Review by Peggy Kincaid
BOOK OF THE GIVEN
by Rusty Morrison
P.O. Box 1330
Mesilla Park, NM 88047
2011, 69 pp., $12.00
Rusty Morrison’s Book of the Given is an astonishingly lovely compilation of poems which draws heavily on the themes of the French intellectual, author and poet Georges Bataille. If you already know and appreciate Bataille, you will enjoy this book. Unfortunately, I was unfamiliar with Bataille, and I had to spend considerable time reading his Eroticism: Death and Sensuality and The Tears of Eros before I could understand the connections Morrison makes in her poems. Fortunately, after studying Bataille’s work, I found Book of the Given worth the effort.
Morrison’s work explores the connections Bataille draws between poetry, eroticism, mysticism and death; with chaos, in the form of the devolution and exploration of self, at the core. In Eroticism: Death and Sensuality Bataille writes:
Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism–to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity. Poetry is eternity; the sun matched with the sea.
In Book of the Given, Morrison successfully blends and fuses two poetic forms: five “scripted” sections of lines interwoven with Bataille’s phrases and five corresponding “unscripted” sections of prose poems that explore themes of generosity, seeing, and the given (the latter, after reading Bataille, I interpret as sacrifice). In the scripted sections, Morrison personalizes Bataille’s philosophy by intertwining his words with her tonally-rich narrative. “Faceless Before the Script” begins:
We are not calm tonight, but creaturely with quiet
amassing between us
the one direction that two bodies breed,
a close-walled, convulsive passage –
eroticism is a ghastly maze where
the body knows no one
can follow it
into the earth
of its innermost workings, into the matter (do not call it death)
that flesh eventually will find
itself becoming in its final loss
of the way of touch.
Morrison’s “unscripted” poems, which contain indirect allusions to Bataille, can be read and appreciated alone for their insightful prose, as this selection from “The given confounds” illustrates:
Memory, for instance. The way it hides us, but only from ourselves. Which is not
To ignore the use of accuracy as distraction, or the explanation that I shouldn’t
have started, already rearranging. Perhaps. But what can anyone tell?
Just-born giraffes drop as far as six feet. Life still catches them. Cleaning out the
Junk drawer, I find all the rubber bands are still young and elastic.
Equally admirable is Morrison’s handling of the religious in the context of sexual relationships. In Eroticism: Death and Sensuality Bataille says, “Eroticism is primarily a religious matter,” and “without private experience we could discuss neither eroticism nor religion.” Morrison expertly joins God, eroticism and the self in “Psalm for the Script”:
Not “God” whispered in our shared darkness
where herdsmen run helplessly behind the stampeding flock
painted on a domed roof that cracks open to expose
a further unfolding
star-blasted hemisphere already disappearing
on the screen of closed lids, after I recall myself
back into my eyes.
In The Tears of Eros, Bataille draws direct connections between eroticism, war and sacrifice. Morrison’s “Assembled from the Script” skillfully interweaves these elements:
No chapel, no wounded-soldier-in-the-last-scene sacrament,
No field of windswept grass where lovers walk
As the background music swells to tell us
Full communication resembles flames – the electrical
Morrison’s book is full of keen insight and delicately-balanced imagery. I will read and re-read passages such as “night-herons rising behind my closed eyes” and “I need you to hold my shoulders as doves” from “Psalm from the Script.”
The only complaint I have is that Morrison’s work does not transmit the power of Bataille’s more super-charged statements and conclusions that explore the darker connections between eroticism, violence, and death. Consider, for instance: “The violence of spasmodic joy lies deep in my heart. This violence, at the same time, and I tremble as I say it, is the heart of death: it opens itself up in me!” (The Tears of Eros) and:
Religion in its entirety was founded upon sacrifice. But only an interminable detour allows us to reach that instant where the contraries seem visibly conjoined, where the religious horror disclosed in sacrifice becomes linked to the abyss of eroticism, to the last shuddering tears that eroticism alone can illuminate. (The Tears of Eros)
These themes are central to Bataille’s thinking, and should not be side-stepped in any book that references his work.
Morrison is brave to write in response to Georges Bataille’s work. She does so with compelling personal insight. And, although I feel Book of the Given falls slightly short of addressing Bataille’s comprehensive philosophy, she introduced me to his work, for which gift I am extremely thankful.
Peggy Kincaid received her B.A. in English from CSU Sacramento where she studied poetry with Joshua McKinney. At CSUS, she received the Kathryn Hohlwein Poetry Award of Merit and two first place Bazzanella Literary Awards. Her poetry has appeared in Santa Clara Review, American River Review, and Calaveras Station, and is forthcoming in the 2012 Anthology of Sacramento Poets.