Reviewed by Jen Tynes
I feel I could review this book best by writing a list of stricken dichotomies. This small, elegantly square-shaped book is oddly intimate and oddly alienating, strangely inclusive and strangely exclusive, feverish and calm, intellectual and emotional, not balanced exactly, but tensed. Speaking in tenses. I am most intrigued by the many levels at which Murphy explores the relationship between part and whole. From “Following”:
Me llamo Sheila Murphy. When I used to sing I was the flavor of a Sunday roast. Served as anchor to the floating voices. Always heard, having not released myself to the idea blend. How does one grow memorable? And more important, why?
And as Walt Whitman says, “One's-self I sing, a simple separate person, / Yet utter the world Democratic, the word En-Masse.” The voice of these poems seems always to be 'singing' itself--proclaiming itself or, conversely, making itself 'blend' into song. How does an individual voice situate itself and to what end? In the poems that describe the experience of singing in a choir or performing in a musical group, there is a tension between what we learn and what we know, individual presence and group cohesion. In “Laced Preamble Teaching” there is “Pacem inordinately singing” and In “Brass Section”:
Hapless cadenzas make their way into an adolescence unrehearsed. This might be the derivation of unmarked chalkboards from another sphere. The teacher is responding. Peers, likewise, in wordless samples of the language that interpolate gut feeling.
How does the voice predict the consequences of its expression and the consequences of its silence? How does it maintain the tension between what its accentuated and what fades into the background?
The voice of the poems seems to come from one throat and many different angles, prisms of voice. At times it could be shimmer: the successful arrangement of a group. At others it is the natural fluctuation of a person exploring their own position. In “Slate,” the voice says, “I will alter speech and charity. I will offend my reach.”
The varied structure of the poems creates a super-awareness of prose versus broken line that seems organically fitting--the reader is never quite lulled into recognition of the landscape or movement of this book, and yet it manages to move together, to speak a whole thing with clarity but without oversimplification. The form of the book as a whole creates, like the American haibun--a form which Murphy favors and includes in this collection--its own considerate and considerable relationship between lines of verse and prose, progression and procession. Even dichotomous relationships deserve and receive examination from all angles. Murphy allows for not only broken line/prose but also public/private, she/he, lyric/language/story, both a recognition and explosion of the choices, positioning side-by-side poems that begin with the lines
So far we have only one to three things, none of which is beneficial (“Untitled”)
Serene quill imitates a hairline fracture formidable quiescence logarithmic in its
wafer filo normative esprit confounding tilled heat (“Conformity”).
Likewise, the language of this voice scatters into different categories: the language of the everyday; the language of lyric intimacy; the language that seems descended from a larger and/or higher voice or choir; the language that ascends from newspapers, eavesdropped conversations and streets; the language that resembles the detritus an owl leaves behind, the little bits of bone and fur coat that are indigestible but full of presence and information, shells both impenetrable and empty. Murphy allows us both the pleasure of their cleaving together and the pleasure of their cleaving apart, but not without a little bit of valuable talk first and finally about the cost.