Reviewed by Reed Wilson -
Distant Glitter by Erin Murphy
WordTech Communications - June 2013
|Erin Murphy's fifth volume of poems borrows its title from Stevens's "The Snow Man," in which "One must have a mind of winter... /And have been cold a long time" to see "The spruces rough in the distant glitter" and not "think" of "misery." And yet, as that sinuous and subtle poem suggests, with persistent listening, we can experience something deeper, more mysterious than mere thought.|
This then is Murphy's task in Distant Glitter—to bring us, by having us listen to her luminous poems, to that moment of "nothing" which is, paradoxically, at the heart of everything.
Many of the poems here call attention to their language, because, for the poet, language is what gives us that "everything." In fact, Murphy scatters love letters to words throughout the book: "Dear, Fringe," "Dear Winged," "Dear Net," and others, including "Dear Crevice," in which many variants of its title subject appear from the "Notch in my newborn niece's chin, / same as her father's" to "lulls in conversations, marriages, flawed / hearts," to "the fissure between everything we wanted / to remember but forgot." Without words, not only do we lack names for things and memories, we lack the experience of particularized absence, the naming of which is one of the poet's many important tasks. In "This Grief," for example, she seeks "another word" for a particular kind of grief, a grief "twice removed" but still extant, heartfelt, and necessary.
Two poems, "Released" and "Post-Season Playoffs" deserve particular attention, since they seem to have been born of clever wordplay, specifically riffs on the phoneme "ang" in the former, and the phoneme "ock" in the latter. These poems, however, move quickly beyond ironic linguistic play, toward intellectually and emotionally precise engagement with their subjects. "Released," begins in irony, insofar as the poem's subject is a prisoner being set free from a literal prison only to be re-incarcerated in the figurative one of post-traumatic stress. In that prison he's locked up in the "jangle of loose / thoughts" and "angst growling like hunger," which gives way to
a tangled map of
a pang for air thick as
pecan pie and Southern twang
and, finally, "a hanger on a gang / a gang of one." "Post-Season Playoffs" on the other hand, starts with a direct jumble of rich description as "October knocks, fans flock, / scalpers squawk, vendors bark." But already the poem's first two lines offer an orthographic variation on the phoneme, and modulation toward another, related one. Neither the plenitude nor its darker reading can be contained by one sound as
In this league, the only balks
are from fans who walk
past homeless men's carts
outside the park
Praying for "luck," the fans behave as though "there's nothing, nada / besides jocks with deep pockets," though we have been made to see much more.
Distant Glitter repeatedly reminds us that language is essential, not accidental to our survival. In "Heartbreak," the poet struggles to evoke immediately and imaginatively what the poem's epigraph provides, lifted from Scientific American, in remote physiological terminology: "During a particularly stressful experience, the anterior cingulate cortex may respond by increasing the activity of the vagus nerve, [causing] pain and nausea." Nothing the poet can say seems adequate to her task:
The bully on the playground
sucker-punches you in the ribs.
No. A belly-flop off the high dive
onto a water wall of bricks. No
In fact, of course, nothing can be adequate to the task: as her final metaphor tells us, heartbreak is "A carpenter scouring / your throat with sandpaper" until "You / can't swallow. No. You can't speak." That may be how it feels, of course, but the poet herself, through her poem, contradicts the assertion by having the last affirming and imperative word.
Literally, figuratively, and linguistically, "heartbreak" contains "heart" as do all of Murphy's elegant, sparkling poems. The final piece here, "The Winter of My Disconnect," situates us in that season where we began the book, and its "discontent" is dissociation, existential angst, or, as Sartre would have reminded us, an experience of "nothingness":
I step on a pillow
of snow and do not sink.
I notice my wedding
band is a napkin
ring. I say the word
word over and over
until it isn't one.
But when "An outsourced voice / asks if the I / in my name / is for invisible," the poet's nadir becomes her affirming apex: "what can I say? / I say yes."
Erin Murphy's poetry has appeared in three previous issues of The Summerset Review.