Sheila E. Murphy. Collected Chapbooks: 1981 – 2002. 600pp. BlueLionBooks. http://bluelionbooks.info
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:
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.
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.
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
because only Father did it.
We watched him march over rows of moist chopped grass,
He let envy grow in us like lust.
Afterwards he would stomp into the house
with lawnstain dirt,
and shower it away, out of his eyes, his face.
The t-shirt streaked with gray
Then he wanted praise from every one of us,
and got it.
happened every summer,
All along I knew I would never grow strong enough
pry his hands from the rubberized
even if my brothers would.
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
(from ‘That Tame and Lovely City of South Bend, Indiana’)
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:
the sun to flatten me and scar me
need the open fields to wash me
with my own unholy vulnerability
Copyright © Ian Seed, 2009