Hemming Flames by Patricia Colleen Murphy (Swenson Poetry Award Series, Vol. 19). Utah State University Press. $16.95, 80pp.
With “Losing our Milk Teeth,” the opening poem of Patricia Colleen Murphy’s award-winning collection, Hemming Flames, the author announces from the outset that we’re in for a thrilling ride—thrilling as in thriller as much as the acute pleasure of reading masterful poems. Hemming Flames is by turns terrifying, uncanny, and sometimes lunatic, in the ways lunacy charts (if it does chart anything) the unpredictable and uncanny. There is also a wry and blunt humor here, a consciousness latching onto what will carry it through the traumas of an imploding family.
These poems’ tonal registers, their pitch and directness, make for a “hard to put down” read more characteristic of novels than most poetry collections. In “Losing our Milk Teeth” the father will say, “pass the mother/fucking peas. And, could you//try not to murder yourself/ in front of the children.” Ritual matter-of-factness is turned into ritual high drama, as Murphy parodies a type of family-gathering etiquette meant to tame demons that can go wildly out of control. But there is so much more here as Murphy mines her family’s unraveling; she is also telling us something about the subversive and redemptive possibilities of language. Or as she puts it in “The Princess of Creeping,” “no one can say I did not live a long time/ in the danger theater, where the play begins/ with all the dolls behaving perfectly.”
One can’t help but recall the legacies of Plath and Sexton in Murphy’s unflinching face-off with the terrifying and absurd in the bathos and pathos of the dysfunctions she charts so masterfully. Consider the beginning lines of “The Birth of No”:
I remember everything but in an order I cannot control.
It was suicide season. I was 14 and I couldn’t believe
my mother’s thrift, like she had missed a few zeros.
Or the beginning of “Scrotum and Bone”:
You learned to masturbate while I learned
to menstruate. How thin the wall separating
all our adolescent groaning. In our shared
bathroom, my obscene arsenal of hygienics.
In the hallway, a shelf of your hard-core porn.
Mom/Dad comatose in front of the TV, mistaking
money for generosity.
The immediacy of these poems’ occasions often makes for an engagement with the biographical that can feel more surreal than real, and the seemingly mundane expresses as much of the lunatic moment as it does of the human fragilities that get us there. In “The Year of Our Comorbidity” we get the unabashed power of the mother’s voice:
Dear Stylish Persons. I received your forms and the SHOCK
of your GOD-be-DAMNED diagnosis has made me change
my mind in a hurry. Sorry you SHIT HEADS! I’ll fight this
to the US SUPREME COURT. Up Your Collective Assholes!
What were the doctors doing with their pretty PhD’s?
The rest of us cowered, studying for our turbulence exams.
Mom kept flashing her wallet open to her CPUSA card,
all while farting on the “Why don’t you love me” cushions.
In a Moscow asylum, there’s a “Letter from the Psych Ward, Hospital Kashenko” that further conflates the mother’s psychological state with her exterior surroundings, recalling some of Plath’s personas. In those Plathian interiorities in which her personas give shape to the physical worlds they find themselves inhabiting, or being held hostage to, the concrete events of their surroundings are turned into metaphors of radical alienation. Think of “Tulips,” “Waking in Winter,” or how in “Three Women,” set in a maternity ward, three unnamed women speak their trauma in alternating dramatic monologues that don’t always locate us beyond the emotion being expressed; the first voice, for example, claims, “There is no miracle more cruel than this./I am dragged by horses, the iron hooves./I last. I last it out. I accomplish a work./” which we assume is describing the experience of giving birth. The second voice in the poem, as another example, talks of the men from her office as “so flat!/ . . . like cardboard . . . /That flat, flat, flatness from which ideas, destructions,/ Bulldozers, guillotines, white chambers of shrieks proceed,/” The way this kind of Plathian porousness becomesa seemingly rampant free-association of contexts is what Murphy captures so well in the mother’s voice of “Letter from the Psych Ward . . . ” A section of the poem that includes bewilderments about a daughter’s coming-of-age reads:
For heaven’s sake, start saving each month’s used tampons
and napkins in a cardboard box for shipment to Vat. City 2ND class,
surface “male” no return address for last rights and Holy
Internment because there is no way to know whether your ova
began dividing, forming a fetus which then miscarried.
The reason I asked you if you’d like me to buy you a Yugo
is that one of my daydreams in Moscow was for every family
with a teenager in the Industrialized World to put down money
on a Yugo so those ASSHOLE Yugoslavs would go back to work
instead of killing each other.
Murphy’s various inheritances from the canon becomes a trope for foregrounding her aesthetics of the personal. In “Arch On A Rung —with a line from Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Five Flights Up’” her reference to Bishop, like her reference to Sexton in “Reading Sexton In Phuket,” uses biographical details from Bishop and Sexton that resonate with the urgencies her speakers find most compelling. And as with Plath who reinterprets Biblical lore in “Lady Lazarus” to give her lady agency, Murphy claims aspects of Bishop’s biography to empower her own:
Bishop and I stay adamant our asthma
is NOT caused by our mothers’ asylums.
Come on. I’m as bored of mom’s suicides
as she is of my attacks. When she runs
a hot bath I can’t tell whose skin she’s
trying to burn. She won’t believe me,
but the communism isn’t the problem.
And in “How I Learned Everyone is Ridiculous” a “long morning” begins
with a memory of Barthes,
who once accosted me on my
way home from castration camp.
He accused me of being
all studium and no punctum.
Then he went on and on about
my lack of literary femininity.
Next Barth jumped in and said
I had mistaken the map for the city.
The poem illustrates what Murphy does to different, and stunning effect throughout the collection: invents a voice that will map a way. She is wry, and deft with wordplay, informed, refreshingly irreverent, original, and fearless.
Adrianne Kalfopoulou’s publications include, most recently, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living (2014). Her work has appeared in journals such as Hotel Amerika, the Harvard Review online, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Her third poetry collection, A History of Too Much is forthcoming in 2018 (Red Hen Press). She lives and teaches in Athens, Greece where she directs the academic writing program at Deree College.
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