Thursday, January 2, 2020

Poem 366: 'Bully Love' by Patricia Colleen Murphy

Bully Love by Patricia Colleen Murphy 
Bully Love by Patricia Colleen Murphy (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Press 53, 2019).

I’m from rural Ohio, and when you’re from a place like rural Ohio, you tend to spend a good portion of your time comparing the place you are know with the place that set your understanding of the world. I don’t know—maybe that’s true no matter where you’re from. But the Midwest tends to feel like Ground Zero material by its nature, whereas other places feel more charged and particular.

Patricia Colleen Murphy, author of Bully Love, her second full-length collection, is also from Ohio, and I was relieved, in that “I’m not the only one” kind of way, to see that her poems reflect this tendency. Murphy teaches creative writing at Arizona State University, and in many of her poems, she sets off on a trail or observes a landscape, and it’s pretty clear she’s seeing it all through the eyes of someone who came from a different kind of normal.

A good example of Murphy’s practice of weighing Arizona against Ohio—or one reality against another—is found in the first poem in the collection, “Monsoon Season, Tempe Arizona. The poem describes a dust storm, a “house crowned / with the wind’s dark tiara,” and continues,

   My father called from Ohio.
   He saw the brown
   shadow on TV—
   forty stories tall,
   opaque and rushing.
   So this is what it means
   to be close to the sky.
   What was here is now gone.

Beyond comparison of place to place, in the background of these poems is the speaker’s mother’s mental illness, which extends back into the speaker’s childhood. (These are very personal poems expressed in a singular voice, so it’s awkward, but still appropriate, to refer to “the speaker”—but it’s a speaker you get to know as an overarching consciousness for this group of sixty-seen poems that are presented in a single cohesive section. It does feel as though Murphy is writing very personal notes to the reader about her life and experiences.)

A volatile personality can keep a household on edge, and those who grow up in such a home keep careful track of what is necessary to keep an eruption at bay, much like a fire survivor who can’t enter a room without tabulating the distance to each exit. Maybe this is why so many of the poems in Bully Love take careful note of the things we pack along with us on our travels. On a couple of occasions, the speaker expresses disbelief at someone who has hiked deep into the wilderness with only a pocket full of nuts, or, as she writes in “Fossil Springs Cutaway,” “We’re surprised // by a group hiking down with no packs. / The sun is dropping as quickly as they are.” Elsewhere a forest ranger warns travelers about unstable conditions, or the speaker weighs what can or cannot fit in her pack, or she encounters other campers who are fully equipped, even with sidearms. Knowing what to carry is important.

Similarly, in “What Good Does a Drop Do,” Murphy writes about approaching fire, and recalls having left a watering can at her cabin …

   As if we have time to
   garden or to know how.
   It is easy to be pious when
   your life is not on fire.

   Here ours is a life of lanterns,
   wood stoves, chairs worn on the arms.
   And so what if the wind stopped the fire
   an acre away from our own rustic wood?

I could say much more about this collection, which I appreciate for its lush description and its insistence on the importance of everyday, daily life. In their blurbs, Alberto Ríos describes it as “quietly fierce,” and Bob Hicok refers to the poet leaving the Midwest to travel west, “mythically and actually.” For those who like place-based poetry, Bully Love is a worthy read.

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