In the supporting author’s statement for Rusty Morrison’s most recent collection of poems, Beyond the Chainlink (Ahsahta Press, 2014), the poet mentions that her new book attempts:
to be honest about my dishonesties—the unreality in my truths and the truth of my unreality. I want to trust the useful disarray of dis-believing what I am sure of—to examine the ways I’m in two places at once.
While I’m unsure of what the poet means by being “honest,” the quote does act as a incitement for working through binary thought in such a manner that it dissolves partitioned concepts by employing chiasmic modes of engagement.
To this end, the title’s invocation of both the words “Beyond” and “Chainlink” is important. As she notes in the aforementioned author’s statement, the word “beyond” highlights or brings attention to “both here and not here,” while “chainlink”–which most frequently appears as a modifier for the word “fence”–signals a limit or a divide separating two areas or states. In this sense, the title engages the idea or desire to disassemble reductive, either/or (i.e. binary) patterns in service of something more complex.
Not coincidentally, then, the incipient poem of Beyond the Chainlink, “History of Sleep,” opens and closes with the following stanzas:
The ivy across our back fence tangles gray
into a green evening light. (3)
Years later, the spine of our backyard
appears to have always been crooked. (4)
The delimiting fence that separates the speaker’s backyard from what lies beyond it, paradoxically, is by its very nature uncertain and permeable: it “tangles” the colors “gray” and “green” into a strange light that permeates the evening. This initial image eventually leads the speaker to an understanding that her fence, “the spine of our backyard,” has “always been crooked.” In other words, the fence never cleanly or clearly demarcated; instead, it always confused and blended boundaries, whether the speaker noticed or not.
A recurring trope throughout the book that functions as a site of boundary confusion and crossing is the body. The second permutation of the poem “Sensework” reads in its entirety:
on my body, hard enough to feel its resins crack.
I court the cracks.
Squeeze every breach.
What leaks is, at its end, stifling and sweet. Patience, patience. The dead-animal
smell will be the last trailing hem
of outbreath. The body is a cosmos
of hidden atmospheres—each with its own ravage
to erupt. Every loss
is my accomplice. (15)
Why does the speaker “court the cracks”? Because when she does, out “leaks” something of her that is both “stifling and sweet.” This, of course, is not just a moment of loss of the self or something internal; with a little “patience,” she realizes that while she might lose something of herself, she’ll also gain something from the world outside of her to replace what has escaped. Yes, it could be the “dead-animal / smell,” which is the “outbreath” of road-kill; but it could also be something more glorious. Good or bad, we can’t be sure; but it is through the grand permeation of the self into the world that we become one with the world.
The body communing with the world and the world communing with the body, no doubt, sounds vaguely Whitmanian; and, moments later, the speaker offers a more telling gesture that acknowledges the egalitarian poetics of the gray-bearded poet when she says: “The body is a cosmos.” Indeed, this claim echoes Whitman’s own statement in the preface to the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass that “the attributes of the poets of the kosmos concentre in the real body and soul.” Yes, the cosmos concentrates itself within the “real body” of the poet; when the body cracks, the cosmos leaks into the world around it.
Toward the conclusion of the book, the final permutation of the poem “Backward Rowing” corroborates the idea of transubstantiation with our surroundings all the more:
Words are such thickness.
Stranding us between too much and too much.
I want to hear our body
of silence, not my speaking voice,
not read form the book we’ve built,
which obscures the inner story—
its continuous firmament
As a listener, I won’t retain
by absorbing, but by being absorbed.
sucked through. (71-72)
The body transforms from the corporeal vessel of a singular subject to a universal entity through the plural-possessive modifier “our,” highlighting the interconnectedness of all beings. And it is this interconnectedness that “obscures the inner story” of the individual, championing instead a “continuous… // displacement” of the self through absorption of our surroundings. Yes, the inside becomes the outside and the outside becomes the inside, tying these concepts—traditionally conceived of as binary opposites—into a tight chiasmic knot formed, at least in Beyond the Chainlink, in a “thickness” of “Words.”
And in this thickness of words and language, Morrison “displace[s] the subject // with objects” (21) by acknowledging the fact that “You” has “always been / I,” as well as its reciprocal: that “I” has “always been you” (75). In doing so, she echoes the age old song of herself:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.