Proof of Silhouettes by Sheila E. Murphy
[7.50, Stride]


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