Stride Magazine -



Where to start to talk about Sheila Murphy? I could say she has an acute intelligence. I could say she has fine ‘eye’ for navigating the outer reaches of imagination. I could say that trying to ‘understand’ her poetry via the habitual intellectual processes is as good as useless: only maybe one in ten lines offers any kind of lucidity. I could say she has a knack for juxtaposing one of these more lucid phrases against the impenetrable, so that you are caught off-guard. This has two effects: one is that when you do ‘get’ it it’s already gone, like the glimpse of a trout in a sunlit river. The other is that the lucid phrase somehow serves as a laser beam into the darker matrix, which allows some kind of entry.

So Murphy’s particular art is that of layering, where suddenly the lifting of a phrase in bas-relief from the underlying strata offers a reader a kind of illumination, rather like finding a line of coherent articulated tesserrae, a pattern in a fragmented mosaic, as you do in line five, below:

          Lock errancy. Bluejay filmsquad norturing. Torch willed premed
          (itated) sofa feel in velv

          You are the lusional por emptor pre entrada for to weigh the use
          shushed moon of quilts this lesson to be tied

          Morality is slaved to how we think less how we view...
                   [from ‘Por Luxe’]

This kind of risk-taking works, when it does, because Murphy is accomplished in pacing. It could alienate or irritate a reader – and undoubtedly it could make some people feel stupid and inadequate, as much Language poetry does – or it can entice you into sifting through further layers.

But only entry so far and no further is vouchsafed. Try this:

          We visited the purview different from alarm thistles so purely
          themselves triune loose wood propriety conveying sport nose-
          rings, give me a refurbished chastity pratfallen plentiful trisk
          hailstone montage planks on which we bake
                   [from ‘Fictional Mathismo’]

It’s not easy poetry, and I don’t like all of it. I certainly can’t claim to understand it all. But just when I am on the verge of giving up, something charms me into continuing the hunt. There’s a sense of undertow in all these pieces which is in its way seductive, drawing you on to look for the submerged narrative.

The poems which work especially well for me however are the ones where Murphy makes herself visible – for of course poetry can be used as a smokescreen. I love the first poem – ‘Civilized, Perhaps’ – which opens with ‘I have decided to OD on moderation for awhile’ [I relate to that!]. Throughout this piece she celebrates both passion and moderation, lust and fasting, solo and twin; she questions belonging. And the piece concludes with some of the finest lines in the book:

          My heart lives in a fine community of offerings. And when I
          make my bed, it is with happiness at having dreamed acceptance
          dreams lasting a whole day’s drive to somewhere that has
          simulated closeness to whatever i have been and will become.
          Civilized, perhaps, and on the very heels of having breath sung
          into me by every person I have loved.

Clever positioning, here – partly because it sets the tone of the book and flags up some of Murphy’s concerns; partly because in its tender, generous humanness it invites us into her landscape. And also, for this reader at least, it’s the path towards the open gate into the dark wood – had I been offered one of the more obscure pieces I’d probably have turned away, and therefore missed the treasures which lurk like truffles in the dark moist places.

          © Roselle Angwin 2002

The Stuttering of Wings is available for £9.95, post free, from
Stride, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter, Devon EX4 6EW