Out of Breath: Dissociation in Morrison and Moten

by Julie SwarstaRusty Morrison Bookd

Rusty Morrison is a poet and co-founder of Omnidawn Publishing.  She is the author of two volumes of poetry: Whethering (2005) which won the Colorado Prize for Poetry and the true keeps calm biding its story (2008) which won the 2008 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets.  Her poetry, essays, and reviews have been published in Boston Review, Chicago Review, and New American Writing, among others.  She is a contributing editor for Poetry Flash.

Fred Moten lives in Durham, North Carolina, where he teaches in the Duke University Department of English. He is author of Arkansas (2000), In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003), I ran from it but was still in it. (2007), Hughson's Tavern (2008) and B Jenkins (2010).

The Next Word in Poetry program was initiated in 2003 to present emerging poets whose work heralds a dynamic new era in contemporary poetry.  In February 2011 the Poetry Center presents two pairs of New Word poets to read and engage in conversation with one another concerning their literary interests and influences.  Rusty Morrison and Fred Moten will read at the UA Poetry Center on Thursday, February 10 at 8 p.m.

Throughout the work of both Rusty Morrison and Fred Moten, there's a sometimes overwhelming feeling of breathlessness.  Both poets present a world that is disjointed, fractured, and rapidly moving, leaving the reader with the feeling of being awash in a flood.  However, just what creates this feeling of breathlessness in the work of both poets is startlingly different, and each offers a different take on what is one of the most popular types of poetry being written today: elliptical poetry, work that leaves much out and offers a disjointed image of reality with little or no narrative structure.

Morrison's latest book, the true keeps calm biding its story, balances shattered images with an almost obsessive structure.  The book is comprised of nine sections of six poems each with each poem made up of three stanzas of three lines all ending in "stop," "please," or "please advise."  As a result, each line reads like some fractured statement out of a telegram bizarrely truncated by the repeated end-words: "grant the visible its pronouns and watch it disappear please advise" or "I saw the window spread its wings a white heron stop."

Underlying the broken language is the sudden death of the speaker's father.  Morrison's piled-up images and cut-off phrases seem to be the mind wandering through grief, veering off course and struggling to understand.  Morrison writes, "with practice a memory like a voice can be thrown into any unsuspecting object stop."  The unsuspecting objects of Morrison's poetry--an "oak leaf trapped in a footprint" or waves striking the hull of a gondola--do echo back experiences and ideas, but they lay them before us without additional commentary, leaving us to work through the shattered pieces on our own.

B Jenkins by Fred MotenBy contrast, Moten's writing in B Jenkins seems like an exercise in speed and flexibility.   There's a sense of a disjointed reality much like we see in the true keeps calm, but we experience it in a completely different way, feeling breathless because of the sheer volume of images, people, and ideas that Moten throws at us.  Structurally, Moten's writing strongly contrasts with Morrison's as it is constantly shifting throughout the book, poems with only a few words per line rubbing elbows with prose poems.  The collection works as a "cluster song of our romance," with music as a primary topic and source of images and metaphors throughout the book.

B Jenkins begins and ends with two poems about Moten's mother, and the poems that come in between seem to explore people, events, and ideas contemporaneous to her lifetime.  Predominantly African American musicians, writers, and other notable figures act as the title for each poem, and while many of the figures may not be immediately recognizable, as Moten writes, "why everything got to mean something? / you can too make up // the real thing."  Though we may not understand every reference he makes or the way he connects ideas and people together, Moten's writing asks us to struggle with language and experience and accept that not everything has a perfectly clear meaning.  To engage with Moten's work, we must instead "hear for music // everywhere," and Moten certainly gives us a torrential outpour of words to hear for the music in.

Both Morrison and Moten use splintered language and images to lay out a vision of our contemporary experience in a world full of an overwhelming amount of information.  Their work is something to be struggled with and through, something that may not immediately mean something, but that hints at ideas below the surface, just out of sight.  Their writing represents the current movement in American poetry, and although it is a disjointed, breathless ride, it is also one that parallels our present experiences in an always startling way.

Created on: 
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
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