How do we go on when those tasked to care for and protect us refuse to live? Through great suffering—a mother’s suicide attempts, a sibling’s sexual compulsions, and a father’s alcoholism—Patricia Colleen Murphy’s first collection, Hemming Flames, builds a world in which we can begin to understand this impossible undertaking. Winner of the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award, Murphy’s poems echo a “Plathian relentlessness,” as the contest judge Stephen Dunn ascribes, yet travel far beyond Plath’s confessional confines through the use of innovative structural techniques that underscore the emotional terrain of these poems.
In the poem “Bridges All Over the Room,” a caesura between each word opens up the lines:
On an initial read, this could seem an arbitrary structural choice, but taken with her concluding reference to John Berryman’s suicide, we understand Murphy’s rationale: Even between the words of a poem, there is a risk of falling. The caesurae act as an organizational lure pointing back to the mother’s suicide attempts.
Similarly innovative, the poem “Immolate” cascades across two pages and is spoken in the mother’s voice, one of many compassionate gestures Murphy offers in this book of unrelenting harm. We see the speaker’s child-self from the within the brokenness of the parent:
That slight weight of you?
This poem establishes the mother’s attempted self-immolation and introduces us to her imagined consciousness, an arc of fire and madness that appears throughout the collection.
Though the narrative temperament of Murphy’s poetry is unmistakeable, this book is much more than its “aboutness.” In the poem “Turkish Get-Ups” the mother tells the speaker, “it is not / hyperbole if it’s true. She says, you begin life / as a vowel.” This is the sense-making engine—the logic of syllable, line break, and metaphor—that frees the poet to work with seemingly unbreachable material. In many poems an exaggerated reality bordering on humorous or absurd stands alongside fraught truths, as in the poem “Rank Bitch” addressed to the beloved after the event of both parent’s deaths:
That winter I woke trying to sing but my pitch stank.
I woke trying to solve the feel-better problem.
We are destined to grow old with the things that frighten us.
You are not a threat to me, except that you will die.
With tenderness and caution, Murphy leads us through the steep terrain of her family’s anguish. You can feel her sense of exile at every turn, an almost-apology for not adhering to the familial code of destruction. In “Losing Our Milk Teeth” she implores, “What choice did I have / but to disappear from / your house of faulty methods?” This is just one of many questions that set the speaker apart from the dysfunction, at times an almost childlike interrogation—the questions of someone orphaned by those who may have given her answers: “What do I have to do to live to 15?” “Why couldn’t we ever coordinate our agony?” “How did we ever make it back to Ohio?” These inquiries reveal the speaker’s tenacity and her surprise at continually finding herself alive amongst so much loss.
Hemming Flames thrums with the risk of unfurling the darkest places in the family home. In her poem, “Where Are You Gravity?” Murphy writes, “This house is a big sick lung/ This house is a cave,/ a hovel, a hole. In this house we found everything that was lost.” As she inventories what’s left to gather in this architecture of betrayal, illness, and inevitable grief, the speaker repeats the question: “Where are you, gravity?” We feel the same emotional vertigo and psychological disorientation as each artifact in this collection is held up and considered.
With skill and empathy, Patricia Colleen Murphy takes her reader through decades of trauma, though we are never tempted to ask how the speaker came through it alive. These poems are evidence of how the close study and practice of art can transform the darkest places, the greatest shame, and the parent-shaped chasms that exist within us.