Experience and The Imagination, Metaphor as Survival, and Healthy States of Flow: Patricia Colleen Murphy on Her Poem "How The Body Moves"
If genuine healing from a difficult and traumatic past takes place in the soul and subconscious (and not the support of the world around us), it would seem that Patricia Colleen Murphy has dedicated her path in poetry to exactly that, lifting others up the whole way. The founding editor of Superstition Review at Arizona State University won the May Swenson Poetry Award for her book Hemming Flames, a copy of which she sent to me on my request. I was opened completely by the book's rawness, an admixture of crushingly difficult memories paired with the complexities of hard-won wisdom. Here is a poet moving personal and confessional writing forward with unflinching earnestness, all the while nurturing and promoting writers into their own humanity and resilience. In every way she strikes me as such a model for writers, from her poem's empathic resonances to the way she lives her life. — HLJ
Melanie, the Siamese,
on the front porch with baby me.
In pictures, the two of us
are almost the same size.
Later my mother
bought Persians, bred them,
used the money for jewelry,
The first time a litter came
she sent me searching the house
to find and clean the afterbirth.
I found the babies limp,
smothered in their sleep.
Only twenty more miles.
I am 15. My uncle is driving.
My mother has fled again in her
Oldsmobile, heading for Palo Alto.
We were fighting. She took
all the pills she could find.
My uncle sighs, repeats that
his mother died giving birth to him.
One tenth her weight, he came
screaming from her pelvis on the
coldest Minnesota day in history.
The freeway slips under us like night.
From here I think the hills are
impoverished sisters huddled for warmth
under green mohair blankets.
Seventeen of them: stomach to knee,
buttock to backbone.
We glide past their ankles.
Once I dreamt I was nine months pregnant.
When I went to the bathroom
the baby slipped out like a miraculous
bowel movement. She had blond hair,
and a T-shirt that said French Countryside.
A neighbor saw the birth through the window.
He smiled, continued mowing the back field,
and I hung a bell.
A bit of a confession to start us off; I wanted to discuss this poem partly for selfish reasons: reading HEMMING FLAMES was a deeply relational experience for me, as someone who grew up with domestic violence and also had a tough relationship with her mother. This poem stood out to me because it seems to be reckoning with other themes such as aging and death. What began it for you?
Thanks for sharing that with me. It's meaningful to hear how others are affected by the work. I am going to admit to you that I wrote this poem 20 years ago, as part of my MFA thesis in 1996. So this poem started when I was in my early twenties trying to come to terms with my estrangement from my mother. You'll note it has perhaps a more tender, contemplative tone than others in the collection; perhaps more hopeful even.
At the time I wrote it my mother was still alive but I had not spoken to her for a long time. It was necessary but sad to keep that distance. The estrangement lasted about eight years.
I hope it isn't too challenging to discuss a poem you wrote such a long while ago. Perhaps tell us a bit about the poem’s title and how you came to it. The piece on its face doesn’t seem only to be about movement per se, the way a body for instance moves through space (“Only twenty more miles…”), and it seems there’s a different kind of movement happening here. Is there some other change in the reader or speaker that you intended in writing this?
It's refreshing to look at the old work, so thank you. The title, like a lot of phrases in the book, is meant to be ironic. These are bodies that are not moving, really. They are stagnant. They are desperate. They are acted upon instead of acting. Even in motion they are motionless. So the title could also be "How the Body Does Not Move." But I wanted that tension between the directive “How” and the aimlessness in the poem. I remember my mentor Beckian Fritz Goldberg commenting that many of my titles start with the word "How," which is a little joke I play, as a way of pretending there’s agency where there is none.
And yes living with my mother meant constantly searching. Oh my goodness, and also constantly acting. Right now I’m reading The Tao of Humiliation by Lee Upton and just highlighted the line, “By the time I was thirteen I learned to smile often—to reassure my mother that I wasn’t being harmed by her sadness.”
Adding that to my list. I'm caught by this idea of agency as illusion, something that we cling to in the vast game of pretend/hide-and-go-seek that happens in families rocked by trauma or abuse. The enactment of that denial in a poem is a bit of a feat.
I like your phrase "enactment of denial." Denial is hard to write because if its layers. And perhaps that's a reason it took me so long to finish this book. There is the quotidian image hovering just over the traumatic image. And how to balance them so that the work is neither maudlin nor solipsistic? That is really hard. I had a lot of false starts that were surely both.
Every wounded child is also the "victim of a victim," and I appreciated that your collection as a whole explores that side of the relationship with your mother as well. Your work is characterized as surreal – I work with surrealism in my own writing, and the struggle is how to go there without turning silly or otherwise expelling the reader from the poem. Here you’ve got the hills over the highway turning into “impoverished sisters” huddled under “green mohair blankets”, and a deeply mysterious birth image at the end. What was happening for you there?
Ah you make good points about surrealism turning either silly or inaccessible. Poets cut their teeth on those mistakes! I know I did. In this poem and in this book, the surrealism is synonymous with the escapism it took to survive. It's the same imagination it takes to live through something you don't think you'll get through.
I have a line in another poem in this book, "misting the ferns with a mental mister," and that's the best explanation I can give you about how these surrealist flourishes work in the poems. It's coping through metaphor. Through imagination. Through being someone and somewhere else.
So well said; I'm just looking at that poem again and noting the denialism inherent in the title there too, Magritte’s image of that famous pipe with the line "This Is Not a Pipe." I also want to dig a little deeper there on how you cut your teeth -- was it just through practice and trial and error, or did you have models?
Yes, I forgot the title that started the poem just now when I quoted that line, but it's a perfect example. Magritte's title for that painting is "The Treachery of Images." We can apply that to the surrealism in my work, if you like. I may be showing you something, but it's simply an image and not the experience itself. You'll need to figure out what it means to you, how it relates to your life.
I did have models. I keep a reading journal where I gather a lot of moments that affected me deeply, and I study the journal before I compose to get into that headspace.
I should also say I have an undergraduate degree in French, so I have read so many of the French surrealists in the original and that’s becomes one of my ways of seeing and speaking.
There was also a lot of trial and error!
That representative approach is a tough pill to swallow for the literalists out there, but it's something I try to remind myself when I'm showing up to a poem I can't grasp with my reason alone, that there is a world beyond this world that the poet is inviting me to enter with my own set of experiences and memories.
I heard Terrance Hayes say "I keep one foot in experience and one in imagination."
Yes he is. [Laughter]
You’ve spoken elsewhere of John Berryman’s influence, whose story is familiar to many. And it seems you’ve grappled with the worst darknesses of the psyche, some of which seem unimaginable (I'm thinking of the younger Trish having to parent herself and rescue her mother from repeated suicide attempts). Children inherit those wounds from their parents and then have to find ways to carry them if not heal from them. What role if any has poetry played in that process for you?
Well the Hayes quote helps me answer that! Poetry lets me straddle reality and fantasy (and when I say fantasy, for me it really means the ideal life I wish I’d had). It has allowed me to do that in two ways, reading and writing. I was writing and publishing poems about my family starting in middle school. It helped me process what was happening. And reading always helped me too, not just for the escapism it provided but also for the intellectual stimulation and the "break" from my own thoughts.
I think about the concept of "flow" and how helpful it is to be there. I think that's a state that people are trying to enter in all kinds of ways (healthy or unhealthy), and I'm lucky that I like to enter flow through either language or exercise. I can totally lose myself for hours at a time when I write, read, run, ride, or swim.
What a true blessing to not have to be needed in impossible ways. What a thrill to be in a positive headspace.
I read a lot of Jungian depth psychology – James Hillman, James Hollis – and it strikes me just how easy it is, in the quest to reclaim one's selfhood from deep wounds, to descend into those unhealthy patterns you mentioned like addiction or other forms of escape. The only way to break from our old lives and stories, of course, is to opt for new ones entirely, which with the help of art it seems you've done.
I like that phrase, "quest to reclaim selfhood." And I think about people who ask about the confessional nature of the book, asking, "Were you afraid what your family would think?" And I respond with, "Were they afraid what I would think when they were making selfish choices?"
I mean there was some extremely bad behavior – and oh, lots of gaslighting. If I've tried to break from my own early life, it's by being transparent and honest and helpful and empathetic.
Though I will say to you that I come from a place of huge privilege. Everyone in my family had a genius level IQ. My mom graduated from Stanford with degrees in Political Science and International Relations in 1961. We had smart conversations in the home; that is, when we weren't begging folks to take their meds.
How such suffering can still be steeped in privilege is something I think much of our current discourse tends to ignore with its focus privilege as a racialized white monolith. The gaslighting that's prevalent in families also seems to be showing up a lot in the wider culture these days. Poetry and art are perhaps just one means of bringing that compassion and empathy you describe.
Onward to standard questions: Could you give us three things a writer can do, on a daily or weekly basis, to educate themselves on craft in a manner comparable to an MFA education?
- Form a writer’s group. Whether it’s online or in person, sharing your work with others can be motivational and can help you create and revise.
- Read and review books. You can keep a word document with these reviews if you don’t want to share them, but other authors really appreciate reviews on Goodreads or Amazon. Be a good literary citizen and share your thoughts on contemporary writing.
- Reach out to established poets. If you read a book or a poem in a journal that moves you, email the author and let them know.
Do you have any homework to assign our readers?
Yes, here's some homework: an exercise I call FIVE WAYS.
I have many revision “games” to play with poems. I do this after a poem has existed for a while, and it’s time to make sure it’s as good as it can me. For the FIVE WAYS activity, take a poem that has been in the drawer for a while. First, remove the line breaks in your poem so that it reads as one big paragraph. Then put the line breaks back in FIVE WAYS. Does you poem want to be in couplets? In all one stanza? Does it like enjambment? End-stopped lines? Let your poem tell you what it needs by rearranging and re-reading and re-seeing it in five different ways.
Share a poem you love with our readers and tell us why you love it.
I love Daniel Borzutzky’s "The Broken Testimony", from his collection The Performance of Becoming Human. He manages to be political and personal, predicting "the best dictators don't kill their subjects rather they make their subjects kill each other." It’s a great study in both composition and form that invites the reader to write and to scavenge.
Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her book Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press, 2016) won the May Swenson Poetry Award judged by Stephen Dunn. A chapter from her memoir in progress was published as a chapbook by New Orleans Review. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, and American Poetry Review, and most recently in Black Warrior Review, North American Review, Smartish Pace, Burnside Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, Hobart, decomP, Midway Journal, Armchair/Shotgun, and Natural Bridge. She lives in Phoenix, AZ.