Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Poem366: Bulletproof by Matthew Murrey


Bulletproof by Matthew Murrey

Something kind of magical is underway in my dining room. My husband, Michael Czyzniejewski, is putting the finishing touches on the first installment in the 2020 incarnation of Story366, the leap year blog where he reviews a different book of short stories every single day.

It was a big commitment when I witnessed it in 2016. Sometimes our family travel was interrupted by the need to stop at McDonald’s, with its reliable, password-free WiFi, and sit around eating ice cream while he finished a day’s installment. It was a whole-family commitment, and we are all proud of the fact that he never missed a day.

This year I thought I might try joining him with “Poem366”—not a blog of its own, but a feature within my existing blog. I don’t know if I’ll make it every day, and honestly, I don’t have quite as many recent poetry collections to choose from (feel free to send me an ARC for a recent poetry title—within 18 months—if you’d like to be considered, to karen.craigo@gmail.com). But as a sign of solidarity for Mike’s truly wonderful project, I’m going to give it a whirl.

One thing: I’m not aiming to do reviews. My plan is to offer appreciations—acknowledgements of what poets are doing well. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t own up to my sideways goal of finding some inspiration for my own work in the concerns and formal choices and imagery offered by other writers, so I’m looking for aspects of their work to love, rather than focusing on problems.

With all of that being said, here I go, but from the family room. You can hear a lot of tap-tap-tapping in my house right now, and since the younger kid is now able to amuse himself for an hour with a videogame, there’s a good bit of pew-pew-pewing as well.


Bulletproof by Matthew Murrey (Durham, NC: Jacar Press, 2019)

A collection in two parts, Bulletproof by Matthew Murrey begins with bullets and ends, I believe, in proof—of our humanity, our frailty and our better natures. It is unusually well constructed for a first collection, and the poems demonstrate surprising range while also adhering to the theme.

When I say the collection begins with bullets, I’m being literal. The first poem is titled “.38 Special,” and it begins with a steady aim of a gun that nevertheless misses the mark, until it doesn’t. The handgun gives the speaker of the poem power to kill someone, maybe himself:

    I’m holding death’s hand
    as killers and suicides have done
    and—I hate to tell you—
    its weight feels good
    like a sack of coins, a bag of blood,
    a book of history, a pound of meat.

I didn’t want to like a collection about guns and shooting, but the sensual ending has me weighing an invisible bag of blood in my hand, and I’m drawn in, warily. The first section does not let up on the gun stuff at all—thirty-two poems in total, and almost all of them about a topic that is deeply felt by most of us in the U.S. But Murrey offers an open-eyed look at weaponry and the destruction it wreaks, and I found that I appreciated the direct approach to a hard topic.

Some of the poems are not about the act of shooting, but rather are about the results of it. We see the speaker’s father strapping on a bulletproof vest to go to work as a bartender, and we begin to understand why the topic matters. And we also see an elegy to the victims of the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting in Las Vegas, titled “Who Now Will.” The unpunctuated prose poem enacts the chaos and confusion of the attack, while remembering those who were lost. The title, “Who Will Know,” edges into the body of the poem, which lists,

paint flowers on the storefront check the straps on the car seat tune the guitar by the couch blow out all the candles drink Bloody Marys on Sunday make four lunches and bag them button his uniform and check the cells fill in for the teacher who is home sick tell jokes to the kids leave the night light on call the attendance office …

And this automatic, rapid-fire rattatattat continues for two pages before concluding with the question of who will …

hold on to a shockingly brave stranger’s hand until there’s no more strength in him to hold it and he has to let it go forever?

I was very moved by the thoroughness of the list, and the places where the lives felt especially familiar, like my own and those of my loved ones. Turns out this wasn’t a book that glorified violence, despite its uncomfortable start.

The second of the two sections is not quite as clear in its purpose, but I intuit from the contents and from the treatment of the book’s title on its cover that this is the “Proof” half. The poems here have more to do with nature and the spirit, with keen insights that I didn’t expect at the outset. I am drawn particularly to the metaphysics of “Skies,” a poem that posits “Beneath sky lies harder sky,” adding,

    And sometimes I’ve glimpsed it—
    in a coyote sprinting in, then out of
    the headlights; or in a deer midair
    leaping a fence before disappearing into
    the trees—the third sky, the one wanting
    answers […]

This shadow place was also visible in my favorite poem in the collection, “Coyotes,” which features a small plan that must wait to land because the runway is overrun with coyotes.

    With my face against the little window
    as we banked and turned, I watched
    half a dozen lean ghosts disappear
    into the tall grass below.

There seems to be a sort of scrim between worlds in Murrey’s construction of things, and that’s how I see it, too. Those guns and bullets of the first half sometimes force us prematurely from one, the world of things, into the other, that of shadows.

Bulletproof was a good starting point—earthy (it has poems about box turtles and slugs) and dirty, but ultimately ephemeral and transcendent. I recommend it.

Read each day's installment of Mike Czyzniejewski's Story366 at https://story366blog.wordpress.com/. Today's installment is on Zadie Smith's 2019 collection, Grand Union.

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