Sunday, October 31

Sweet As a Bird

PROOF OF SILHOUETTES by Sheila E. Murphy (Stride, £8.50)
Review by Ian Seed

And feeling chance amid the textures and harmonics
Risen past the point of thought

These lines from the poem “I Saw in Her Face My Face” could serve as a motif for Sheila E. Murphy’s work. Murphy has huge affection for the realities of chaos and uses language to explore it. At their best, the poems in Proof of Silhouettes intrigue and invite us to travel with her, providing us with tender, elusive insights:

I think that sleep became the only way to heal […] I table words that are deciduous. They mine the other worlds I strain to know. / / Small evidence of having lived, the spoils of trees, stilled laughter.
(from “Soft Percussion”)

There is often an intense lyrical quality combined with a gentle sense of humour and self-irony, producing lines which haunt and make us smile at the same time:

I walk as though I were the only one to try the fluency of streets.
I walk through episodes on streets already changed, the leaves, their hesitation…
(from “Before 2002”)

The poems lead to unexpected denouements, which catch us by surprise with their funny sad insights:

Sleeping in a parent’s home is often deeper sleep, recalled as certainty misnamed.
(“Before 2002”)

Murphy is more concerned with listening to where language will take her than with writing a “good poem”, and in much of her work, she uses (and mixes) her senses to take us with her. The effect can be enchanting:

When I used to sing I was the flavor of a Sunday roast. Served as anchor to
the floating voices. Always heard…”
(from “Following”)

However, there a number of poems in this book where I, as a reader, felt shut out. I don’t mean from “understanding” the poems in terms of “meaning”, but simply in terms of being able to experience them. At its worst, the writing has that pretentious, falsely intellectual quality typical of much so-called “innovative” poetry. This only makes me impatient. But don’t believe me, judge for yourselves - you may feel differently:

A stored regression therapy affords our liquefied untold
Mere obviosos when and if restorative resplendence
Glows a pact we can absolve ourselves
From yearning for and when and why if supplemental
(from “Octaves”)

Murphy occasionally shoves in the odd foreign word, such as “fenêtres” or “molto” Here I wish she would either do it more, which would show that she is really hearing languages such as French and Italian. Or she should just cut them all together.

Having got this out of my system, I have to tell you that I am a fan of Murphy’s work. When I see her name in the contents of a magazine, she is one of the first poets I will go to. The celebratory and unexpected quality of the best of her writing has a liberating effect, sweet as a bird to read.

And Sheila Murphy is, at least, a highly individual poet prepared to take risks, something needed more than ever in these days of safe little poems churned out for deadening competitions.

© Ian Seed, 2004

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