2012) and giovanni singleton’s Ascension (Counterpath Press, 2011)
by RJ Ingram

The best word I’ve found to articulate the conversation between giovanni singleton and Rusty Morrison’s poetry is devotional. As both poets spend an entire book meditating and ruminating on personal topics, interesting and inviting connections draw themselves between the ways singleton and Morrison use poetry as a daily practice. 

Ascension, singleton’s first book is built around a daybook “Ear of the Behearer,” written immediately after the death of musician and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane. This particular sequence, with much variation in form, never seems to scatter too far from the meditation singleton is having. The fourth poem/day ends with “one part winter. one part parting. // leaves far from gathered.” While contemplative in tone, this passage evokes the complicated desire to piece reason into death, an instinct that singleton seems to be trying to eschew later in the sequence when she says “let me tell you / where i’ve been // before the / tide turns.” (poem/day 13). Here singleton has assumed more of a passive role in the meditation process, letting events happen and recede without distress or a refrained desire to undo, while still retaining the poet’s desire to record and replay.

As Coltrane’s transition through the bardo (states between death and rebirth) nears end (or beginning?) the shapes of singleton’s poems continue to restructure their possibilities and constraints. When challenged to write daily, the poet either finds solace in repetition or inventing new ways to see, speak. Short lyrical columns grow into steadier squarer stanzas— aphorisms, prose, and concrete poetry are all present—and as “Ear of The Beahearer” comes to a close, the I Ching instructs singleton to “write what you know.” But singleton is writing what she knows: absence, memory, and identity.

singleton’s devotion leaves her to record the arcs between the stages of Coltrane’s journey. As a daily practice, poetry can inhabit a an awareness of multiple times in a single space, as well as challenge multiple spaces throughout a single lapse of time. Here, a daily poet’s notebook records the journey of both the poet and the world. singleton’s “Ear of The Behearer” not only records her journey with Coltrane, but record’s the devotional poet’s journey into the inner realm of craft and connection with the Other. As the devotional poet travels further inward, memory and identity become the modes most accessible. 

Rusty Morrison also wrote from these modes of mourning in her book After Urgency (winner of Tupelo Press’ Dorset Prize, selected by Jane Hirshfield). Like singleton, Morrison’s devotional practice led her to explore absence. The entire book occupies the spaces left after the deaths of Morrison’s parents. While singleton’s meditation process led her to craft a daybook, the forms recycled in Morrison’s After Urgency resemble more of a series of ruminations. After Urgency is a tapestry spun from five occasionally similar serial poems that can be read either individually or at the same time, as the book suggests. Just as Morrison is left wandering between the particulars of her daily life, her poems wander around spaces unwilling to let memories pass.

Examples of Morrison’s recursive desire to revisit and remain revisited by space can become haunting; moreover as the sections layer onto themselves like days just after the loss of loved ones, the poems double back, slowly becoming seemingly ‘the same.’ In the re-occurring poem “Aftermath,” for instance, readers are brought to not only the right margin, but to the bottom of the page as these frequent single line stanzas weave through major sections of the book. Here, Morrison reminds us that breaking also leads to growth, to splinters that spread the self. Take the poem “Multiplication,” for example, in which Morrison is reminded of her mother in the space between self and her mother’s scarf:

A fabric shot through with veins.
As black lint curls, embryonic,
from the black knit scarf on my mother’s shelf.
As the scarf becomes a friction that hurts my eyes.
As the past’s frequency and the future’s finality—the always
and the never again of my mother wearing her scarf—coexist here.
Not a hiddenness. Not a warning, like “touch” or “don’t.”
But a taunt, from the purity of isolation,”

The friction of the scarf’s stitches inhibits the image (or lack of image) of the speaker’s mother wearing her scarf just as the stitches of “Aftermath” bring the reader in and out of Morrison’s self in absence. Wreckage is a word to use to describe the scarf here, but it isn’t the correct word. Morrison isn’t wrecked in her absence, she is simply surviving, and survival for the devotional poet coexists with creation.

The title of another of After Urgency’s cycles invokes singleton’s desire to record her own journey with Coltrane’s. “An intersection of leaves not likeness” seems to summarize what both poets return to poem after poem: the desire to record in that space just after.

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