This book is
unreadable, at first. The syntax and vocabulary is so unfamiliar that it
repelled my eyes like an over-lit landscape with a thousand vanishing points.
I hated it, and was gathering ammunition to write a damning review. But as
usual, I forced myself to read to the bitter end, and to my surprise I found
that my persistence began to pay off.
Gradually I started to become accustomed to Murphy's extremely unique style,
if not quite understanding what she was saying. The poetry demands patience,
a clear mind and repeated readings to get the most out of it, so in that
sense it is well worth the price. It is a challenging book, but it does
reward and recompense the reader for their perseverance.
Almost every line needs unpacking. The task of understanding it is as
formidable as a customs officer having to search every piece of luggage in an
international airport. But it often defies even the closest analysis, like a
suitcase without a zip or a buckle. Perhaps the poems are not reducible to a
simple meaning, but it is very annoying nonetheless.
The poems swing giddily between the abstract and the sensual, constantly
subverting your way of thinking. From 'the intellect as a cold white peach'
- 'if conformance has been equal to the color puce we gain / enormous vacuum
power stationed in a cork lane'. Although, there is a certain sadistic
pleasure in reading something cleverer than yourself.
There is no one linear train of thought, but competing ideas and melodies.
The declarative and often contradictory or unconnected sentences show rather
a progression of thought. I was reminded of Cocteau's 'Orphee', where the
poet listens to the radio and writes down what he hears - a poetic brain
scan, recording patterns of thought like a private language.
Many of the pieces are prose poems, and this tension between prose and poetry
is one aspect of Murphy's play with categories and expectations. There is a
complex synaesthesia of times, places, sense and senses. Internal rhythms and
sound games strike up and are broken off, interrupted, and new ones started.
You cannot predict its progress.
The unexpected play on words is unrelenting. I was constantly performing
double-takes - my eyes passed quickly over the title, 'What a Sweet Strong',
the last three letters confirming the prediction I made from 'Sweet', before
I felt that something wasn't quite right. Murphy uses this method in
different ways to encourage close and active reading.
Hundreds of intriguing and witty lines stick in your mind - 'she moved as
fast as salt', 'Parse me in your diary.' As usual the sense is not logical,
but associative or suggestive. However, this originality sometimes appears
contrived, and therefore irritating - 'I think you know what I don't mean',
and such excrescences as 'fast
awake' and 'down North'.
I feel ambivalent about this book. The esoteric vocabulary and obscure
constructions are often wearing and impenetrable. 'The dim equestrian motet
surrendered evidentiary habitat.' ('After Chaperone') The context renders
them more obscure. I disengaged, wondering whether it was meant to be
understood - if it was a parody of abstract poetry.
And then I would come across something clear and true. 'A frontier can be
defined as something not yet clasped.' ('Untitled') It is as if the poem is
suddenly lucid, emerging into consciousness from the burble of unconscious
musings: the noise of a brain going to sleep, randomly combining phrases and
memories, then recalling something perfectly.
Subtle and straightforward descriptions of noticed events - 'Rooftops tip a
whistle's worth of snow onto the drive' - are followed by dense and
frustrating abstracts - 'Some climate stalls into quotidian estrangement
until full seeing grows masculine as affidavits' ('Whole Tiles') - making me
want to hurl the stupid book fluttering into the back garden.
Murphy twists and manipulates familiar syntax and phrasing making it
unfamiliar as a language with a common alphabet. Nothing is usual, nothing
is presented as it is found. The writing constantly overturns your expectations,
making it enjoyable, but at the same time very distracting to read. 'I waited
on her hand and then her foot.' ('Her Liturgy')
There are some very good titles that caught my eye - 'The Vicissitudes of
Breast Stroke Larry', 'Affection for the Fraction', 'Aggravated Asphalt',
'Language Tea', 'The Shelf Life of Assonance', 'the or y', 'The Font of These
Six Letters of Salvation' - but I'll be goddamned if I can find any connection
between these titles and their respective poems.
One of my reservations stems from some of the later poems in the book, which
are in more conventional stanza form and betray a simplistic sentimentality
that is perhaps hidden by the linguistic manipulations of the other poems,
as in 'a bun dance', which begins 'so much so much / to bless be thankful
for / the harvest soon and pumpkins'.
I am also concerned that there are too many poems here, too many examples of
such dense and challenging work. On the one hand, the density of so many
poems makes it overwhelming (if you understand one, there are eighty more),
and on the other, Murphy's style, though unique, does start to wear and my
attention was trailing towards the end.
'I table words that are deciduous. They mine the other worlds I strain to
know.' ('Soft Percussion') Murphy is not content to write within present
forms of language and thought, because conventional beauty or lyricism will
not let her know the 'other worlds'. The book certainly goes where no man has
gone before, but it's a real strain getting there.
If you are looking for a challenge and want something to break you out of
your normal mode of thinking, then I highly recommend this book to you. But
if you have ever read a poem by Carol Ann Duffy and thought it was quite
nice, then I would stay well away. This is poetry stretching itself to the
limit, which expects the reader to be elastic as itself.
Paul Rowland 2004