Beyond the Chainlink
reviewed by Anna J. Witiuk
Dipping into Rusty Morrison’s sidereal collection, Beyond the Chainlink, a primordial throb emerges beneath the structure. To this we can understand the influence of Inger Christensen, whose quotes are dappled among the pages. In Christensen’s poem, “Letter in April: VII”, she writes:
we speak in our own clear language. Who knows if things don’t know in themselves that we’re called something else.
Christensen is a fervent speaker on the functioning patterns of nature, like the ancient mathematical “Fibonacci” sequence, which begins with the number one, with each following number being the sum of the two previous. “Numerical ratios exist in nature,” Christensen said, “the way a leek wraps around itself from the inside…the head of a snowflower” (Entropy.com, Jan. 2009). The Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi crafted much of his work after this sequence, and it was the elaborate structure of Christensen ‘s 1981 book of poems, Alfabet.
Christensen had a particular absorption with the work of French composer and ornithologist Olivier Messiaen, who transcribed the song patterns of birds into intricate musical compositions. This had a direct influence on Christensen’s Letter In April. Susanna Nied, translator for the book, said of Christensen’s technique, “speech rhythms repeat and vary in a mathematical pattern of fives and sevens… [visually] graphed…to reveal an argyle design [of] interlocking diamonds” (133, Poetry, May 2009).
In Beyond the Chainlink, three sections mull over repeated titles like, “Sensework,” the “History” of different states of being, and ironic dedications to words in, “Guile says,” “Impatience says” etc. Quite like the word rhythms within the Letter In April collection, the repeating titles in Beyond the Chainlink braid through the sections every 5th-9th page, creating a pendulum of recollection for the reader. “As a listener, I won’t retain/ by absorbing,” Morrison writes, “but by being absorbed” (72) (this is an effective technique she uses throughout the collection: to propose a different way for us to receive her work and the world, by admitting an amenableness of her own). Here, the ritual of memory is a two-way road: we take in the memory, and we allow the memory to take us in. The winding repetitiousness within Beyond the Chainlink ushers us into this other rhythmic state of mind. It’s a pattern we can recognize and follow, therefore, we can trust to relinquish some of our control to her.
Morrison’s voice is resounding and barefaced in Beyond the Chainlink when she’s dealing with the familiar faultiness of humans—“nostalgia, which remembers nothing and calls it beautiful” (18); “warning: blindering the horse won’t make it easier/ to pull forth the luminous idea-wagon” (61.) She’s often downright fed up: “I am damp with unused sweetness/ I could run a comb through your glib familiarity (47).” However, it’s her determination to let the mysticism of the natural world absorb her—help her to unlearn her human complications—which carries us on through her poems.
Her words are restless with self-revision: “I perform mindlessness before the marsh’s wild grasses/ as if to gain their confidence” (70). She is constantly admitting to us her only light grasp of the sacred knowledge of nature:
A heron’s sudden rise directly into winter sun that my eyes can’t follow fills my throat with a vibration I can’t sound out or swallow. (70)
But there’s certainty in her wonderment, and she will not give up—“this time, I’ll rub my breath hard/ against hope” (55). And Christensen’s voice, who knows… who knows… haunts Morrison’s lines as she ebbs between her human understanding and… something else.
Morrison vies early on for a natural adherence to contradiction as a way for her to learn the universe: “climbing means leaning with and against the guide wires, rhythm of our simplest sense” (7). Again she includes us all in her plight for spiritual clarity. We are figuring out alongside of her how to reinterpret and revitalize what we thought once was. Later on she writes: “to compete… derives from the Latin/ competere meaning “to seek together”” (39). So it seems that these opposing states Morrison keeps pushing for are not only necessary to bring about natural balance, but their coming together is also a ritual of self and other discovery. “Contradiction is devotional” (13), she affirms.
The series of “Sensework” poems within the book is where we find her deep-tilling at her own soul. She repeats the word “court” to describe her attempts to embody another earthly thing. In the first “Sensework” she explains:
I court the dirt. A body. I learn it by watching earth court sky, absorbing each chord of rain into a chorus of groundwater. I hum it, low in my throat. (8)
This mating dance is a mirror image of her performance for the wild grasses. She is completely devoted to getting in with nature and all of its wisdom. She even finds the sacred in the natural movements of a sports stadium, asserting,
I court the way a stadium empties… I court the slow hour, the resist and snarl… Dismemberment. (26)
Morrison struggles to find the harmony between the chords of her movements: the taking in of the rain’s rhythm, the emptying out and dismemberment of her thoughts. She realizes this pattern; a cycle of impression and depression, that it must be as natural as the inhale and exhale of our lungs. This is not unlike the balance in contradictions that she goes after; the many mirror opposites of one thing.
In Beyond The Chainlink there is the human created “SILENCE,” and there is nature’s intended silence:
My silence is all of its own, but outward turning… Not idea, With its way of speaking Farther and farther from itself. (57)
And later: “Stillness extends its meaning to encompass/ even the oak branches’ moving leaves.” (69) There is also the human “LANGUAGE”—“words are such a thickness./ Stranding us between too much and too much” (71)—and there is nature’s language:
A brewer’s sparrow lands on a low branch. His notched tail flicks. All the atmosphere of earth responds—pure forces of reception… Like the sparrow’s multi-ligatured trilling Linking its vowels with ghosts.
The value versus the utter inadequacy of human speech is a constant conflict for Morrison throughout the collection. She often gets caught up in her own definition of a moment:
We were talking about the unfinishable, not the unfinished. That giving is a vantage point, as we saw it. But not the advantage. (18)
She is giving into the riddles of our human language that she has been trying so desperately to dissolve through her courtship with nature. However, she is also making a valid discernment between the words, displaying our fault in heaping together two very different conditions. By showing her mastery of the human language she is at the same time shoving the blade into our overbearing need to analyze and define. Here lies yet another balance in her intended contradiction. As Morrison heaves herself, sometimes excessively, through the deep mud of our language, she is making the path to simply contented nature contrastingly more magnificent.
Though there is a certain unnamable closure as the last poem ends, it feels possible to begin the exploration of Beyond the Chainlink with any poem. This is because Morrison invites us to experience a reality ephemeral by nature, and of unbounded possibilities—which includes the infinite conclusions each of her poems infer. In fact, it doesn’t seem that Morrison wants to resolve much for us—and she absolutely doesn’t need to. This collection is a generous offering from a familiarly restless human being, who is a poet not because she clinches reason at each poem’s end, but because she again and again insists that “still, we sense [these] limit[s]
budding with bewilderments. No exact moment. But in the wideness Across time, a kind of sieve. (32)