Bully Love—Patricia Colleen Murphy’s second collection of poems and the winner of the 2019 Press 53 Poetry Award for Poetry—is a book about pain and forgiveness. Unresolved pain, and the hard-to-achieve forgiveness we confront when those who should have made apologies didn’t. Yet this sore, harsh material is rendered with unflinching humor and grace.
The book documents the author’s relocation from her native Ohio to Arizona. On the cover, a collage by Betelgeuse shows the anatomy of a human profile. Vessels are mapped in transparency, as well as hints of bone, muscles, tendons, ligaments. Plants grow out of the skull. Leaves and flowers are parsed with insects and reptiles. “I’m particularly happy with the cover”—Murphy says—”which sums up how that move felt to me.”
Nature is inextricably mingled with brain, identity, and memory in the cover art, and of course in the poetry. That is how a keen, detailed study of contrasting landscapes (lush Ohio against desert Arizona) becomes a meditation about times of life (childhood, teenage, adulthood) and emotional contexts (family of origin, married life) linked to distinct geographies.
Place becomes a container allowing feelings to niche within its folds—not too bluntly exposed and yet visible. Mineral, vegetative, and animal realms reveal patterns that cast light upon the human psyche and behaviors.
Terse, short lines are descriptively exact although dense with metaphor. Earth and body are often equated, overlapped. Natural and built environment come alive—they grow organs and limbs, share the human physiology. Mowing is to shear the earth’s hair. The house collapses its air-conditioned lung. The upward-turned roots of a fallen tree are a large hand waving from the depths of the earth. Urban development is pink-tiled fingers groping all the soft crotches of this desert. “How to make a Lake” poignantly connects the building of an artificial pool with the menstrual cycle—fluids rise, pressure and overflow simultaneously outside and inside.
Breathing, spirited land becomes a sensitive instrument that vibrates along with the author’s mind, while engaging it in constant dialogue.
The majority of the poems composing the book are “in motion.” Many, the Arizonian ones in particular, describe hikes or car rides the author undertakes with her husband—hence, their relationship is outlined in progress, like a long tracking shot.
This “mobility” confers dynamism to the book, and a sense of disquiet—as for a motus perpetuum animated by some unquenchable quest. If you could go anywhere, where would you go? You and I can, now that all four of our parents died.
Movement and territory are the warp and weft of a tapestry embroidered with teeming life—plants and animals, rivers, rocks, all endowed with vivid and singular identities. In this giant prayer rug, feelings, thoughts, doubts and questions are hidden threads—never broken, they surface when summoned by a given design, then they disappear underground.
As mentioned, the core themes constantly re-visited are doleful, raw. Like a musical chord, they are interconnected, but the dominant pitch, no doubt, is the poet’s mother’s mental illness—a devastating trauma, the main item for which mercy is sought. Strictly entangled with it is the poet’s choice of not having children, questioned off and on through several “what-ifs.” Such choice modifies in its turn the poet’s relationship with her parents and her own married life, with a sort of boomerang effect.
A related theme is the aging of the poet’s parents and in-laws—a quartet of elders anxiously spied upon during their last years. The poems “Dying, Four Ways” seemingly conclude that no matter where (Maryland, Arizona, Ohio, Nevada), no matter the circumstances, death is one and the same. The four poems—both bitter and tender, raging and sad—punctuate the text at regular intervals. They might be an invitation to read the entire book as a response to the sum of these losses—their locked, finite geometry calling for re-evaluation of the poet’s own mortality, reassessment of her life so far.
These personal threads are tangentially handled—pulled up, then buried underneath lighter decors. Only occasionally they are treated with directness, and each time the result is eloquent, striking. As for “Finding a Center,” where a downed biker—seen by the teenager girl, the incident then related to her father—is the occasion for mentioning her dad’s polio, thus exposing the “fault” in a too-faultless parental figure, made more lovable by his physical wound. It is perhaps the only poem presenting the father—and not only the mother—as vulnerable. Or else “Wednesday’s Path,” where stormy ocean waves, pounding their white drums, are sharp edges of the meticulous accounting of daughters in response to the mother’s plea for forgiveness. Also “Mia,” where a toddler cousin picks the poet as a mother-for-a-day, causing all regrets or pains related to childlessness she might hold to spill out. And “Dog-eared,” where the poet resents her husband for nipping her dogs’ ears, as a punishment actually intended for her. I woke knowing I would never forgive him. This poem concentrates contrasting emotions—anger towards the spouse, deep love for the animals, more than all the heart-wrenching impulse of sewing the ears back. Of reverting the course of time, fixing things unfixable—a deep, powerful longing echoing throughout the book.
The occasional frankness is a welcome release. Oftentimes emotions are silent, only expressed by details of seemingly casual narratives or by nature itself. As for “Close to Hermosillo,” where husband and wife play at guessing what Spanish words on street signs mean. When they do not know, they say “blank.” So the poem is filled with “blanks” with a nice effect of ellipsis—as if those blurred spots, those omissions, were a veil cast over thoughts and emotions that the couple is unable to voice. In “Morenci Arizona,” the splendor and drama of the colors described—with rare, precious terms—embodies the untold disagreement between husband and wife. Similarly, in “Past Black Canyon City,” conflict within the couple is voiced by outside tensions and dangers—frightening freeway climb, heavy traffic, drivers’ tempers and a semi in flames. In “Tornado Hijinks,” the Ohio twister witnessed by the three-year-old girl spells the shaky, ambivalent feelings she experiences about her troubled mother.
And so I will live the rest of my life just short of rapture, say the last lines of “Time to Shear the Earth’s Hair.” Early in the book, this poem talks about the past and Ohio. It’s a truce—the wind (perhaps a twister) has ceased. The poet sees cows outlined against a green slope. She hears a mower and smells the cut grass. She can’t see the mower, concealed by the trees. Also, she can’t hear the mowing and mooing at the same time. Humorous, gentle poem tinged with nostalgia—what does “live the rest of one’s life short of rapture” mean?
Maybe rapture would be to adhere to one world, one vision, with complete abandonment. Mooing or mowing. The visible or the concealed, whereas the poetry in this collection is strewn with the consciousness of discrete worlds in need of reconciliation, of mending. The past, made remote by distance, isn’t ready yet to be forgotten. And the present is floating, suspended, if disjointed from its roots.
This might be the normal diaspora of most adult lives. But here comes the longing for rapture that is poetry, for Murphy. Yearning for a vision including the unseen, the fogged, the blurred. Listening for the still un-understood.–Toti O’Brien