A Quick Laugh Like the Sun
Drafts, Fragments, and Poems: The Complete Poetry, by Joan Murray, ed. by Farnoosh Fathi. NYRB Poets. $16.00.
Years ago, when there were still bookstores to be scoured all over New York and the college towns of the Northeast, one could stumble upon lost books. Out-of-print small press books. They usually cost not very much, a lightly penciled lowball figure just inside the cover. One would photocopy them, in their entirety, for friends upon request. Jackson Mac Low’s Light Poems. Bernadette Mayer’s Memory. Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Collected Poems and Translations. As a last resort one could go to, say, the New York Public Library with intent to copy, have them fish out a book from the underground stacks, and sometimes it would prove to be such an obscurity that they would send up a block of wood on the conveyor belt instead. The block of wood would have the call slip attached to it and a note saying the title could not be found. I remember that block of wood coming up for a book of David Schubert’s poems, which John Ashbery directed us to read along with John Wheelwright and Laura (Riding) Jackson and other poets, usually of the thirties and forties. It was Ashbery who resurrected Joan Murray’s name in a short essay in the Poetry Project Newsletter, and when his assistant at the time asked me if I wanted a photocopy of Murray’s book, I said of course!
I still have that stapled sheaf of the 1947 Poems by Joan Murray, selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. His foreword strikes a dissonant note to the modern ear, both forbidding and defensive, beginning with the stiff caveat,
I am somewhat doubtful about the present practice of having a new poet introduced to the public by an older one because my personal reaction as a reader to an announcement of a volume of poems with a foreword by somebody else is a suspicion that the publishers are afraid that the poems are not very good and want reassurance.
(Can you imagine such scruples today, when even luminaries must be tricked out with new blurbs for every collection?)
Nor do I care much for that so frequently used adjective “promising.” ... In the present instance, I should like to emphasize this point because Miss Joan Murray died at the age of twenty-four. We are not publishing her poems out of charity, because she will never be able to write any more, but because they are good.
He directs us to, for instance, two poems as radically distinct as can be, one employing a jaggedly modern, querulous tone and rhythm, the other harking back to archaic tunes:
You talk of art, of work, of books.I’ll talk of nothing in its lowest state,Talk till my jaw hangs limply at the joint,And the talk that’s one big yawn in the face of all of you,Empty as head, empty as mood, and weak.— From You Talk of Arteurydice:I am whole. I was dead. It is harvest in delicious Thrace.Argos has drooped and prompted one kind eye alone to stare;Into my lungs I draw the whole full breathing of a raceWhose mother hand is my delight, whose cries are my despair.— From Orpheus. Three Eclogues
Just a glance through the table of contents is a thrill: “I Feel Only the Desolation of Wide Water,” “Even the Gulls of the Cool Atlantic,” “A Small Tale with Interruptions,” “I Would Hold the Many Sides of Love with My Two Hands.” The odd titles make a promise the poems quite fulfill.
Murray wrote in a rapture that lasted about two years, from the time that she took Auden’s workshop at the New School in the fall of 1940 to her untimely death from a heart infection in January 1942. Grant Code, the friend of her mother’s who worked with Auden to create a book out of the jumble of papers that she left, wrote in his editor’s note: “When Joan Murray’s manuscripts were placed in my hands for editing, they were in confusion, pages of prose mixed with pages of verse and scarcely two pages of anything together that belonged together.” When he had separated the verse from the prose, he found,
that the poet had not prepared a final text of most of her poems. Many existed in several different versions.... They had not been carefully punctuated and the poet’s spelling was capricious, occasionally making it difficult to determine what word was meant.
Most were untitled.
The history of the book and its reception is succinctly recounted in Mark Ford’s seminal essay, “Joan Murray and the Bats of Wisdom,” published in these pages a scant four years ago. His is also the fullest treatment, so far, of her poems: their style, their subjects, their strategies. The question remained: Why was she so quickly forgotten? “I wouldn’t deny,” he wrote,
that many of Murray’s poems veer hither and thither in all manner of competing directions, skipping from image to image with electrical speed and insouciance, but beneath their hectic surfaces one can often discern a shadowy but purposeful progression of thought and argument.
Thirty-five years after Imagism, weren’t readers of poetry accustomed to “skipping from image to image with electrical speed and insouciance”?
It is entirely thanks to this essay by Ford that a new edition of Murray’s book has now been published. Poet Farnoosh Fathi, upon reading that Murray’s papers, long thought lost, were finally found in the archive her mother donated to Smith College, felt electrified “with purpose.” She lit out for Northampton and became the first person to sift through it. The result is a new book in every sense — a new Joan Murray, yes, but a completely contemporary book too. It’s still an open question as to whether American poetry can embrace a poet of such original vision, born in London of Canadian parents with an ear for authentic vers libre, an aesthete who sought truth in new forms, not causes or moralisms.
Part of what makes Drafts, Fragments, and Poems: The Complete Poetry new is in the shape the poems take on the page, much of Code’s editorial interventions — excess punctuation, titles derived from first lines or extracted phrases — stripped away. Another part of what makes this a “new Joan Murray” is that we now have a shape of her life — a biographical sketch and correspondence. Fathi has chosen to include a couple of letters to Auden, one to her mother, and several to women friends.
The expectation that poetry — the best poetry — should be freestanding on the page, appreciated independently of any knowledge of the poet, persists despite the evidence that a poet’s life and work are intimately intertwined even in the most impersonal of poets. (I can’t believe I ever truly read Auden until I started reading Edward Mendelson’s critical biography just this year — and I thought I’d been reading him since I was sixteen.) Good as Murray’s poems are — “good” being Auden’s own word in his foreword, and high praise — it is fascinating to know that she was the only child of artistic parents who separated when she was young and sent her to live with relatives around Ontario and Michigan; that she studied theater and dance in New York before finding her calling as a writer; that she was largely an autodidact after dropping out of school as a teenager; that even then she was ambitious, writing a blank verse memoir of her childhood and comparing her own visions at age three to a “communist St. Joan,” one who later took to calling herself “Joan Vincent Murray” for the Latin vincere, “to conquer.”
It’s in letters that one expects to take the full measure of the person — the poetry being only the best part — yet Murray’s passion burned too fiercely to produce quotidian letters. Fathi compares her to Rimbaud, as Ford compared her to Keats. That she died of a heart infection caused by bouts of rheumatic fever suffered as an early teen would suggest a sensibility close to that of Keats; both were youths watching their deaths approaching from afar. She also wrote in a letter:
We absorb within the tips of the fingers, the gimlet eye, the eager tongue, the nostrils dragging the pungent and the frail, and then we perceive color too, color through fingers, color through nose, even taste to color, and so we find our God and soul, not through mathematics and abstract, oh, no, but through so-called physical sensations.
This echoes Keats’s letter to Benjamin Bailey in 1817: “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” (It is, to my mind, the best part of her poetry, this trafficking in sensations: “Each brisk spanked cloud that scuds,” “The underside of water is the colour I saw,” “Even the gulls of the cool Atlantic retip the silver foam.”)
The letters to her friend, the novelist Helen Anderson, are extraordinary. It was Anderson who inspired Murray to turn from theater and dance to writing — Murray wanted to run away to an artist’s commune where Anderson lived with her husband, but her mother, fearing for her health, forbade it. Murray sent her drafts of prose and poems, reports of her doings (“This morning I woke up with a quick laugh like the sun. A night can only hold it down so long”) and radiant philosophizing:
I know I am serious without people, as I write uncontact to their moods. The concrete physical has always been dreamt into being. Nurtured through the mind with the exception of surprise. Without aggravation. That too can be tossed aside. If one might have periods of utter objectivity to the stars, living on goat’s milk and an occasional delectable lettuce leaf, or even a rose seed culled from the intestines of a nightingale!
One thinks again of Keats, with that nightingale. Here she is, writing to her mother:
Don’t tell me that I should go out and mix and should be dancing, etc. If I look about me with a thoughtful eye and see no one, why, I don’t at all mind waiting. It only makes what might be a productive time a bothersome one. I should be out! I shouldn’t be so serious, etc. I think complexes are formed through it. If I don’t wish to see people, why shouldn’t I be able to say to myself that I don’t want — admit it — and therefore not? After all, how many people are anything but so selfish as to drain on you?
She writes to Auden, audaciously: “God knows how often a hill or a clear night sky and I have glared back at each other. I go out quite like some small shabby Quixote to do battle.” I love these letters to Auden — challenging, wooing him, suggesting something of Dickinson’s self-portraits for Higginson: “Sometimes I frighten the sea.... A dash of exhibitionism too I would not doubt.”
There are, in the end, too few of these marvelous letters; they comprise a middle section of Fathi’s book, sandwiched between a revised version of the 1947 Poems and a section of “Drafts, Fragments, and Poems” left out of the original edition. I might have sacrificed that last section in order to expand the letters and prose (which, I hope is obvious, have an extraordinary poetry to them as well). But the inclusion of those outliers is very much of the moment, and part of a grander purpose underlying Fathi’s edition: restoration of the poems more nearly to how they appear in manuscript form, giving us a truer, and therefore rawer, Murray. That now Murray rather uncannily, but superficially, resembles an “experimental” or “serial” poet writing today may be a bit of a red herring, wishful thinking, just another imposition of our sensibilities on the past — every bit as much as Code’s added punctuation and titles might have been an imposition. But Murray was a child of her times, not ours. I don’t disagree with Fathi’s decision to reconstruct Murray’s typescripts; I just think we shouldn’t mistake incompleteness — the unintended outcome of her tragic early death — with an intentional, and reactive, stance against literary conventions.
Ultimately the letters do help us appreciate how truly individual this woman was, how authentically she came by her strangeness. I don’t love the vatic mode, and often cringe when the word “visionary” is used, but the letters help me read lines like these:
Here where I tamper at the inverted walls of tomorrow;The gathering of old women about their bagpipe sorrowIn the dry room of their choice,On each knee a cup, erotic age — virginity in each voice;The strident tired and cryptic knittingClattering on and on while my fingers flittingOver impregnable surface warm with the friction,Callous, ice-smooth with the next day’s obscurity of action.
I have no idea what this means or where I am in this poem, but there’s no question the language is impelled by some aural directive in its rhymes and vowels, and it is this quality that is so often absent from poetry that diligently “means” things, this quality that seems to come from some beyond within language or the mind generating it. Almost a century after T.S. Eliot crystallized the principle that poetry can be comprehended before it is understood, we still have difficulty trusting to language that floats free of its referents. Murray’s “rose seed culled from the intestines of a nightingale” is her Blakean “World in a Grain of Sand.” She doesn’t just describe what she sees; she essays toward some recapitulation of reality, nourished in solitude and the natural world, somehow inside and outside the human condition.
She was, in short, an exile. Where could Murray say she belonged, born here, raised there, of expatriate parents? What identity could she claim? The aqueous essence of her poetry — overt in its imagery, covert in its semantic slipperiness — can be attributed to the frictionless consciousness of the exile. Take her sequence of poems about being born a Londoner, “On Looking at Left Fields”; it is one of her most accessible:
It is this London they will never know;Something of must, stale bread and spring,The fattened dog the thinning child and Rotten Row.To be born a Londoner, as I, gives meaning to the thing...............................................London sits with her hands cuppedThe pigeons splatter pink etched feet..............................................Ilfracomb is a sea town where rocks elbowThe head of the island-once-kingdom,Beaches slightly sanded and lowPromontories denying the weight of the water —
If England was her “Left Fields” (let alone the slang idiom, which came into the language from baseball in that decade to mean something unexpected, surprising), then language was the piece of England always lodged in her body. “Speaking to Exiles — the one Exile,” she writes simply, and beautifully, “You said aloneness was the flute.” She may have been doomed to “play” aloneness, yet she found company in literature. Her prose piece on her autodidact childhood, “Passage on Reading,” is a powerful testament to the presence of books in a girl’s life — the almighty solace they provide, perhaps especially to a girl of ill health, bedridden and lonely. Her mother seems to have read her adult books when she was three — Dickens, Ibsen: “More than anything the fact of the mother dying had its effect. I remember at this period an intense fear of death of a kind a something black and whirling into void.” Later, she reads children’s books on her own:
The Little White Bird of J.M. Barrie. This was a great tragedy too in the fact that the window was barred and a strange child in the bed. The poignancy of lost mothers and lost children and the sadness in the inevitable wandering of lost things grew quite early with me.
But so much of touching and tangling so much of indiscipline. What sound structures would possibly formulate from these irrelevant small turrets heaped shapelessly one upon another with only the thread of a self felt strand balancing out the fragile spanning.
Here she laments her rattle-bag education, but look at that Daedalian construction: a question masquerading as a declaration — or a declaration undermining the question. A transitive verb (“formulate”) which never finds an object, an adjectival verb (“self felt”), a participle (“balancing”), and a gerund (“spanning”) plunging the categorical certainty of parts of speech into a maelstrom whose whole purpose is to reconcile the oxymoron “heaped” and “balancing.” She thought the architect was the archetypal artist. “Sound structure” is her signature paradox.
No wonder it seems like so much of her poetry is a re-fathoming of myth, from Bast the Egyptian cat goddess to Orpheus and Eurydice. What is time? What value has contemporaneity, if your most worthwhile experiences derive from reading? “There is a bursting of the pulse of time,” she calls it, in another untitled poem, “eating its way through this grinning pantomime — / To bear the fruit that holds an odor of a future.”
Fathi writes, “This book is especially for all young women poets who see themselves in her.” Those that do might find themselves shaken at the purity of purpose that once characterized the literary acolyte, and which is almost impossible to recover in these days.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...