ARC Fellows: catastropha

ARC Fellows: catastropha

Submitted by our 2020 Poetry and the Senses Poetry Fellow:

Rusty Morrison (Community Poet)

Yesterday morning I took an hour from my work-life to write in my journal. These days of Covid19, of sheltering-at-home, have meant more work for me, not less, in the professional realm. Choosing to enter the journal’s poem-space is a risk for that reason, as it will mean less time to do what needs doing. But there’s more. The act of writing is a calling into the emptiness where I have little control over what comes, a calling into “chance,” which is what Inger Christensen describes as (my paraphrasing here):

a kind of inexhaustible layer of white noise from which… music might be drawn, or not… and not exactly when or what the individual wants…

During my hour I found myself lineating, line-breaking much of the language I wrote. Serendipitously, I began to see enjambments causing double-meanings to emerge that I hadn’t consciously planned. Enjambments of this special subspecies of the term, I call “Janus enjambments”: they face, as does Janus, in two directions at once.

It struck me, as I saw this in my journal, how Janus’ presence might have relevance as more than a poetic term, when I, like so many of us, are living through Covid19’s enormities (life challenges, unexpected often irreconcilable changes, as well as the constant fear of illness and death). As terrible as it all seems, maybe there is a Janus enjambment to the enormity.

If I don’t recognize the double-meaning that the last word of a line acquires from next line, then I might revise the double-ness away. If I don’t recognize a Janus enjambment in my daily life, then I may be missing a significant crossroad, and then fail to allow for both directions, and surely miss the insight offered by the direction that’s least expected, which chance has allowed to glint open, however briefly.

The Janus enjambment I think of, right now, was the look on a friend’s face, in a Zoom call. If I’d spoken directly to the shape of it, if I’d said to my friend that her mouth is stiff and I’d not seen that stiffness before, then she might have opened to me in ways that she hasn’t. And I, too, might have taken her example and opened more than I even knew of myself to her.

Before Covid19, I taught a 6 hour “exploratory” on “catastrophe.” I’d felt that I was not alone in my fear of our cultural/political situation, and that this kind of pursuit might be of use to my writing-friends and to me. My intention was to begin with the word’s derivation: from Latin catastropha, and from Greek katastrophē: ‘overturning, sudden turn,’ from kata– ‘down’ + strophē ‘turning’ (from strephein ‘to turn’). In my bit of research toward creating the exploratory, I learned that the stars, it’s said, will sometimes turn a larger expression of their light toward earth, which will offer insight, as oracles might (though how one interprets any oracle is not simple). Etymologically speaking, such insight arrival (wherever we find it) is catastropha, which, while not necessarily able to avert imminent disaster, can awaken us to responding with creative natural intelligence to its call.

Yesterday morning, that the simple arrival of the surprise of a Janus enjambment in my journal might have been an instant of the stars offering me a catastropha—both a warning and a call to look more insightfully at my life, as each instant arrives, to see how many faces it might offer.

I instigate many Zoom calls (sometimes four a day) in my professional role. I use the word “Zoom” for them, which is, while accurate, leading me to miss a Janus enjambment opportunity. If I say, to those sharing the Zoom with me, that I want to call it “Zed,” too, not just “Zoom,” then we can conjure more than what the word “Zoom” manifests. We are all intimate with the power of a name, the power of its subliminal meanings to change how we behave, how we feel. Of course, this depends upon one’s history. For me, “Zoom” suggests “another rushed experience” and “focusing upon only what is expected.” I’m curious what will come to me when I allow for “Zed”-time to be present: end of the alphabet time, non-pre-determined time, a terrain beyond the logic of linearity.

Of course, the people on a Zoom call and I have work that must be accomplished. There remains a “Zoom” quality to the list of what must be discussed. But, and here’s the Janus face to this: Can I look in more than that one direction? Can I ask myself, and those with whom I share the call, as we finish the allotted tasks, to see where else we might go, what else we might find, what else each of us might surprise ourselves to say, what insight might come, if we open to what is there, to what Janus-face, what Janus eyes might be waiting for us?

I realize that I haven’t shared here the actual lines, and line-breaks, from my journal—the lines that offered me a Janus enjambment and the insight to begin this piece of writing.

I realize that to risk doing that is, itself, Janus enjambment opportunity—I could face in more than the direction of simply writing about my recent experiences with this. I could face into chance, face back into that journal poem to see what might happen, and type whatever it might be, letting chance change whatever it will.

This is the kind of risk I’ve only, in this essay, alluded to, not lived. Here, let me live it:

…as I try to emphasize what is unique in the performance of a thing I am

not anything I thought

I was

no longer

discernible in the lyric line I keep writing

myself into becoming

Rusty Morrison is co-founder and co-publisher of Omnidawn ( since 2001. Her five books include After Urgency (won Tupelo’s Dorset Prize) & the true keeps calm biding its story (won Ahsahta’s Sawtooth Prize, James Laughlin Award, N. California Book Award, & DiCastagnola Award from PSA). Her most recent book is Beyond the Chainlink (Ahsahta; finalist for the NCIB Award & NCB Award). She teaches in MFA programs as a visiting poet, workshops through Omnidawn, and elsewhere. Offering private consultations.

Note: Over the course of the spring semester, each 2020-2021 ARC Fellows will submit a short blog post about their project. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! Poetry and the Senses will create meaningful opportunities for engagement, research, and collaboration. As a think tank for the arts at UC Berkeley, ARC will act as a facilitator and connector between the campus and the many flourishing regional poetry communities. This two-year initiative (Jan 2020 – Dec 2021) explores the relevance and urgency of lyrical making and storytelling in times of political crisis, and the value of engaging the senses as an act of care, mindfulness, and resistance. To learn more about the program, click here.