Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Poem366: "Assisted Living" by Erin Murphy

Assisted Living by Erin Murphy

Assisted Living by Erin Murphy, Phenix City, Alabama: Brick Road Poetry Press, 2018

In her seventh collection, Assisted Living, poet Erin Murphy offers 72 poems that are short — seven lines each, a form she invented called demi-sonnets — and very direct. I guess you have to be direct when your time in a poem is so brief. There is no lollygagging in seven lines, and in fact, Murphy’s brevity is a vehicle for razor-sharp insights.

To better understand Murphy’s project, and to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything, I did a little bit of research on her form. Wikipedia verifies that demi-sonnets are a seven-line form (half a sonnet) that is often aphoristic — and that was certainly my experience — but they also “end with an internal full or slant rhyme.” I noticed some highly innovative rhyme in these poems, but I confess I didn’t see a pattern to it in most poems. That was the pleasure of them for me; I always enjoy rhyme best when it occurs in a surprising way. These micro-poems were surprising through and through — sonically, imagistically, rhetorically, and otherwise.

Speaking of rhetoric, to me the main hallmark of a sonnet is its rhetoric — how an Italian sonnet will offer an octet of problem that resolves in the sestet that follows, or how a Shakespearean sonnet will present its several little arguments before answering them in a tidy couplet. The patness of the rhetorical structure keeps me — and plenty of other contemporary readers, I suspect — at arm’s length. My problems aren’t tidy, and my solutions sometimes feel non-existent, which means that a sonnet’s shape doesn’t suit me at all well.

But do you know what? A demi-sonnet fits the bill beautifully. In these poems, the sonnet and its rhetoric are hacked off at the knees. As I mentioned at the outset, they are direct, but they sometimes don’t offer any resolution at all — and if they do, it’s of a fleeting sort.

I love very short poems, because it’s fun to include full poems in a review. This gives the reader a nice sampling (although I strongly suggested reading Assisted Living from its gorgeous front cover to its end. But here are a few of the poems I most enjoyed.

The first poem in the book was a powerful leap, like a first step onto the moon:

Reverse Alchemy

Forget bullion bricks
and gaudy chains around
the neck. I’m perfecting
the long tradition of turning
gold to lead. See: autumn
leaves. See: lust. See: everyone
you’ve ever loved who’s dead.

Like a conventional sonnet, it presents a problem and then offers some proofs. But the in-your-face quality is decidedly unsonnetlike — and as one who has recently lost someone special, I fully understood how sometimes everything turns to shit.

It’s a theme that was repeated later in the first section:

After the Worst Thing Happens

After the tears and bottomless grief
and hours spent staring at the night
ceiling with tight teeth, after the will
to move leaks from your body like ink
from a pen, there is a feeling of relief.
The worst thing that can happen
has happened and can’t happen again.

This final couplet is the perhaps the biggest nod to a conventional sonnet in the collection, with the slant rhyme in the final two line-ending words and the aphoristic feel of them. There is wisdom here.

Not all of the loss in these poems is personal. “Safety Drill” is a poem about Murphy’s daughter during an active shooter drill:

Safety Drill

In the event of an active shooter,
run in zig-zags behind the school,
my daughter is told. It's harder
to hit a moving target. Run across
the field to the woods. Don’t cower.
But: so many moving targets,
so many wind-blown flowers.

I feel that this poem, in its brevity and its natural imagery, leaves a haiku-like undertone behind. A lot is going on — rapidfire instructions, children transformed into flowers, and the pure lyric impulse of a mother-poet.

Finally, I appreciated the playfulness found in a collection that is often quite heavy, and I’d be remiss not to include an example. I’m also a sucker for a good love poem, and that’s what “Things Are Cuter in Twos” is:

Things Are Cuter in Twos

One Yorkie pup? Sweet enough.
Two? Adorbs! The singleton toddler
you’d never notice is awww-worthy
with his twin. My beau with double
vision can’t thread a needle or drive
at night. But he loves both of me.
What can I say? We’re a delight.

And Murphy is a delight, at times — and an insightful, innovative and skilled poet, always.

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