Ian Seed: Sheila E. Murphy
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Sheila E. Murphy. Collected Chapbooks: 1981 – 2002. 600pp. BlueLionBooks.



One of the first poems of Sheila E. Murphy I came across was in A Curious Architecture (Stride, 1996), an anthology of prose poems edited by Rupert Loydell and David Miller.  The poem is entitled ‘How partial, therefore lovely’. Because it captures so much of the feel of Murphy’s writing in just a few lines, it is worth quoting in its entirety:


How partial therefore lovely from afar the leaves, the colour tour from a gray boat. Her company seemed sterling in white humour capable of being shared. Earth would mist away some of our tantrums. Would rigidify formed aftermath. A clause of sponge weighted and blond. The iffiest of right turns leased to margins popular as a comeuppance.


Rigour shift, a tourist in possession of completed rose that numbers fourteen.


Whenever I come back to this poem, I go into the kind of trance I would associate more with music than with language. Its effectiveness is due to its sounds as much as its images. Written very much with the ear as well as the eye, it has both a random and a highly-controlled quality; it is experimental with its use of language yet also intensely lyrical. I love the lilt as much as the picture created by its first sentence. I love all the ‘s’ sounds which bind the poem together, like waves shushing against the sides of the boat she introduces. I love the mix of different kinds of language: ‘lovely’, ‘iffiest’, ‘comeuppance’. I have no idea why Murphy chooses the number ‘fourteen’ at the end – and nor do I care. It is enough for me that I am delighted by its unexpectedness each time I come back to the poem: somehow it feels right. I am also attached to the idea that something is lovely because it is partial. It implies an openness to the future.


In the last few years I have managed to acquire a few of Murphy’s full-length collections (we have to be grateful here in the UK to Rupert Loydell at Stride for making us aware of her work).  Yet much of her poetry since 1981 has in fact been published exclusively in small pamphlets and chapbooks, most of which are now out-of-print, and which most of us – even Murphy fans – will not have read. What a delight therefore that this work has now been made available in a beautifully produced hardback published by BlueLionBooks. It is, as Ron Silliman says on the back cover, ‘a revelation […] a great book’.


There are so many surprises here, even for the more experienced reader of Murphy. For example, I had no idea that she had written so many personal, lyrical poems. And she is a master here, just as she is with her innovative work. She frequently returns to the theme of family relationships, the most striking being the way she relates to her father and what he represents for her (and perhaps what the archetype of the father - and beyond that the image of traditional male-oriented society - represents for many of us).  Here is another poem, ‘The Dignity of Work’, which I think is worth quoting in full:


Mowing the lawn was a privilege at our house

because only Father did it.

We watched him march over rows of moist chopped grass,

coveted his job.

He let envy grow in us like lust.

Afterwards he would stomp into the house

filthy with lawnstain dirt,

and shower it away, out of his eyes, his face.

The t-shirt streaked with gray

would disappear.

Then he wanted praise from every one of us,

and got it.


It happened every summer,

every week.


All along I knew I would never grow strong enough

to pry his hands from the rubberized

sweatstained grips,

even if my brothers would.


Unless of course I devoted my whole life to it.


And in this book there are other closely-observed poems like this - on friendship, on love, on work and on social interactions. Frequently, the personal and experimental sides happily co-inhabit (in a way that would be impossible for a lesser poet to manage) within the same poem. Indeed the first poem in the collection is a wonderful example of this:


A child there I infer perpetual distance

the same thick snow between us         I learn how warm

the walls of snow        the place we stay in

when it melts       we chill    I learn


(from ‘That Tame and Lovely City of South Bend, Indiana’)



Even in this early poem of 1981, Murphy is combining abstract language (‘infer perpetual distance’) with the kind of lyricism we more readily associate with traditional poetry.


Possibly the main reason for Sheila E. Murphy’s relative popularity (for an experimental poet), is that, although she is in a certain sense a formalist (for example, there are several highly-structured sequences in this book) and writes many a line that will have those who cry out for instantly ‘accessible’ poetry raising their hands in horror (‘Lasso’s opening at last this camera pointed toward profundity and missing a percentage of the candle’ – from ‘Neutralysis’), she is never aloof, never talks down to the reader. Rather, her poetry is an invitation to join her on whatever journey it is that she happens to be making – whether it be navigating the vulnerabilities of relationships or playfully pushing language and its musical sounds to the limits. Murphy is an accomplished flautist and, as a ‘virtuoso bird’, often delights in the sounds of words for their own sake, following the tradition of Gertrude Stein:


Forming, storming, enorming, armloads of gladiola just in time for supper (from ‘Thick Walls Are Useful Walls’).


The cover, designed by Murphy herself, captures all the ambiguity, richness and teasing quality of her work: a series of highly-coloured squiggles – which could be musical notes or could be characters from an ancient language – splashed over lines from a music sheet. The music and the language are invented and spark off associations with ancient spells and the powers of shamans.


As well as the huge variety of poems, there are also other surprises: a pamphlet of her work translated into French (a language her poems seem specially suited to) and an interview with her by British poet and artist, David Chorlton.


Of course, being such a prolific poet, Murphy, like John Ashbery, has her moments of weakness, where playfulness can descend into whimsy and inventiveness into self-parody. However, the border between them is not always so easy to spot, and in any case will depend upon the eye and the ear of the beholder. As a reader, I by far prefer to read a poet who takes exciting risks than a poet who trots out endless nuggets of self-contained wisdom.


Sheila E. Murphy’s poetry is a continual plea for openness to the possibilities of life and creative work. I end this review with a return to the words of the first poem in the book:


take the sun to flatten me and scar me

need the open fields to wash me

with my own unholy vulnerability



Copyright © Ian Seed, 2009