Column: Music of Fragments

By Carol Dorf for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on July 12, 2010

I recently attended a reading in Oakland, California, where poet Rusty Morrison read from her book the true keeps calm biding its story. Every nine-line poem is titled “please advise stop,” and each line ends with words like stop or please.

The other poet at the reading, Janet Holmes, read from her book The Ms of M y Kin. Writing out of the pressure of the Gulf War, Holmes found the words she needed in a series of erasures from the poems of Emily Dickinson.

At first, when I heard this work, I questioned why the poets would want to limit the strategies of twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry–including a wide vocabulary and a flexible approach to sound, syntax, and the line break along with countless others.

How does this radical constriction benefit the writer? And the reader? How does it compare to the use of traditional forms, such as the sonnet, to order experience in the work of poets like Natasha Trethewey or Marilyn Hacker?

Take Trethewey’s Pulitzer prize-winning book Native Guard. Many of the poems are written in formal verse, including traditional sonnets or pantoums, and invented forms. In the powerful poem “Miscegenation,” every second line ends with the word Mississippi:


“In 1963 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;

they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name

begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong–mis in Mississippi.


When I turned 33, my father said, “It’s your Jesus year–you’re the same

age he was when he died.” It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.

I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name –

though I’m not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi


The repetition of Mississippi in this poem leads us to see how the reader was both of that place and also forced into an accounting of that place, as in the final line: “it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.”

In comparison with Trethewey’s use of a variety of forms, there is an exact unity of form in Rusty Morrison’s book. She employs a highly constricted form as a container for the grief felt at a father’s death. The book as a whole follows a similar set of strictures with nine sections of six poems.  

In these poems, the words stop, please, and please advise serve to punctuate the narrator’s sorrow and her plea for advice.  

please advise stop 

attempting again proximity with the dead as though they stay in place unmoved stop
as though I could measure closeness if I scratched it with tiny marks stop
opened again the fine pleating that opening each time damages stop
as if it were a stranger's hand my hand again replaying the reaching out it failed to do stop
gauging the weight of each inherited object ignoring the object itself stop
dwelling increasingly on the floor between memory and involuntarily pushing memory away stop
a few darknesses are inward a few are outward pointing branches in a stand of poplars stop
reason can't bring over something on the verge of real but unwilling to become it stop
I can paint any blue on a ceiling and none on the sky please advise

The narrator wants to reach out past the break between the dead and the living to hold the hand of the father again yet is defeated by the “opening each time damages.” The final line in the poem reiterates her dismay at not being able to change things past the boundary of life and death by contrasting ceiling and sky.

In The Ms of M y Kin, Janet Holmes takes the strategy of restriction to an even more severe level. Each of these poems is composed through Holmes’s erasures from Dickinson’s 1861-1862 work. This project is the antonym of the palimpsest: Instead of layering work over an older text, work from the older text is removed in order to create the new text.

Here is part of “1861.16” (I haven’t been able to completely replicate the spacing because Holmes uses white space to indicate where the word was on the original Dickinson page.)



                 rules                    --





                                    Retreat –

            America –

No Trace                         of the Thing

That dazzled

Men, and Feats

In using Dickinson’s language about the Civil War, Holmes connects the grief and horror of that war with the more recent Gulf War.

These two wars are very different, and I wonder if using the language of one to reflect on the other blurs a necessary moral distinction. On the other hand, the poems in The Ms of M y Kin emphasize the way the words for war transcend time.

So, back to my first question: Why radically restrict the techniques of poetry, not just for an individual poem, as when writing a sonnet or pantoum, but for an entire book?

For both Morrison and Holmes, the unit is the book, not the poem. Structural restriction serves to return the reader again and again to the psychological and social restriction of the experiences they are writing about. Thinking about these works leads me to see that the twentieth-century division between the modernist aversion to restricted form and the neo-traditionalist embrace of those forms is breaking down in the work of women poets.

Carol Dorf is a poet whose work appears in Moira, A Cappella Zoo, 13th Moon, Feminist Studies, Heresies, Fringe, The Midway, Poemeleon, New Verse News,  Mezzo Cammin, Runes, the Not a Muse, Boomer Girls anthologies and elsewhere. She is a former editor of Five Fingers Review and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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