The Particulars of Grief

After Urgency
by Rusty Morrison
Softcover, $16.95
Tupelo Press, 2012

Reading Rusty Morrison’s After Urgency is like experiencing the unsettling calm after a storm: the sky has turned a disarming shade of blue; the ocean, which took everything, looks deceptively innocent. Wasn’t me. . . , it says. And there you are, surveying the damage and picking up the pieces, realizing just how much has been lost. Maybe you find some artifact you’d forgotten existed, something that, after having looked at it so long, you stopped seeing altogether. Words, objects, and memories get lost in the margins between before and after.

After Urgency was written shortly after the deaths of Morrison’s parents. It is a book about loss, not only in the general sense but also in the small and specific ways that we experience it. As the poet Jane Hirshfield, who selected After Urgency for the 2010 Dorset Prize, writes: “Each poem-series in this book of multi-part sequences evolves a new form, stretching every sentence past expectation so as to disrupt the truisms of grief and find affinities in the shifting flux that death discloses.” The grief that Morrison describes is not an all-encompassing emotion, but exists in the particulars:

A fabric shot through with veins.

As black line 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.

Morrison moves from sweeping “everything” statements to minute specifics. In one poem, “After urgency,” she maneuvers from a generalization about death to the observation that images, when observed over a period of time, can be violently rearranged by new meanings and connotations:

The first law governing the dead must be proliferation, the second
illusion. A shaft of shimmering irruption alters everything that I

stare at too long. I have a photograph of a distant galaxy, taken by
the Hubble Space Telescope, tacked high on the wall above my desk

which I look up to infrequently, sometimes it might be months
before I see it again or the spider web that draws dust into a thin line

over its surface. . .

The picture of the galaxy is interrupted physically by the spider web running across its surface and figuratively by the speaker’s changing perspective. The white center of the galaxy is in flux, not a constant white but “today, a chalk white, not the white of sand under cold skies, / nor of the gull’s wings that I saw so far outstretched.” To clarify the color as chalk white is not enough; the speaker further sets it in opposition to things she has seen in the time since she first possessed the photograph. Finally, abandoning attempts to describe the indescribable, the speaker once again relies on the broad and the general: “So many whites are assistants, / but none can I ask to be messengers.” Poems like this, says the poet Claudia Rankine in a review, “discover that they do not mourn the dead but rather mourn language’s inability to transcend the speaker’s world.”

After Urgency explores the question of what exactly loss is, and what we consider (or don’t) when talking about loss, in a similar manner. The poems are rife with contrasts of the material world with whatever is in the mind and memory, of that which we see and that which cannot be seen. “Sunlight so easily abolishes philosophy,” she writes. This neologism is illustrated with arborial imagery: the tree is easily seen, its root an invisible presence. Yet the poems have a sense of rootlessness that coincides with loss. In “In-structures,” the speaker asks: “I’ve already made the memory that I call ‘Father’ into the shape / of a root. But isn’t it my father I ask to help me bury this?” The root is merely a memory, something better situated underground. And yet, in some instances, it begs to be seen and acknowledged:

Aspen leaves, liquid in wind, hurt more ways than I thought death
could store. Roots of the elder oaks

push up through the grass, thick with their demand to go on
with their living,

farther than the known of soil.

Here the roots refuse to be contained in soil, and death does not cause pain but merely stores it. Morrison’s speaker often tries to come to an understanding of loss by experimenting with space, what it holds, its tensions and compressions. The speaker says: “To value withering, I call it condensed light. / In the keep of mists is condensed distance.” By seeking an alternative view of the dying leaves and the space between them, the distance between herself and what lies beyond, she is searching for some value, even nobility, in death. The speaker also uses the malleability of space within the imagination to make the impossible possible, as in:

Landing at dusk on the same tree branch, which seems to levitate
to meet them, two dark birds suspend shape
for shapelessness, which enlarges to include them.

The poem keeps the reader mindful of a speaker: the branch doesn’t just move, it “seems to levitate;” shapelessness “enlarge[s] to include” the birds. These are not merely observations but the speaker’s attempt to make meaning out of her natural surroundings based on lived experience. From her perspective, the birds are rejecting the determinacy of death in favor of “shapelessness,” the ambiguity and possibility that she aligns with creating new life. Morrison’s carefully interpreted natural realm envelops the speaker and reader alike.

Like combing through wreckage and finding remnants of a life lost, reading each poem inAfter Urgency is like entering a different world of memory. Though each of these worlds involves grief in some way, the speaker’s response is often surprising. In “Appearances” Morrison says: “My dead aren’t the source of my grief, but only travel it. / The way wild grasses travel this hillside.” Taken together, this collage of images and aphorisms offers a nuanced, human, and imaginative portrayal of grief.

About Liza Katz

Liza Katz is a poet, essayist, and teacher. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poet Lore, Omniverse, Burlesque Press, the Quarterly Conversation, and Arts Fuse.