Rachel Moritz and Juliet Patterson, Elementary Rituals/Dirge, Albion Books, 2013
Reviewed by Caroline Wilkinson
Among poetic forms, the sonnet alone is known for its "turn"—the shift from an initial complication toward resolution—but most poems express the essence of this turning. A speaker shifts from one state of understanding toward a new one. The border between states can fall after several stanzas or a single line. In very short poems, such as Lorine Niedecker's "Easter," a turn of thought can happen, surprisingly, after only a few words. The mood and significance evoked by Niedecker's bright and lofty title changes when a robin, glimpsed in the first line, moves. Easter comes back down to earth when Niedecker writes of how the creature:
In their new chapbooks, poets Rachel Moritz and Juliet Patterson—both influenced by Objectivists such as Niedecker—move through different states of loss and rebirth. With Moritz's chapbook Elementary Rituals, six poems explore the death of a father and birth of a son; and with Patterson's Dirge, one longer poem moves through a father's suicide. These individual pieces shift on their own, taking the reader through moments as startling as the worm being plucked up by Niedecker's "side-eyed" robin. But one of the strangest shifts with these chapbooks comes in between poems. This moment arrives when the reader, finishing one chapbook, moves to the next by turning the book over and on its side.
Patterson's line resembles prose and, in a different context, is. Like the bridge that has experienced a previous life as a tree, this line has appeared in an earlier nonfiction piece by Patterson, "For the Last Time," an essay published in Arts and Letters. Dirge is, according to the poet's own description, "an erasure and adaptation" of this essay. The most brutal facts in the poem and essay are the same: a father has hung himself from a bridge "twenty-seven feet high, stretched over a busy thoroughfare." What is literally different from the original, other than the significant cutting of the prose and added lineation, pertains to point of view. While the essay is in the first-person—a reflective "I"—Dirge is in the second-person, a startling "you."
Not until the end of the poem—when the speaker has come to an idea of mortality that, while "disturbing," is "freeing" —does nature become less cold and matter of fact. Dirge ends with a sharp beginning, as the speaker—still expressed as "you"—glimpses a new moon among the trees. Building its own bridge, this closing connects to the opening in which Patterson examines the root word of bridge: bruw. In that exploration, three words that share this root arise "in the blunt arms of morning: stage, landing, gangway." The poem on its last page presents a tricky vision of nature:
Now that the speaker has found some resolution, the moon has become both menacing and highly memorable. The "illuminated snare" catches in the mind more than the "moon in the last quarter" that shone alongside the facts of the father's suicide. The white space throughout this beautifully austere poem gives the reader a place in which to connect scenes and images. The silence of this space endures like the sky through long lines that recall the branches and trunks of trees.
To commit suicide denotes an act of commission, an implication of criminality, perpetuating the notion of suicide as a metaphor for moral weakness and failure. Shakespeare used the phrase "self-slaughter." Professionals and advocates of suicide awareness offer other alternatives; "self-inflicted death," "ended his life," "died by suicide," or "completed suicide." To better understand suicide, they argue, we have to realize that the cause is unbearable suffering, possibly in the presence of mental illness.
Dirge refuses to let the reader escape the despair of the suicidal father. While the factual depiction of nature that accompanies his end can be seen as a comfort—an expression both of endurance and of light in the dark—it is easy to see how this comfort could turn into a seemingly endless curse. To find a vision of going on and on in a cold daybreak can be inspiring or devastatingly bleak or both.
The lines tumble down the page with no periods and few commas. This intense expression of life continues into the second poem, "Dormant," which also does not have much punctuation. As the title suggests, however, the essential life of this poem is a more contained—at least for the moment. The speaker, we learn, is going to give birth to boy whose arrival brings fear. There is no halting his approach: "I pictured his raft, miniscule pilgrim / sailing across / 'and without fear, who are we'."
To anyone who has read Dirge first, it is immediately apparent that this death is not the suicide from the other chapbook. Moritz's line about "not being close enough" does not resonate with the tight empathy in Patterson's work. While Dirge draws the world inward toward a sense of ensnaring danger, Elementary Rituals moves from an expression of life into an expression of life and death and dispersal. The final poems in the chapbook show a furious "emanation" not only words but of silence and distance. The last poem, "Before," begins:
Subsequent lines are few and far between. This poem has only twelve words on its first page. The last five of those words speak of what is gone: "from thy grave / of memory."
While Patterson has played and awakened with her poetry, Moritz has focused the gaze and grounded it in moments that often possess a great deal of emotional weight. She has shown an incredible ability to represent pain as both acute and constant in lines that magically contain such material. The poem, "Abduction," from her emotionally powerful chapbook, Night-Sea,begins:
For a poet with such reserve to create a diffuse expression of grief is a remarkable turn. The result is as exquisite as "the flower's consuming," as violent as a "rare bleed."