Joan Murray, Swimming for the Ark: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2015
Would it surprise the young men
playing softball on the hill to hear the women
on the terrace admiring their bodies:
The slim waist of the pitcher. The strength
of the runner's legs. The torso of the catcher
—rising off his knees to toss the ball back to the mound?
Would it embarrass them
to hear two women, sitting together after dinner,
praising even their futile motions:
The flex of a batter's hips
before his missed swing. The wide-spread stride
of a man picked off his base. The intensity
on the new man's face
—as he waits on deck and fans the air?
(from "Play by Play")
I first read Joan Murray fifteen years ago when someone bought me a copy of her remarkable historical epic Queen of the Mist, the story of Anna Edson Taylor, the first person to "shoot" Niagara Falls in a barrel. When I opened the book and noticed that it was, indeed, a book-length poem about a 63-year-old woman desperately risking her life, I thought, "Nobody can pull this off; it's way more difficult to write a poem about falling a mile in a barrel than actually falling a mile." As usual, I was wrong. Joan Murray not only pulled it off, but did so with such style and compassion that I set out at once to read all the rest of her books just to see what she could do with ordinary life. It turns out that Murray can do a great deal with anything. Here's one of the early stanzas of Queen of the Mist:
Niagara!--over me!--under me!
I spilled into it from every pore,
in the blackness of its roar.
Something opened--grew wide--tore--
till every part of me was new:
Brain. Eyes. Tongue
--down to the wet soles in my shoes.
I took my measure, checked my sex
and, pleased with what I'd made,
I slapped my back between the blades
and took a breath
There's a lot to like here--the subtle rhymes that mimic the sing-song of monologue--and spilling into the falls, as if Annie Taylor herself was turned to liquid (it must have felt that way). She's in a barrel so something opened--but what? And then, perfectly put, every part of me was new. Shall we take this line as our theme and assert that Murray is able, often, to cast her loose and limber lines in such a way as to invite her reader's own newness? Book blurbs often go the route of "stunning" or "dazzled," but better than being knocked in the head (into incomprehension?) is to think anew about something we've grown accustomed to considering in a predictable way. This is what reading Murray does for me: someplace in almost all of her poems I am likely to think or feel about something, something trivial, sometimes something grand, in a way that I haven't before, or haven't lately. That's what poetry is for: condensing the power of thought and feeling into small compass but at the same time allowing ample room for the reader to form her own associations--think "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" with its clarity limned by the ambiguity of the last line, or of Wallace Stevens' "The Snowman," its simplicity and opacity coexisting.
There is no "typical" Joan Murray poem--she writes about everything imaginable, from fox hunts to neighbors sitting about of an evening; her poems are set in cities and in the country, in exotic places, and right around the corner--she's one of the most surprising poets I know in this regard. There's never any pretense in her work, nor professorial fakery--she's a poet first of all. She can write in strict stanzas with tight cadences and she can write deliriously long, flexible C.K. Williams-loopy lines that allow you space to think whatever thoughts you wish.
Here's "Her Head," tightly constructed, repetitious, and memorable:
in Natal, South Africa,
a woman carries water on her head.
After a year of drought,
when one child in three is at risk of death,
she returns from a distant well,
carrying water on her head.
The pumpkins are gone,
the tomatoes withered,
yet the woman carries water on her head.
The cattle kraals are empty,
the goats gaunt—
no milk now for children,
but she is carrying water on her head.
The engineers have reversed the river:
those with power can keep their power,
but one woman is carrying water on her head.
In the homelands, where the dusty crowds
watch the empty roads for water trucks,
one woman trusts herself with treasure,
and carries water on her head.
The sun does not dissuade her,
not the dried earth that blows against her,
as she carries the water on her head.
In a huge and dirty pail,
with an idle handle,
resting on a narrow can,
this woman is carrying water on her head.
This woman, who girds her neck
with safety pins, this one
who carries water on her head,
trusts her own head to bring to her people
what they need now
between life and death:
She is carrying them water on her head.
This poem is from Murray's 1999 collection Looking for the Parade, and is included in Swimming for the Ark.
There's political passion in Murray, vivid images, and a head-spinning array of subjects, observations, ideas. My own poetic tastes run to the the metaphysicals, to poets who can harness disparate and even contradictory ideas and images together into a satisfying whole. I like poems with plots, poems that shake things up, poems with lines that stay with you all day. Read the first lines of "The Precarious Nest" and try to guess where Murray is taking you: "This summer I am less affected by Darwin/and the ice-action and organic production/of the Southern Hemisphere, / or by his expedition/up the Santa Cruz..." What's packed into this four-page poem--cats and shirts and Sabbaths and "Carol Wright facing the dark TV" is a reminder--if you need reminding--that poetry is boundless, and that its finest practitioners pull ideas out of language the way magicians pull rabbits out of hats.
It also occurs to me that the sort of poets whom I go back to regularly are adept at wringing just the right amount of didacticism out of the quotidian. Here's the last stanza of "Master of the Situation," a poem that begins with a stolen bike and ends with a mediation on a "tiny red newt":
...something tells you--
something that's clearly on [the newt's] side--
as it wades on its piddly feet through the grains of sand
like someone swimming slowly--
just for the pleasure of it.
It pauses by a stone--pauses, pauses, doing nothing--
that's the way you think of it
as it stands there--brighter than anything you can
see in any direction--and wields against you
the mountainous weapon of its patience.
"Mountainous weapon" does the job perfectly: a way of studying the natural world for its slowness and lack of concern with what concerns us. My daughters enjoy the languid fluttering of butterflies in our summer garden for just this reason--"Don't they have anywhere to go?" The blessing of being able to say "no."
I'll finish with one of my favorite of her poems.
1 It’s mid-September, and in the Magic Wing Butterfly Conservancy in Deerfield, Massachusetts, the woman at the register is ringing up the items of a small girl and her mother. There are pencils and postcards and a paperweight-- all with butterflies--and, chilly but alive, three monarch caterpillars--in small white boxes with cellophane tops, and holes punched in their sides. The girl keeps rearranging them like a shell game while the cashier chats with her mother: “They have to feed on milkweed--you can buy it in the nursery outside.” “We’ve got a field behind our house," the mother answers. The cashier smiles to show she didn’t need the sale: “And in no time, they’ll be on their way to Brazil or Argentina-- or wherever they go--" (“to Mexico," says the girl, though she’s ignored) “and you can watch them do their thing till they’re ready to fly.” 2 I remember the monarchs my son and I brought in one summer on bright pink flowers we’d picked along the swamp on Yetter’s farm. We were “city folks," eager for nature and ignorant--we left our TV home--and left the flowers in a jar on the dry sink in the trailer. We never noticed the caterpillars till we puzzled out the mystery of the small black things on the marble top--which turned out to be their droppings. And soon, three pale green dollops hung from the carved-out leaves, each studded with four gold beads--so gold they looked to be mineral--not animal--a miracle that kept us amazed as the walls grew clear and the transformed things broke through, pumped fluid in their wings, dried off--and flew. I gauge from that memory that it will be next month before the girls are “ready.” I wonder how they’ll “fly” when there’s been frost. “And they’ll come back next summer," the cashier says, “to the very same field--they always do.” I’m sure that isn’t true. But why punch holes in our little hopes when we have so few? 3 Next month, my mother will have a hole put in her skull to drain the fluid that’s been weighing on her brain. All summer, she’s lain in one hospital or another-- yet the old complainer’s never complained. In Mather, the woman beside her spent a week in a coma, wrapped like a white cocoon with an open mouth (a nurse came now and then to dab the drool). My mother claimed the woman’s husband was there too-- “doing what they do”--though it didn’t annoy her. Now she’s in Stony Brook--on the eighteenth floor. I realize I don’t know her anymore. When she beat against the window to break through, they had to strap her down --and yet how happy and how likeable she’s become. When I visit, I spend my nights in her empty house-- in the bed she and my father used to share. Perhaps they’re there. Perhaps we do come back year after year to do what we’ve always done--if we can’t make our way to kingdom come, or lose ourselves altogether.
Joan Murray, Swimming for the Ark: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2015, published by White Pine press, here: http://www.whitepine.org/catalog.php