July 22, 2008

Motioning: the true keeps calm biding its story

the true keeps calm biding its story
Ahsahta Press, $17.50
ISBN 13-978-0-916272-98-288


hereafter I will apply rules and avoid content stop
(Morrison 15)[1]

To say that Morrison emphasizes the end of her line would be an understatement; depending on how you look at it, Morrison writes the end of each line twice, with two different words, or she writes the end of only three total lines, or she writes the end of absolutely zero lines. Familiarity with Morrison’s form in the true keeps calm biding its story is recommended to proceed through this review; though, even for those familiar with the text, a reiteration of Morrison’s “rules” is important for us to begin. Let’s start with the numbers.

counting is more a stance than an observation please

Each person I have read on Morrison’s poem[2] is quick to point out some of the most prescriptive ways Morrison numbers. For example, each page of the book contains in the upper left-hand corner (just about where you would expect a title, but a little more sunken) the words:

please advise stop[3]

Each line of each poem is right-justified; there are uniformly three lines per stanza and three stanzas per page. Every line in the poem ends with one of the three words in the mantra “please advise stop.” To push the math of all this a step further, consider factoring and powers: lines multiplied by stanzas = a perfect square, three is round, too, right etc.[5] Morrison’s “stance” remains in conflict with the rigidity of its own “rules”: the text grows, generates and self-generates through the repetition of a kind of shape-of-an-idea[6] creating a kind of eerie singularity of gesture that illustrates a repeatable motion in a fundamentally unquantifiable manner:[7]

an unexpected foreshortening of perception is also called revelation stop

The unquantifiable nature of Morrison’s line is created when her desire for each line to reach out to infinity is “foreshorten[ed]” by end words. Unquantifiability becomes echoed in the repeated gesture of creating an image that implies an infinity and ends:

outlines are the limit of each letter which otherwise might reach out to infinity stop

The end of the infinite, or the poetic line, allows us to comprehend a brief meaning, a kind of suggestion of an idea, the beginning of something that could be widely applied throughout the text[8] to lines twenty pages later, the vary same gesture repeated and magnified by its repetition:

my repetitive gesture will eventually wear through its surrounding world please

infinity, singularity, motion and meaning:

how to measure my meaning with lamps and not clocks please

Both Peter Gizzi, judge of 2007 Sawtooth Prize, of which the true keeps calm biding its story was the winner, and Susan Howe cannot resist using the word “infinite” in their endorsements of Morrison’s book. Gizzi, suggests Morrison: “launches line after line toward a potentially infinite horizon of meaning,” while Howe points to the fact “that ‘stop’ can be rendered infinitely open” as a testament to the “striking singularity” of Morrison’s “measure of order.” I want to suggest Morrison seeks nothing less than a re-ordering of the universe into a singular motion; language in this case is only along for the ride, for the motion. Motion is brought to our attention perhaps first by her choice of the common telegraphic endings (“please,” “advise,” and stop”) which conclude each right-justified line of the poem. Motion is pulled through each line, halted, and asked to continue through the same motion again in the next line.

Motion, represented both by the language of her lines (consistent diction, meter recurring and resonating imagery) and their form (numerically potent yet arbitrary), functions for Morrison as prime example of how we think, deal with memory and loss, and construct meaning in our lives. The order Morrison creates is not a “launch toward” meaning and it is not “open,” though. There is incredible focus here, a focus that a reader feels instantly; and, it has a very prescribed meaning: how do we comprehend movement? How is it like cognition? How does memory move? How does loss move? How, most importantly, are all of these movements similar? How are they metaphors for one another? Are all of our movements contained within a pre-existing metaphor, one we starting writing and moving through a very long time ago?

the true keeps calm biding its story communicates this within its own language—a language composed of the placeholders, where meaning is only inserted through the repetitive motion, the shape-of-an-idea. To proceed by looking at specific pages as though they were themselves singular poems, would be impossible and reductive to the project in which every line adds to a singular motion. Consider how this review could proceed by drawing conclusions based on the smattering of lines which in the course of writing this essay I have loosely organized in a file on my computer entitled: “on the repetition of the same motion slowly making an opening for meaning”:

with each perfected dexterity I thin the surface that carries me stop

the accumulation of stains on a surface becomes a site of burials stop

fingers will intuitively test the patches where cognizance is thinnest stop

I add brushstrokes to my vision to thicken their surface courage stop

more fragile concealments merely group around a new emphasis for cover stop

fingertips worrying right through their cotton gloves stop

Some aspects of the motion that Morrison writes about come clear in the accumulation of these lines, which are dispersed throughout the entire poem as their pages numbers note. First, in the idea of something “wear[ing] through,” “thin[ning] the surface,” and “worrying right through.” The motion of Morrison’s lines is shrouded though not concealed by the material world; they create the shape of an idea through their motion. We also learn from the above lines that the surface can only be broken through “accumulation,” “emphasis,” and “perfected dexterity.” There are important implications here for what it means to even read Morrison’s poem. If I read the entire poem, am I reading it to understand one line, one thing, one shape-of-an-idea?

I want to suggest that the language of Morrison’s poem only provides a context (in the most physical sense) for a motion. Everything that Morrison writes is an effort to communicate through the “rules” of the poem because they are in fundamental conflict with the infinite motion (or the meaning) of each line. It is only by writing through this motion, against the rules, that she creates the poem.

on the possibility of the bigger statement:

even incoherent babbling is usually phonetically accurate please advise
If we are talking motion and meaning and saying that it is all just an allegory to a bigger statement, what could that statement possibly be?

wind is winter’s reflection among the branches stop

true likenesses are never planned stop

though magnifications may be choreographed please

Morrison’s lines predominantly take the form of aphorism, as Morrison notes explicitly at least this once, “within the costume of aphorism a thought flees extinction stop” (61). Meaning fleeing extinction. One important point on the “horizon of meaning” Morrison remains in constant communication with is her own writing, the poem itself, and the process of creating a poem in the form that she creates it; this process, as meaning flees extinction, upholds absolutely no hierarchy between lines, between lines and entire pages, between pages and sections, or between possible subject matters. This is a poem that pushes forward with a single stroke, but is that stroke empty?

I throw a stone in the air as if every motion were his motion come back to me stop

point at which I actually say what I think the bigger statement is:

stammered out the sentence till it completely surrounded the singular clarity stop

For Morrison, meaning is brief, it exhibits a momentary opening—everything might rush in and join with everything else in single meaning, or else it might disperse:

there are thoughts he must have entered though they were only half-open stop

Each line needs to come on the heels of another line, to prop it up and to make it disappear. They need to “stop” and they need to be interrupted, but they also need to rush forward into the next line without delay:

how to tell what must be kept and what must be kept provisional please advise

This necessity both builds and tears down meaning, but that is not as important about the poem’s anxiety over the terminal nature of the poetic line:

a silence from which I am excluded can teach me only exclusion’s precision stop

It is not as though we finally must rest somewhere between meaning and not meaning. We do not have to settle. Rather, not only do we push forward, but the meanings of individual lines in poetry always either become secondary to “the bigger statement” or else they become the metonymy for the bigger statement. For example, remembering or quoting a poem for one or a few of its lines to discuss it.Morrison is concerned with the state of the poetic line and the process of reading poetry and making meaning. What constitutes the shape of a statement? For Morrison, by communicating through the shape-of-an-idea about this predicament, she illustrates it (the predicament) to its fullest extent:

brush away the interviewing but keep the intervening light please

Of course, “what must be kept” is the motion of the poem, the resonant images, the sound; “what must be kept provisional,” is reading (as in a reading, singular, or reading in general, the place of words and language in constructing meaning in poetry, et al.) and the extra-explicit danger involved in constructing meaning. So how can we illustrate the meaning of this motion, how it works on us, how it functions—the poem must be doing something, affecting me in some way?The issue becomes not what—because we do learn that we are talking here about the motion of anything and everything in the universe—but how? What does it look like? This is a whole new layer of concern:

featureless is the vault in which I want to hide myself undetected stop

So if the vault itself is a form and motion is underneath, than what of the “featureless” form of which the motion in question is most akin to a hand inside this featureless vault not unlike that of a hand in a puppet? In short, what are you reading when you read Morrison’s poem?

even shapelessness is itself a separate thing but faltering I stare it down to fact stop

Is the assumption then that we will feel discontented, that we do feel discontented by the way that this works, to the point where we will consider the word “vault” in its most concrete terms, that we consider the word “fact” beyond its presence in this line of text inside of this poem, when all we are being asked to do is consider it for just his moment?

fill a page with words never letting a single phrase form stop

Do I truly have to have this thought in a phrase, for example? What am I being asked to do when I read a poem?

in every difference a muffled babbled never predictable of predictive stop

Consider, for one moment, the futility of trying to discuss what the accumulated effect of the above lines are in terms of what they say or they say about the poem. the task at hand (new language within language elucidating the shape of thought within that language—finally, that may be my best articulation of the project)—it would be like trying to discuss the attainment of pure bliss, of movement that is still in motion, that is still becoming.there is this entire other thing that someone could focus on:

my father’s dying offered an indelicate washing of my perception stop

the true keeps calm biding its story does contain a father, perhaps the most (only?) corporeal presence in the book. You could (and you are allowed) to read this whole poem and only take periphery note of the father, the father’s death, and the close resemblance the form of his passing has to the other motions articulated:

staring into the dark like digging a grave for an already existing grave stop

In a very revelatory way, Morrison’s motion could be looked at as the move from life into death, or the stasis of death in life, of the interruption of the thought or presence of death in our everyday lives. At the same time, that thought is as fleeting as all the rest:

with only the slightest effort I might abandon every father stop

And then there are moments when a certain reading is begged, but we no doubt get the sense it (the reading, if we were to proceed with it) would be too simple:

my father’s dying makes stairs of every line of text seeming neither to go up or down

That is part of the of Morrison’s poem. The motion explored in the wake of the father’s death (because it affords a reader the opportunity to read the book in terms of the death) is by no means enforced by its presence in the text. His presence, like our presence on earth or the presence of anything in the poetic line, is not only too quick in its passing, but it is too quick to be absorbed in the expression of its passing in language when it is circumscribed to the poetic line:

there was no moment of his death to see until it had already passed stop

Morrison accomplishes this by showing the motions of memory, grief, linoleum tiles, of course birds, and also each item in the universe subscribes to the exact same rhythm. They are all contained within the same language and the same motion. The father, if you like:
here I place father as if the word could mend itself stop

There is no dominant subject. There is no necessary reading:

gauging the weight of each inherited object ignoring the object itself stop

application of the bigger statement to the kites and thereby the world immediately outside the world of the poem:

a correct word would steady more than itself like a banister please

The moments when a reader might pause, make a note, bask in an image, are completely unplanned, rely on separate but equal probabilities, and are the delight of its (the poem’s) design. The lines below, spread (“a stain spreads under table linen and avoids being caught stop” (29)) over the entire book, present the opportunity to read the book in terms of kites, kite strings, and the inevitability that all kites stop, please advise:

the water puddle sways like an earthbound kite stop

any edge can be sharpened to rip through the sky’s cellophane stop

a sudden wind against my forehead has forever changed my shape stop

the quiet pulls an empty swing until it seems to move stop

The kite and its string and the place of those two things together in the world are indeed a viable opportunity exercised here, in the arrangement of these lines, to an example of their own fullness. The kite as text. The line as loose string. The reader as a pulling in.

the possibility of narrative progress in a world of kites:

to inhabit an absence takes great balance stop

I can say that we grow closer to or experience certain images, themes, and discourses more as I read from beginning to end; though, the fundamental composition of the line, how meaning is created through the shape of the line, and how the meaning of the world is the meaning of the shape of the line, remains the same. Is this always our predicament in poetry?

In writing this review, I have two hopes. One, to approach an apprehension of the motion Morrison produces; two, to recommend the true keeps calm biding its story to anyone and everyone concerned or even slightly interested in what is happening with the line. If you try to talk for a moment about the poetic project of the true keeps calm biding its story you come quickly around (and I have had this conversation with a few people) to discussing again the specific lines and how they work, their balance, their structural integrity and how that points to a gaping hole where meaning (dangerous, ultimately misleading, tile grout) can and will enter. The tiny window of opportunity that each line provides, that is what the numbers, the father, the repeated images and objects ultimately lead to is a motion: the opening for the final statement that when stated is the opening for the final statement.

by Thomas Cook
[1] Hereafter, unless noted otherwise, all parenthetical citations refer to page numbers in Morrison’s book the true keeps calm biding its story
[2] Hereafter, Morrison’s book, or as some have called it, her “collection” of poetry is referred to as her poem, implying it should be read as a book-length poem in either 54 page or 486 lines parts.
[3] In the table of contents, each poem is titled by it’s opening three words: “I add brushstrokes…” and “I throw a stone into the air…” for example. This demarcation in the contents, combined with the presence of the three looming (again, “sunken,” and in a larger type size, I forgot to mention) end words combined in a kind of impossible statement (the words never actually appear syntagmatically like that in the poem) really do complicate the idea of titling, and marked beginnings in general in a way that is, how should I say, central to the kind of bigger true of the poem.
[5] I also like the idea of probabilities with this poem as well: what is the probability of each word in the mantra: “please advise stop” appearing as an end word?
[6] I say “shape-of-an-idea” and not “idea” because the “idea” of an “idea” or the “shape-of-an-idea,” singular, a particular idea, not a universal, is Morrison’s constant gesture or biding.
[8] The very boring idea that each of these lines is in some way a “signifier” of a larger (and relatively unknown) “signified” line (like the title) seems, well, to go only about that far. The notion of the arbitrary sign (end words, etc.) of course haunts the text and creates an atmosphere of complete pliability, where the menaing of any word stabilizes and as quickly unstabilizes in the space of each line. Word. draft 8:56