Parsings by Sheila E. Murphy
(Arrum Press, Finland, 2008)
Parsings, at 157 pages, may be the longest poem that Sheila E. Murphy, a prolific poet since the late seventies, has ever published. There are six lines (a sestet) per stanza, with the first three in large type and boldface and the last three in smaller type and italics. At the same time, colons—which had previously been used in innovative ways by A.R. Ammons and Eileen R. Tabios—break the flow of syntax and allow the reader to jump over them to make sense of a particular unit of language: “: colon leads to what I say :/ casts long-spooled shadow onto/ : pathway” (114). For Murphy’s readers, this supple, eccentric form slows down and complicates the reception of already challenging and challenged meaning, in which, as she puts it, “stochast/ push discourse” (26). Stochastics, of course, involves a mathematical process including particular procedures that produce both random and, to some extent, predictable results.
Early in the poem, an abstract critique of a particular form of business management exemplifies Murphy’s (often implicit) challenge to binding structures:
get-to-know-me : broadside
cubicles : called “cubes”
a sacramental way of :
separation rationed : the irrational quest for
over prepped ; delivery
embraces : foster cadre (8)
The probable attachment of the violent or comical adjective “broadside” to the noun “cubicles” indicates how good relationships based on some degree of knowledge in a work environment are not a primary corporate goal. Such a mode of interior architecture is “sacramental” only because some “cadre” of management gurus have perceived the arrangement as a key to fulfilling the “sacred” task of maximizing workers’ productivity and efficiency. The division of “of” and “separation” is a wonderful anti- or a-grammatical enactment of “separation rationed,” and the fact that most of the second word in that fourth line is contained in the first word and reprised in the fourth one enhances the tour de force. If the rationing of separation is intended as an instrumentally rational mode of discouraging intimacy that could distract the rank and file from business, “’cubes’” might also be deemed evidence of an irrational obsession with trying to manipulate every variable of production in advance.
To be “over prepped” is to miss how “delivery” of goods and services can involve a kind of “embrace.” Those placed in cubicles could lack the human contact that affords chances for synergistic cooperation rather than egotistical competition that might derail a company’s long-term development. Though trying to “foster [develop] cadre,” a group focused on problem-solving and opportunity-creating, one might merely bring about a “foster” (substitutive with the connotation of ersatz, pseudo) “cadre” of clashing individualists. Later, as if in response to this passage, Murphy writes: “divide time/ between : spaced selves// finessive” (24-5). One can “finesse” artificial constraints, after all, and “always” be “making for ex-/ tended selves” (33).
At times, when the poet seems to be aiming for such an extension, she enters into a spiritually inflected discourse with a high degree of abstraction that still manages to maintain its arresting elusiveness:
is one deed at a time : repeated in a
sequence sequeling parade’s : invisible
devotion you can spot : wholeness
of real living prayer :
accompanied by silence in and
about : the confluence of
: it and everything revoking non-sense and
reeling in the real : allowing that to
pressure being : is not how we
shore up what : we care about is
not the same as : “keep
simplicity as brave as clarity”
: a charitable opus is the breath : right
here (the through way : dims its left
hook : probably quite wheeled-
into) therapeutic : live white
simulacrum : filled by farmer
of the glistening : blond wheat-
field : name also of the
resistance : fettering absconds
with acumen reduction : (98-99)
Murphy uses the term “real” three times, and before problematizing “the real” as her readers would expect her to do, she chooses to meditate about different kinds of prayer to distinguish between ostentatious, manipulative behavior and sequential action that partakes of a sense of “wholeness,” lack of ostentation (“invisible devotion”) in an ambience of “silence.” Although she is a connoisseur of “nonsense,” communication which defies ordinary ways of making meaning, she appreciates prayer that “revokes” “non-sense,” the lamentable absence of sensory actuality or a bloodless, bodiless aim, as well as lack of emotion. Prayer is an attempt to capture, to hook “the real”; the homonym “reel” in “reeling” reminds us that the presumption of cinematic capture, too, is a fiction that puts “pressure” on the individual’s reception of “being,” if not being itself. In other words, whatever version of “the real” is reeled in does not constitute “being,” but it vies affectively for the latter’s authority.
Then, the syntax, studded with colon-obstacles, gets more challenging. Does Murphy criticize prayer as the act of “shoring up” one’s investments in security-producing beliefs? Considering the questionable aphorism in quotes, I ask: Is “clarity” always “brave,” or could it be cowardly when premature clarity falsifies a complex situation? And why should one maintain a link between “clarity” and “simplicity” when what is grasped as accurately clear may resist translation into a simple representation? Those “fettered” to a false understanding are victimized by “acumen reduction.” I find the eight lines of the passage after the quotation and before the concluding clause extremely opaque, juxtaposing tropes of “charity” as “breath,” highway driving, boxing, a (possibly Baudrillardian) “simulacrum,” and agriculture in an unsure syntactical space. It is as though Murphy’s bit of violence with divergent contexts is “therapeutic” in the sense that it obliquely “names” “resistance” to a fixed conception of prayer.
Surely, Murphy “parses” her social landscape in part to practice “resistance” to those like “the greedy” who find it “easier. . ./ : to keep// a public stupid lazy : groveling/ for worthless items” (130), and when she tells us, “hear me/ sustain commitment : to discomfort” 141), she refers to confronting both uncertainty and stress-inducing aspects of her social environment. However, the poet also wishes to make her text a space of celebration: “wind farms/ (overtones of how we worth our way : through each impediment) : I live here/ each day’s celebrarium” (119). For one thing, the transformation of the noun “worth” into a verb, not uncommon in the Murphy canon, like such sprightly coinages as “celebrarium,” “acronymph” (21), “proc(lividity)” (37), and “altercade” (90) and the wild double pun, “drop in the bucket/ et : tu (brutality)”(28), suggests that, for her, the exuberant display of language as “party animal” is just about always in season. Such a “celebrarium” may be just as useful as an aquarium or planetarium, since, in day-to-day uses of language primarily as instruments of transactions, persuasion, and “altercades,” some “areas” should be constructed where the joyful, recreational study of words can occur. Experimental poets in each generation—ranging from Stein and Stevens, Zukofsky, Ashbery and the New York School to the Language Poets—have recognized this.
However, aside from that understanding, some experimentalists’ major tones tend to be somber, perhaps even dour, whereas Murphy, here and elsewhere, often features the affirmation of “joie de vivre,” including “my wish for you/ that you not feel : contempt” (145). Murphy’s gestures of critique and resistance never seem like “contempt,” because her work evinces a general respect for a “you” that embodies many divergent possibilities, regardless of current tendencies, and continual hope for common ground. Here, for example, is what might be termed an eccentric but remarkable eloquent and intense rewriting of Walt Whitman’s acts of democratic stretching:
: I gradually become
a glistening choice : lullaby connect
point for the others : who are all with
and of me : links so pure they
know themselves as lowest :
sum of squares (the shapes
are integral : now moving
befalls us (opening) : wings central,
where are we if not : together (all
in common “blessings” : (111)
While Whitman might figure himself as a “glistening” irresistible force, Murphy’s moderate adverb “gradually” and the openness of “choice” separate her from the nineteenth century bard’s pushiness: “yes/ adaged pretty softly” (156). As a relativist, she will make no claims for “the imperial self,” and the noun “’blessings’” is placed in quotes, not because the poet is mocking it, but because, given historical accretions of meaning tied to theological institutions, the word is not quite right for what she is trying to characterize, and no other word fits, either.
The tempo in this colon-driven poem is varied, as it needs to be to sustain 157 pages, but, compared to the frequent sounding of a “barbaric yawp” in Song of Myself, parsings can be said to provide the relatively quiet encouragement of a “lullaby” in this and many other passages. Both Murphy and Whitman’s “songs” aim to offer points of connection “for the others” while stressing the writers’ sharing of community (“who are all with”) and kinship (“of me”). In parsings, the negative-sounding lowest common denominator is replaced by the unexpected “lowest :/ sum of squares.” “Moving” has been what “befalls” (as both challenge and advantage) the community of readers throughout the poem, and the phrase “where are we if not : together” is forceful yet avoids sentimental didacticism through its placement within the “relay of a long string” (99) replete with “procedural loofas” (25) and “plump with stories” (129).
Thomas Fink’s fifth book of poetry, Clarity and Other Poems, was published by Marsh Hawk Press in Spring, 2008. A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001) is his most recent book of criticism, and in 2007, he and Joseph Lease co-edited “Burning Interiors”: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics. His work appears in The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). Fink's paintings hang in various collections.