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Morning Ritual by Lisa Rogal

Reviewed by James Yeary

May 7, 2016

Morning Ritual

Morning Ritual

by Lisa Rogal

United Artists Books, 2015

There are two poems in Morning Ritual titled “I woke up this morning.” The first of these poems—also the first poem in the collection—seems to be where the title of the collection stems from. Though the theme of waking of course appears at the onset of the second of these, and recurs at various points in the collection, it is this first poem that is the most ritualistic, in the sense of a performance, or magic. This first poem sets the tone (flat, conversational), subject matter (experiences as phenomena of questionable substance), and the poetic devices Rogal will use throughout the rest of the book.

The first poem titled “I woke up this morning” has a simple conceit, if more interesting ramifications that open an umbrella over the rest of the volume. In twenty-one paragraphs over fourteen pages, the poet begins, “I woke up this morning and ran the faucet,” occasionally with subtle variation. From here, her day unfolds, albeit changing. However, we know that this isn’t simply the ritual we are experiencing with the author, as we are told, each time: “It was the fourth day without hot water.” She will then go on to curse her landlord, physically attack her landlord, leave a note for her landlord, and we are given enough detail to note that, despite this being “the fourth day,” each “fourth day” mentioned in the poem could not refer to the same day, for each “fourth day” as narrated wouldn’t be compatible with the others. The “fourth day” could refer to a day as it possibly unfolded, or possibly to a kind of Groundhog’s Day, as experienced by Bill Murray in the eponymous film. We are given no information as to if, outside the constraints of this narrative, there is a relationship from one “fourth day” to another.

The second poem titled “I woke up this morning” begins with a dream (and it should be noted that the titles to these poems are all merely the first several words of the poem, an effect that echoes the plain, direct experiences the majority of these poems deliver). The subject is a dream, as it is mulled over the course of the following day. Given the first “I woke up” poem, should we believe this journalistically, believe this to be a record of a real experience? Remember, in the first “I woke up” poem, one of the episodes entails the poet “remember[ing] her dream all of a sudden […] and then the dream is gone, though the details I’ve uncovered remain, but really they mean nothing now and even seem a bit ridiculous.”

Less than a page is spent on the ridiculous dream related in the first poem, the “ridiculous” dream-tales that constitute one episode of the imagined day without water. In the second poem of the same name, a day is presented without counterfactual observances, as moving from open (waking) through close (going to bed). Dream details persist, but it begs the question: is the detailed dreamlife any more or less ridiculous than the day? What does this mean when it’s hinted that the waking day is as much a product of the imagination as the dream is?

In the second “I woke up” poem, “my alarm clock went off and I tried to force myself back to sleep. […] I did fall asleep a little longer, but I dreamed I was waking up, picking out a shirt, getting dressed.” The poet proposes potential fictions as identical to lived experience, and we’re given no decoder ring to suss it out. In the world of these poems, Rogal makes the claim that imagination and experience may be voluntary or involuntary. The question of this distinction recurs at various points in the collection, and it is a question Rogal uses to understand her own relationships, love, sex, and otherness.

Consider the poem “I made dinner.” In this poem Rogal questions the feelings and desires of other people, friends as well as people in general, and compares them to her own. The questions are not answered. The reasons she seeks for human love and desire remain inexplicable to her. From the outset, even her own emotional history is treated with a sort of remove, experienced as though through an other she nonetheless has a kind of cinematic access to. “Those few years before seemed to go on forever and ever, even now, they are still going on, stretching into infinity without me.” Rogal goes on to describe a tinge of jealousy she feels at a friend’s newfound (dumb) love. What seemed to her to be an impossible connection (as her own relationship to this friend was) made the impossible possible. “If she could be in love like this, then I could too. I could fake it, as they say, until I make it.” This is rather straightforward, an identifiable desire sprung from jealousy. But a little further on she writes, “it would be like it was anyone, like it was me in my own head, the physical manifestation of my inner life.”

What does Rogal mean when she follows “faking” the love moment until she “makes it”—again an identifiable if depraved human strategy—with the affirmation that doing so would be (only) “like” it was “in [her] own head”? Saying as much suggests that though she may do it, it will no longer be her. It brings to mind the question posed by the existential detectives in the film I Heart Huckabees: “How am I not myself?” The poem closes with a calming of the existential anxiety, as she is able to alienate herself even from her own anxiety: “I could see myself in the mirror and panic and then relax […] to overwhelm all sense of reality and understand the panic as a message passing from one side to the other, getting across lines, getting the lines all crossed, approaching the membrane, forcing sensation through.” An existential triumph, but what is on the other side?

Where Morning Ritual really delivers is in Rogal’s ability to take quotidian experience to places that transcend “aha” moments, to lend to experience the power and agency active in reflection, the musicality in living and remembering that turns poem into lyric. This poetry of quotidian subject matter is woven with and driven by bathos. As a poetic device bathos is more prevalent in contemporary literature than ever before. Flarf poetry and the new surrealisms are only obvious examples, and one may hope that the tendency is approaching its limit. But, as Rogal writes in “The air is just warm,” “like sometimes what I’m writing turns out to be a poem / a new thought enters all the time,” the uncrafted and purely experiential flow of these writings recalls the aleatoricians John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, especially the latter’s “Daily Life” series, which included a number of things one spouse might say to another on any given day, and an algorithm to construct a poem out of such sayings. Cage and Mac Low were both interested in creating artworks that resembled nature in form and content, i.e. in that they were constructed naturally, without ordinary processes of intention. Here, Rogal mimics nature from the perspective of our own experience, as a more or less uncrafted gathering of banal materials and ordinary language, mutually supportive in a world that evades distinctions of dream, experience, and fiction.

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James Yeary is a bookseller in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of numerous chapbooks of poetry, many of which were written in collaboration with other artists and writers. His review work has elsewhere appeared in Rain Taxi and Galatea Resurrects. He has taught poetry in the classroom, the museum, and on the street.