Andy Fitch with Rusty Morrison

Rusty Morrison
Rusty Morrison

The Conversant happily has published Rusty Morrison’s recent interviews with Omnidawn authors. Here Andy Fitch interviews Morrison about her own new book, Beyond the Chainlink.

Andy Fitch: I’ll hold off on a couple basic questions that Beyond the Chainlink raises for me concerning the communal, choral, coupled “We.” But could we move toward more concrete questions of relationality by considering a favorite concept of yours from past statements—that of “adherence”? I’ve never fully grasped this concept, and I doubt that the dictionary can help much. Could we instead start with how adherence gets embodied in a few of your preceding books? I’ve vaguely thought of the percussive, right-justified repetitions on “please,” “advise” and “stop” in The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story as somehow tattooing the reader, mobilizing receptivity to that book’s particular tonal variations, and perhaps prompting adherence this way. Or Book of the Given seems to parse the distinction (or ask readers to parse the distinction) between vocational adherence and intertextual adjacency. But already I’m adrift in my own abstracted speculations. So how about your personal sense of adherence, your encounter with Michel Serres’ work, your ongoing engagement with this concept across multiple collections?

Rusty Morrison: In The Birth of Physics Serres proposes that “every form is draped in an infinity of adherences.” One of its myriad connotations is a powerful reminder to me: as I write each sentence, I should stay alert to what is occluded under the accumulating adherences of familiar ideation or style. I want to write with the intention to undrape, infinitely, those more typical, more initial adherences that are the outer layers, which appear most obviously to me as meaning. Beneath those, there exists a more volatile fomenting, which is forming the work, and which must be expressed by the formal construct of the work, as it is shaped on the page. When working in a new series, the first challenge is always to find the formal construct that will best enable it, and to appreciate the useful problems that this form provokes; this is an insight-liberating practice for me.

Risk, which is essential in my best work, is most present when I disrupt the “adherences” of my typical patterns, which might be expressed as my syntax, or image adoption, or situating of attention, or sequencing of tonal registers, or the ways that I foreground or occlude figure and its grounding, etc. Of course, I don’t work from a checklist of these. As Barbara Guest reports, “The conflict between a poet and the poem creates an atmosphere of mystery…Mystery, with its element of surprise and, better word, audacity.” The adherences appear to me as they will, and the means to undrape them, to see under or between them, are unique from poem to poem. Of course, “to undrape” need not mean simply to disregard those adherences: the act of undraping, and the close consideration of that drapery—these may become events in the poem itself.

As I move through my many radical revisions of any given poem, this approach suggests to me that I am not only writing the sentence forward, but also inward toward what remains a disappearing internal point of “infinity” which is forming the work’s energy. My task is to create affinity between that infinitely occluded form and the outer formal construct of the work that is its shape on the page.

But I want to be cautious in using easy words of directionality, since to suggest that this work is engaging simply in “inward” or “forward” motion probably demonstrates a limit of my current ability to adapt language to explain what is (as Guest reminds me) a “mystery.” Of course, English offers me its particular ways of defining location in space and time—all such limits provided by language are common and useful markers. But those words, “inward” and “forward,” are a set of adherences, too, and so I imagine it’s useful to allow myself to sense what they drape.

AF: Well again, considering your work more broadly, you have described your desire to question, contradict, confound credos and sacrosanct assumptions that the completing of past manuscripts had produced in you. Could you introduce Beyond the Chainlink by placing it on this personal trajectory? For instance, one could note in your past several publications either a gradual departure from the book-length “project,” or, alternately, an intricate mapping of even the most streamlined “project’s” internal complexities—an interlacing of projects within projects. And in either case, does After Urgency trace an important pivot here?

RM: I would agree that Book of the Given and The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story are much more unified in their formal approach to a given subject than the books that followed them. I wrote The True in a fury, in one obsessive form. After I finished the book that form was lost to me, and this is as it should be. As Adorno tells us, the unresolved (I’ll say, for myself at least, un-resolvable) antagonisms of reality “reappear in art under the guise of immanent problems of artistic form.” Each form is a physical manifestation of the particular antagonisms appearing in a given book. When I began After Urgency, I had become much more aware of the subtle variety of un-resolvable antagonisms that I experience when approaching the subject of death. I felt it necessary, and freeing, to work in a few different forms simultaneously.

In Beyond the Chainlink I was, again, attempting, as you say, “an interlacing” or a more “intricate map” of the terrain. I have a line in Chainlink: “How a second emptiness un-punctuates the first.” This is one way to explain why I think it’s useful for me to offer more than one formal approach in the same book.

AF: These questions of structure can help steer us to the tonal difference I hinted at earlier—the revitalized imagination and orchestration of a “We” that I sensed in Beyond the Chainlink. Several different approaches to this topic come to mind. Part One’s opening poem, in its opening line, refers to “our back fence,” tracing the contours of a shared domestic space, calling forth my curiosity about your husband and co-publisher Ken Keegan’s place across your poetics. But before I reach that line, I already have encountered this book’s epigraphs from James Baldwin and Alcmaeon of Croton, and Part One’s epigraph from Inger Christensen (translated, as your book repeatedly tells us, by Susanna Nied), and have entered a polyvocal realm in which any one relationship seems to allegorize more abstract exploration of personal relations, of relations among texts, of relations between writer(s) and reader(s). And even before all of these epigraphs, before your title page, I have entered the book by way of its pre-poem invocation of “a city” which is “the union between two lovers, // never taking place.” So first, can you speak to these concentricities of togetherness, and to how they might fittingly follow your preceding studies of personal loss? Of course in this characterization of your preceding books as “studies of personal loss” I’m being reductive. But what has led up to Beyond the Chainlink’s oracular pronouncement that “Every loss / is my accomplice”?

RM: “Every loss is my accomplice” is a line that took some time to emerge; some interesting tangents of recalibration needed to occur as different versions disappeared, and yet their traces remain folded into the current phrase. This process enlarged the vibrations that my limited understanding might afford me. I appreciate your question’s openness to viewing “we” in a variety of ways. I’m very interested in the “we” that I find in any successful sentence in my work—a “we” that is a chorus of lost resonances that each sentence is the remnant of, and remorse for, and maybe still resource to. “Every loss is my accomplice” has, I hope, some sense of this within it. At least, for me, it performs and describes this, since I know how much lost language is accomplice to it.

Since I never begin a series of poems with a firmament of content, I’m usually managing a wildly moving gravitational energy that is sometimes rapacious in its thrashing about for objects. But if they gather too quickly, or too combatively, then I end up with annihilation. Though I’m learning that annihilation has value, too, since it leaves its trace in what comes next.

In any case, this sentence “loss is my accomplice” came early in its poem series, and much gravitates to its energy. The lamenting sound of the short “o” in loss is nested in the three syllables of “accomplice” in a way that taught me how to proceed with those poems, to allow two seeming opposites—“loss” and “accomplice” or accompaniment—to develop as poles of a continuum central to the work.

It’s true, as well, that the sentence “a city is the union between two lovers, never taking place” has, for me, a similar quality. I think of it as a more narrated evincing of that same kind of exchange between two seeming opposites, though the sentence presents them in reverse order. But since the word “union” holds such a prominent position in the statement, I have a sense that the longer phrasing of “never taking place” hasn’t quite the stark adamance to displace it entirely. So even though the sentence says one thing, its construction belies another—albeit very subtle—connotation. I don’t mean to suggest that “union” isn’t worth striving for. But it is the striving, the actively “never taking place” that I believe makes life alive to me. Yet the belief in “union” allows that action to occur. A “city” is, of course, undergoing a constant reinvention of its amassed whole, much of it oblivious to itself, much of it growing and dying simultaneously, expanding and contracting. The complexity of the “we,” the relationship between two lovers, and by extension, the relationship between the self and all the others with which a self engages, is, I hope alluded to.

I suppose this is a long way of saying that the contradiction between “union” and “never taking place” is at the core of my sense of “we” in these poems. I experience these contradictions as another aspect of the trajectory of “we” or “we-ness” in the book—the many inversions, conversions, diversions, delusions of the self is an important community that these poems attempt to bring into dialog.

You raise so cogently the other ways in which the idea of “we” is performing, maneuvering, in the work—in my use of quotes of writers, in my emphasis upon acknowledging the translator, in the more obvious interactions with dear friends and with the loved one, who is indeed my husband and press partner, Ken. I would say that Chainlink is more personally explicit than any of my past books. But Chainlink is predatory in its insatiability. The language seems, to me, to be stalking the anonymity in any “we,” though this is never predictably or easily caught. No clarity. All is loss. Yet it is so volatile, so vibrantly feral at its infinitely moving core. This sense of loss in the midst of any experience of “we” is intimacy, for me. It is as intimate as that moment in the room with my father’s corpse and then my mother’s. I felt an entirely new, uncanny sense of intimacy with what I could feel as (what I can only call) the border between life and death. I felt so clearly the impossibility to reach out from life and into death, despite death’s nearness, even though its nearness changed me in ways I am still feeling evolve, amplify.

AF: Yes “we” of course doesn’t necessarily suggest immediate or transcendent togetherness. As the repetitions of “please,” “advise,” “stop” in The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story demonstrate, words have their own asymptotic trajectory, never fully reaching their object or intended destination. Your use of the imperative with “please,” “advise,” “stop” further confirms the limits of interpersonal communication. Again, these concerns get explicitly thematized in Beyond the Chainlink, when someone tells you that “To compete…derives from the Latin / cometere meaning ‘to seek together.’” Competition and conjunction blend, then pull apart again. I think of Nietzsche’s “Homer’s Contest” essay, his conception of the constructive competitive agon shaping and strengthening the city-state. I also think of Nietzsche’s own invented “We” of future readers, acolytes, rivals. So have we started to approach ways in which my preceding characterization of, say, After Urgency as emphasizing an absence of persons, and Beyond the Chainlink as emphasizing the presence of persons, becomes too simplistic?

RM: There’s so much to consider in your question. I’ll start with imagining how I might use the term “asymptotic trajectory” to recognize the difference in motion between After Urgency and Beyond the Chainlink. As I understand it, in physics, when discussing a moving object that does not come into the orbit of another object, the moving object may be considered as having either one or two asymptotic trajectories.

Neither book’s asymptotic trajectories come into close symmetrical, or call it “orbital,” relation to death. As you suggest is the case with language, neither text ever makes actual contact with, never comes into orbit around, its subject.

Now, back to the difference between the books: if a moving object eventually arrives again at its point of origin, then it is said to have two asymptotic trajectories. If it never returns to its point of origin, then it has one.

I’m going to imagine the text of After Urgency as having two asymptotic trajectories, which is to say that it returns to its point of origin—the obsessive affect of the work. When I did a little research, I found that such trajectories are said to “reach infinity” with zero speed and energy. This seems right! In After Urgency, the obsession consumes itself, though its travels cannot be disregarded in their relevance, to me, at least.

Whereas I might playfully propose that Beyond the Chainlink has a single asymptotic trajectory and thus never returns to its point of origin. To brazenly use the terms of physics, I will say that the work has more chance to “reach infinity” with positive speed and energy. I accept that my take on the physics may be highly skewed. I hope the scientists will forgive me.

I appreciate enormously that you raise Nietzsche. In my first book I have a poem series titled, “The sporadic-proverbial grasp,” in which I borrow language from his lectures on the pre-Socratics. It begins with the quote, “our intellect cannot grasp Becoming…and consequently…infer[s]… a metaphysical world.” But I had not thought of him in relation to my more recent books or to my use of the term “we.” But I now hear in my own work my memory of the sorrowful irony of Zarathustra’s castigation of the coming failure of humanity, as he reports, “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.” Their dull conformity is set as warning, as Zarathustra entreats the crowd before him, “I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves.”

AF: Could we also pause on Anaximander? I love how Olson and Anaximander (and maybe Hamlet and Yorick) get enfolded, for instance, in these lines from a “Necessities” poem: “Words fill our lungs with the dust / we eventually will become. // Each exhale must choose anew to release its hostages.” Anaximander’s conception of the cannibalistic injustice that our becoming inflicts on beings seems a fitting point of entry into this braided book’s internal stitchery. Beyond the Chainlink asks, “How to make amends for our meager grasp / of mortality?” And the book’s own kaleidoscopic structure seems, to some extent, bent on redeeming a cognitive flux, our cognitive flux—a convoluted way of becoming which more streamlined, straightforward systems of thought might characterize as a failure. Does Anaximander, as an elegant aphorist at least, make our “meager grasp,” our continual and eventual perishing, seem like less of a failure, more of a poignant poetic fate, and does Beyond the Chainlink seek to do the same?

RM: Your question is an adept interlacing of the adepts who speak to me through their texts. And, yes, you’ve astutely assessed the assignations I attempt to have with them! The truth is that I worry (when I’m outside my own work, looking in) that my inclinations in these directions can become too serious, and that the “poignant” quality of the “fate” with which I fraternize may grow wearying upon re-readings, or as a reader of my work crosses from one of my books to the next.

But this is hindsight speaking, as I try to explain to myself why interjections of humor seem to occur with much more frequency in Chainlink than in my previous books. For instance, the line, “How to make amends for our meager grasp / of mortality?” is preceded, I hope, by a self-mocking humor, given the poem’s tropes of Visa payments, the extras milling about in late night TV, sundresses and “keychain trolls to ward of tragedy.”

The poem in which I recall Anaximander’s aphorism moves from my paraphrase of his elegant, deeply disquieting pronouncement to the line “the photo of a horse’s eye that I carry into my dream / isn’t the eye that I carry out again.” I hope the more subtle connotations of the trope, and how it speaks as skewed explication to Anaximander, arrest the more typical train of thought that might follow from the aphorism’s seriousness. I’m delighted that you sense Olson here. He’s a master, whereas I’m just flexing my “meager grasp” as best as I can. In any case, there isn’t an obvious laugh, of course, but I hope there’s a suggested culpability of the speaking agent adding to the disruption; one can’t simply align with any given here.

Henri Bergson has written extensively on the meaning of the comic. There are many uses of humor in literature that he discusses, but one, as he calls it, is the “art of throwing a wet blanket upon sympathy [upon our normative sense of concern and seriousness] at the very moment it might arise.” In Chainlink, I’d like to think that I’ve been more inclined to test a wider range of affect, and to let it test me, so as to question my own most serious intentions for the work. Giorgio Agamben, whom I quote often in this regard, suggests that we must bring exuberant doubt into relation with whatever we hold sacrosanct. We should play with (play against) those poses, disrupting outcome. We should find pleasure, as a child in play, in “profaning” them.

AF: Finally, and fittingly perhaps, since it remains textually unbound and has haunted my whole reading of this book, is still that opening, eponymous invocation: “Beyond the chainlink, a city / is the union between two lovers // never taking place.” Perhaps its just personal, but I hear of this city and its union never taking place and I recall the pictorial/textual density of Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know about Her, or Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. Could you describe the impact that preferred visual or cinematic or performative artforms have had in shaping your work?

RM: What a wonderful question. It’s as if you somehow saw what is stacked on my writing desk! I think the best way to answer it is to list some of the images that have been talisman and tangent-starters for me. I often open a book of images, often paging through until the energy in my blood finds receptive rhythm in the image before me. Then the writing begins. A summary of my engagement with any particular images would disrupt the intuition transfers that are still quite active between them and my poems, so I won’t try to say more about process. But I’d be very happy to share these titles with you. Interestingly, I tend to work beside art reproductions and photographs, rather than within the memory-trance of a recent film. This, of course, may change. I’ve no reasoning, only experience, to offer. Here are the books of images at my writing table currently: Agnes Martin, from Dia Art Foundation; Outside of Time, photographs by Nina Glasser; Toxic Beauty: The Art of Frank Moore; Joan Fontcuberta: Twilight Zones; Julia Margaret Cameron from the Phaedon series; Wyn Bullock, also a Phaedon book.


Rusty Morrison’s most recent book is Beyond the Chainlink. Her collection After Urgency won Tupelo Press’s Dorset Prize. Book of the Given is available from Noemi Press. the true keeps calm biding its story won Ahsahta’s Sawtooth Prize, the Academy of American Poet’s James Laughlin Award, the Northern California Book Award and the DiCastagnola Award from Poetry Society of America. Whethering won the Colorado Prize for Poetry. She has received the Bogin, Hemley, Winner and DiCastagnola Awards from the PSA. She is co-publisher of Omnidawn.