Review by Muriel Nelson
Winner of the 2019 Press 53 Award for Poetry
With a voice that’s clear, collective, contemporary, and feminine, Bully Love begins in a storm, a desert dust storm “forty stories tall” (“Monsoon Season, Tempe Arizona”). The poem’s speaker says us, inviting readers to feel included in noticing just enough details: the neighbor’s dusty poppies, doors slamming shut, the worried father’s call while watching TV, and that “wind’s dark tiara.” These details set the scene, but it’s a scene in which “What was here is now gone.”
When that storm is over (Poem 2, “Time to Shear the Earth’s Hair”), our view out a window is not dust-covered poppies or sagebrush, but cows that “are black and white / candles on a green cake.” Where are we? There’s the sound of a mower (who mows a cow pasture?) which becomes a tractor, and the smell of grass is “cut grass piling.” We readers find ourselves situated not in Tempe or the speaker’s present, but in Patricia Murphy’s agile mind, capable of taking us anywhere.
How delightful to be taken on a wild associative ride instead of setting out there and then (Ohio and childhood) and arriving half a book later here and now (Arizona and adulthood)! Image-driven, Bully Love shows us memorable images which are sometimes impossible, but never fleeting. Cows aren’t anything like candles, and cakes are seldom grass-green, yet I’ll wager that you and I will see that green cake with its cow candles for a long time—thanks to the wonder of a fine metaphor and the parade of images it conjures. Murphy has put her birthday-cake mark of time before our eyes for other reasons, too. We’re heading toward the speaker’s fortieth birthday, and now we’re also primed to be moved by cows in trouble back in Ohio in “No Coats in October,” when the speaker remembers her father and mother:
I remember him kissing my mother
before her fourth asylum,
hayrides on autumn
Switchgrass. Cows in mud.
Flora is the most prominent feature of these poems. When Murphy takes us from one home to another or on one of her many excursions, she often does so by naming trees or their stand-ins where no trees grow. The first words of “The Implications of Ice,” are “The buckeyes began. . .” Even if we don’t know a buckeye from a buck, we know that Ohio is the Buckeye State, and we are there. The title of “Cottonwood Long Shot” and a list of “pinions, / prickly pears, juniper and oak” locate us back in a desert state. Someone once said, “If you can name the trees, you’re home,” and Murphy writes modestly, “My only power is this ability to name.” In “Underneath the Tamaracks,” she also writes, “It’s a great leisure / knowing just where to put one’s self.” This search for “where to put one’s self” drives these poems to many destinations, and the power to name what grows in each place brings the poems to life.
What draws me most, though, is not the scenery or the speaker’s struggles to live and sometimes hike in desert heat and also appreciate the beauty of an arid place, but the human dramas of these poems expressed in Murphy’s straight-forward, laconic, and sometimes droll delivery. There’s a strength in naming and even joking about dangers, and that strength is evident throughout Bully Love. As I ponder the book’s title, I’m reminded of Osip Mandelstam’s comment, “I love fear.”
In “SEER,” Murphy’s speaker watches a crane dangle an air conditioner compressor over “our books, our bed,” and jokes about kissing under that compressor, but quickly becomes dead serious:
kiss under its mistletoed promise,
our license to live here? Here are
the years approaching like a heat.
Years like a gas, like a living thing.
Unit lowering slow as sand through
a hot sieve, ticking off all this time
we have spent. Consuming more
in the first third of our lives
than most do, ever.
In “Mia,” the speaker is mesmerized by a toddler, but also “most vocally / childfree” “in a land of breeders.” She muses:
if only I had procreated maybe
my parents would not have gone
insane. That they would have loved
seeing me adore my lakeside children,
the way they adored me before I hit
puberty. Maybe we would have
stopped fighting each other,
turned our attention to baby.
Later in the collection when she needs to spread her mother’s ashes (“A Frog’s Courage”), she drives with “Her ashes belted / in the back seat / like a baby.”
I’ll offer one more excerpt, that most excruciating speech of the mentally ill mother to her three-year-old daughter in “Tornado Hijinks.” The child is refusing to follow her mother to the safety of the basement because, the poem suggests, she is more frightened by her mother’s face than the storm: “I just don’t want to think of her / face in that moment.” The mother, literally estranged by her illness and unable to mother, doesn’t pick her daughter up and carry her downstairs and doesn’t even address her by name. Instead from that awful distance of insanity and rendered powerless by the child’s fear of her strange features, the mother stands on the stairs looking up at the three-year-old and calls plaintively, “daughter, daughter!”
Now this daughter, grown forty stories tall and forty years strong, shows us her way to love desert places.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 22, Issue 3.
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