by Barbara Crooker
Ancilla, the Latin word for maidservant, gives this collection its title, but Erin Murphy gives it a swerve, a turn, when she quotes Nabokov in the book’s epigraph, “Sex is but the ancilla of art.” Here, in her sixth full-length book of poetry, Murphy takes a look at history from odd and unusual angles: the voices of Schopenhauer’s waitress, Walt Whitman’s cook and cleaning lady, Georgia O’Keeffe’s chauffeur, Tesla’s mother, the imaginary friend of Frida Kahlo, and many others. All of these speakers are minor characters, juxtaposed or related to famous figures, but not the figures themselves. Murphy re-imagines biography, reinvents history, all of it based on solid research, as shown in her meticulous end notes. Each section also includes several “Abridged” poems, erasure poems where the words are taken from texts cited in the title of the poems. In placing these poems within sections containing mostly dramatic monologues, Murphy is, perhaps, making an ironic statement of how time is the great eraser, how the work of even the most well-known can be reduced to a handful of scattered words in the end.
The poems in this collection are typical of Murphy’s style, lean and clean, snappy and jazzy, contained within a page or two. Each poem is a witty little narrative that snaps and waves like a bright flag on the page’s white sky. Meter and rhyme, stanza and line are employed like chisel and mallet; there is nothing excessive here, nothing that feels like it could or should have been whittled away. Humor, too, is another of Murphy’s virtues, especially of the type that English majors will love such as part II in “13 Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens: “The Ice Cream Manufacturer’s Association / responds to ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’ // Mr. Stevens, please clarify: / are you for ice cream / or against it?” And she’s not afraid to employ the pun: “Gustave [Mahler], I composed / myself and became your // bride, swallowing scores / that lay inside me. . . .” Yet at the same time, most of these monologues are serious and thoughtful, limning in short concise lines the lives and essences of such diverse figures as Beethoven, Mozart, Kant, Bashō, Dickinson, Emerson, et al.
Interspersed with these short narratives are the “Abridged” series, erasure poems made up of words taken from the cited text, in their original order. The number of erased words between each selected word varies. These poems make interesting visual interludes, apart from their arresting lines and images, and remind us of the many ways that history is composed of erasure.
Here is one example:
Emma Lazarus’s Statue of Liberty Sonnet,
send these homeless
There’s a certain lapidary quality to Erin Murphy’s poems. Each is a little gem, cut and polished, all the dross filed away. Reading this book is like fingering beads in an artfully crafted necklace. But beyond craft, these poems remind us to look harder at the ancillae, those figures, both in history and in everyday life, who are easy to overlook, but whose contributions should never be ignored.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 16, Issue 1.
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