Wednesday, November 29, 2006

INCESSANT SEEDS by SHEILA MURPHY

DION FARQUHAR Reviews

Incessant Seeds by Sheila E. Murphy
(Pavement Saw Press, 2004)

Words are incessant seeds, and Sheila Murphy their relentless sower. Her book is homage to change and difference, to language that evades certitude and finitude—for better and for worse. Incessant Seeds is as dizzyingly disruptive and unpredictable as its formal properties are unvarying. Each of its (annoyingly unnumbered) 84 pages consists of 14 lines, with each line having 14 syllables, a form that was both “the yield and record” of a rule-bound process, Murphy tells the reader in her introduction. The more she practiced her 14-syllable, 14-line page form, “the more in sync [she] became with the vibratory pattern inherent in the rule itself, an ironically liberating practice.” Like with any repetition, the more one reads Incessant Seeds, the more one sees.

Murphy’s breathless enjambments function both to hurry the reader from line to line while magnifying the thicket of cultural allusion and association. In fact, the only quasi-breaks come at the end of each 14-line page. Using a mélange of techniques including word-play, pastiche, pun, and collage, Murphy invents meaning by switching and mixing language paradigms and levels of abstraction and concretion within each prose line. Each page offers unpredictable pleasures of discovery.

Her themes are the alternating glory and horror of seasonal American life (Perfume to us during the let-go of the leaves that burned/ To crunch-walk across with steady faith in plexitude tapped [3]), kinship (The given specs, the risen dough, maternal wishes whined [15]), bodies (Here the comi-cardio begins at rest, here safety [57]), knowledge (The itinerary that occurs post-now is not known [58]), each other (You and your rotisserie estrangement from twelve selves late [66[), and the various institutional hells that confine us (Omniplex where divans have been planted beneath sharp fans [60]). She alternates austerity with sensuality (That’s when the talk begins to pour forth, measured, flamed, supposed [49]), belief with skepticism (For being lied to with a splurge of effort on the part [14]).

Though I have little interest in the project of recycling religious language as a vehicle of transcendence, Murphy’s engagement with the Christian lexicon doesn’t deter me from my pleasure in her words. She announces her interest in religion on the first page (How many moot points does it take to move a mantra, how/ Does divinity compare to home loan depth [1]), alludes to it subtly countless times (Would read the office during whole hours pacing afternoon [7]); and explicitly in others (For altar play occasioned by resemblance once perfected [6] or As the skin rehearses prayer, slowly evenly parched [11]).

Particularly evident in the first half of Incessant Seeds is the casual weave of atavistic religious vocabulary—creed, faith, eternal, prayer, grace, belief, blessings, soul, sacraments, repentance, heresy, pontiff, votives, martyrdom, genuflection, etc.—into secular non-sequitur. For me, these function to flag the continued persistence of Euro-Christianity in our stark postmodern midst, extracting hope where one can: Resist fate as hosanna’s prescient nightfall scurries far [4].

She dextrously weaves the existential backdrop

Reconnaissance or martyrdom perhaps this much a plea
For going to work, the reason for existence rounded
To a surface pieced together from the fragments known [27]


to medical (or class) serendipity:

Mobility’s another word for dance light skittering [77].


Murphy’s genius is what she makes language do--walk the razor’s edge of a rich range of feelings while committing to relentless abstraction and intellectualism that never descends to the academic. It is this success that jolts the reader into celebrating our ambivalent condition: While still the question yet propped open hovers sans response [83].

Murphy’s voice is idiosyncratic, breathless, though never random or rambling. Incessant Seeds resists definitive decoding, ensuring disruption at precisely the point that s/he might be sinking into the routine comfort of a few lines development of a theme segment:

Summation of gestation pactifies fill dirt stretch goals
Prompt in sucking goods and services from source code minute
By minutia, parasites gesture lethargy winced
From seedlings bovine gradual and diametric, finned [15]


Incessant Seeds registers the erratic pulse on the burning philosophic (Lasting perfection oxymoronic at its base [9]) and political (the distemper even/ Bombs cannot enforce [51]) themes of our time: the nature of memory (Distance weights into our living, visceral replays spawn [18]) and history (Fixed between bookends of past and future in the only/ Instance one can prove, the rice pudding, the lemons rounded [25]).

There are few lapses from the fever pitch Murphy manages to sustain for most of the book, though in the places that her language play sags, its didactic clip doesn’t slow, as in her portrayal of the schizoid beauty and bleakness of the personal and familial, a dominant concern in this volume:

We see our mothers worn, taken for granted very tired
And left behind by heart, while pushing through each day with all
There is to give, everyone forgetting everything
The moment it has passed, and moments are piled like used up
Ornaments no longer commemorating anything
So wind continues punishing, and we forget it’s there [50].


She’s more lyrical, though more negative here, on the same theme:

                              , to brat one’s way life-
Ward envious of shaken shoulders for the touch itself [19]


Incessant Seeds also takes up weighty questions such as the politics of epistemology with little fanfare. Murphy navigates the contemporary suburban landscape of normative family life and the national hegemony of fall football—her rendering no less trenchant for its ambivalent embeddedness:

Play, pretend to like the others with whom we are in stiff
Competition for the benefit of onlookers who
Have zip to risk in all the fray of sparring and delay
Gladiatorial observation presses upon
Open minds and swerves them shut, …/ [41].


Incessant Seeds is fallible, urgent, gutsy, celebratory. I love it.

*****

Dion Farquhar is a poet and prose fiction writer. Obsessed by her formative experience of the Sixties and repudiating nothing, she is currently finishing a novel. Her poems have appeared in Otoliths, Main Street Rag, Poems Niederngasse, Perigee, The Argotist, AUGHT, Xcp: Streetnotes, Rogue Scholars, City Works, boundary 2, Hawaii Review, Lip Service, Cream City Review, Sinister Wisdom, Painted Bride Quarterly, etc.

2 Comments:

At 1:10 PM, Blogger Victor said...

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At 6:25 PM, Blogger EILEEN said...

Of possible interest may be Séamas Cain's review of Sheila E. Murphy's SKINNY BUDDHA in GR #9 at

http://galatearesurrection9.blogspot.com/2008/03/skinny-buddha-by-sheila-e-murphy.html

 

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