Though many poets seek truth through their work, it is uncommon for a writer to so willingly acknowledge the flaws and inconsistencies inherent in the recollection of past experiences as Rusty Morrison does in her third full-length collection, Beyond the Chainlink. Morrison’s poems take place across the ephemeral and shifting landscape of self-reflection, and by daring to admit her own imperfect perceptions of the past, and her willingness to embrace them, she allows us to explore a world both intimately familiar and uncomfortably honest.
Much like the events of our lives, and our often misguided attempts to recall them with true objectivity, the structure of Beyond the Chainlink is cyclical. Divided into three parts, each of which contains progressions of the same poems as well as subtle variations on their counterparts in previous sections, Beyond the Chainlink mimics the way in which we revisit key moments from our past, and how the experiences and emotions of our present indelibly color our histories.
Some poems appear recurrently within a single section, including “Necessities,” “Sensework,” and “Inventions.” Others, such as “History of Sleep,” “History of Seed,” and “History of Quiet” gradually build upon their own gentle impetus, permitting us a glimpse of new insights and epiphanies the way that the passage of time alters our perceptions of memories once thought immutable.
Despite the transitory and often fleeting nature of Morrison’s subject matter, her use of powerfully physical language reveals the extent to which living with Hepatitis C, which she contracted during her twenties, has shaped her experiences. Poems such as “Backward Rowing” toward the end of the first section, transition delicately from the sensory detail of observation to inner reflections on Morrison’s own pain:
The gull’s breast is cold.
One wing lies fully extended. The beak, closed. The eye
is still, liquid anonymity.
Despite my kitchen precision.
I follow the expenditures of gray, limitless
in each strewn feather.
I travel the small pain behind my ear. Concede to an invasive,
perhaps usable, dismay.
Can I taste the canny willfulness of presence?
The substantive and corporeal are also explored by poems such as “Sensework.” The inexorable passage of time, and its effect on both the body and sense of self, are deftly revealed with an almost cynical resignation. By her own admission, Morrison’s past plays a crucial role in defining her poetic voice. Since the publication of the true keeps calm biding its story in 2008, the progression of Morrison’s illness has strongly influenced her work. However, rather than be defined by her condition, Morrison instead shows us her struggles and challenges with a subtle and occasionally sardonic wit, as evidenced in the lines of poems such as “Guile says”:
displace the subject
As if to substitute “displace” with “display.”
Strategy: Bring roses.
The often-treacherous nature of perception is not the only topic to be scrutinized in the poems of Beyond the Chainlink. In an attempt to highlight her own complacency regarding the supposedly empirical nature of experience, Morrison’s use of varying justification reveals that the center, and truth, of a memory is in an almost perpetual state of flux; that our notions of reality and our place within it are as subjective as points of view in relation to their subject. This willingness to acknowledge the flaws in her own perspective forms the emotional core of the collection, a position in which the author appears both determinedly introspective and perilously vulnerable.
Just as Morrison experiments with justification to emphasize the changing truths of memory, she utilizes a careful and deliberate economy of words to craft powerful, and frequently terse, poems that draw in the reader with their minimalist rhythm. Like long-forgotten memories remembered after many years, the shorter poems of Beyond the Chainlink reflect the tenuous grasp we have on our past and the desperation with which we cling to our oldest — and often most subjective — recollections.
Though Morrison’s past experiences, such as the loss of her parents and the progressive nature of her illness, doubtlessly play a prominent role in the poems of Beyond the Chainlink, the collection’s title reveals the true purpose of the work. Rather than dwell on the events that have shaped her life, Morrison instead attempts to reconcile herself with the fact of her limited perceptions of the past and derive a sense of acceptance in this limitation; to look “beyond the chainlink” fences of assumed realities to whatever greater truths may lie beyond. Her personal journey toward this place of acknowledgement is illustrated brilliantly in poems such as “Necessities”:
In through my bedroom window, the full dawn-scape concusses.
Difficult to sustain sleep’s equilibrium of wordlessness.
Naming anything, like stepping barefoot in wet sand up to my ankles.
Name after name, sinking me farther beneath waking’s buoyancy.
House, this morning, is pale with the rush of what night siphoned off.
Objects, still emptied of resemblance, hum their chord-less cantos.
Bloodless, my knuckles knock on walls without echo, testing singularities.
Beyond the Chainlink is an ambitious and intriguingly honest collection from one of America’s most skilled poets. Fans of Morrison’s work and newcomers alike will find the breadth and depth of these poems to be both challenging and immediately rewarding. Just as we recall fond memories time and time again, the poems of Beyond the Chainlink invite us back for multiple readings, teasing us with the promise of new discoveries and hidden truths. The deceptively simple appearance of much of the work belies an emotional complexity and raw honesty that reveals Morrison’s skill as a poet; a talent that inspires us to reconsider our own past and the lies we so often tell ourselves.