Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Almost Too Much Barbara E. Murphy
Almost Too Much
Barbara E. Murphy
Cervena Barva Press
REVIEW BY THOMAS GAGNON
Should I be able to skim a poem?, I ask myself, as I look through Almost Too Much, a collection of poems by Barbara E. Murphy. Oh, why not? I can get an overall impression and then read and savor each poem more slowly. So I did. I found Murphy’s poems truthful and enjoyable—the right stuff of poetry—and yet not impactful, as the title of the collection suggests, nor especially transformative, as poetry aims to be. Something was right—a lot was right—but something was off. On re-reading, I did feel that she made powerful use of images, in short phrases or long stanzas, to evoke significant moments and strong feelings. Her language, too, often had the impact of simplicity and informal speech. Unfortunately, her language could become too conversational, diluting any potential impact.
Murphy’s poems do have a casual quality that invites you inside. While the usual poetry suspects, like metaphor or alliteration, are there, they do not press themselves on your attention. For instance, you might well conclude from the poem “Behind the House” that Murphy’s father’s row of tomatoes is nothing like the Garden of Eden, but she does not say that. The metaphor can easily be inferred. Or, the poem “Bedtime Story” features an appropriately somnolent sibilance, but the device does not leap out at you as if to exclaim, “Admire my artfulness!” The resulting accessibility—which permitted me to skim—is a welcome surprise in a literary genre that leaves many, unfortunately and unnecessarily, mystified.
Murphy even dares to use dialogue, not common in poetry of the present or past. A very few of Robert Frost’s poems are dialogues. T. S. Eliot wrote plays in verse, as did, of course, Shakespeare 400 years ago; their verse, however, is not in the form of dialogue. Murphy’s particularly striking use of a dialogue comes in a mother-son poem called “First Words, Old Story.” On first skim-through, the dialogue is touching in a way that a summary of a dialogue could not be. The son’s words indicate childishness; the mother’s words, corresponding playfulness. On re-read, the dialogue is bringing out contrasts and memories that take the reader on an odyssey, from a fairy tale world of “spell-breaking words that had to be guessed” to the mother’s experience of a “language/I had been born to, and lost.” (43)
Above all is imagery of photographic vividness. Indeed, quite a few poems involve photo timers or photos, such as the third poem of the collection called, straightforwardly, “Waiting for the Timer.” In that poem, the camera captures, among much else, teenage children that “dazzle/their hot skin and white teeth/ready for almost anything.” (5) These teenagers launch from the page like human jets. Yet another vivid poem featuring a photo timer is “Women’s Group: 30th Reunion.” The image of a boat of “less primary versions/of ourselves” surprises and then stays in the mind. (16) No question, such powerful imagery recurs.
Nonetheless, a fundamental flaw also recurs. Murphy tends to say too much, as if she is chatting with a friend or filling a gap in a conversation. You feel that, if she cut extra verbiage, like so much fat, a moment would emerge even more strongly, like muscle. For instance, in the poem “Heat,” the phrases “this limited view, her lousy sexual politics” seem redundant and cluttery. If she cut one of the phrases, the moment of complicity in the body’s truths would come forward. Other phrases in other poems come across as similarly redundant or somehow excessive, adding nothing new.
Then there appears a tightly formed poem with intense impact on the eye and the soul, such as “Losing Heart,” a short poem of four stanzas. Of the four stanzas, the last three have four lines, each devoted to a sound: o, a, s. Her imagery—especially, “the dry throat/ of nightmare”—packs a punch. The contrast is clear. You might call the poem a lean, mean fighting machine. But—even a fighting machine can have a flaw. It is unaccountable that loosed bricks in one direction become small round pebbles on the way back. In what world can this happen?
Still, there is more right here than not. Murphy places the reader in the poem exceptionally well, from her first poem onward. Certainly, we learn more than—to borrow Murphy’s phrase—prayers of petition.