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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This article is taken from PN Review 246, Volume 45 Number 4, March - April 2019.

on Joan Murray’s Drafts

A Moment’s Life
Jena Schmitt
Drafts, Fragments, and Poems: The Complete Poetry by Joan Murray (NYRB Poets) $16

BORN IN 1917 in London, England, to Canadian parents, Joan Murray moved to Chatham, Ontario, Canada, when she was a child to live with an aunt, uncle and cousins after her parents divorced, her mother an actor and travelling diseuse, often away, her father rarely if ever present in her life. In an essay, ‘Passage on Reading’, Murray writes, ‘The poignancy of lost mothers and lost children and the sadness in the inevitable wandering of lost things grew quite early with me…’. There was a move to Detroit at age fifteen, and three years later to New York City to study acting and dance before focusing on writing at the New School with Auden. In 1942 she died of a heart-valve infection in Saranac Lake, New York, from the rheumatic fever she contracted as a child. She was twenty-four.

Five years after her death, in 1947, Auden published Poems by Joan Murray through the Yale Series of Younger Poets, which makes up the first major section of The Complete Poetry; the second is a selection of letters and prose; the third unpublished drafts, fragments and poems from her papers, which are held at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her archives have yet to be fully processed – for a time a box went missing, having fallen off a truck in transport, later discovered with a dent.

Farnoosh Fathi is a keen editor who helps to reveal Murray’s intelligence and skill, moving as close to the original poems in the first section as possible, rather than the versions liberally edited by a friend of Murray’s mother, Grant Code, for the original publication of Poems. (He added punctuation where there was none, for instance, separated combined words, fashioned titleless poems with titles, stanzaless poems into stanzas, not unlike the way Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson edited Emily Dickinson’s poetry for publication in 1890.) The letters in the middle section feel like a wedge between two sections of poetry, letters holding open doors to what as a writer Murray was doing and thinking. Words and phrases, images and ideas gather in the first section, echo throughout the letters, continue to reverberate in the unpublished poems of the third section, capturing moments in Murray’s life, ‘lingering for a moment in the vacuum of a moment’s shadow or a moment’s life’, as she wrote to her friend Helen Anderson.


In ‘Poem’, Elizabeth Bishop writes, ‘art “copying from life” and life itself, / life and the memory of it so compressed / they’ve turned into each other’. Murray’s unfixed life, her unrootedness, is often reflected in her writing. There is a turbulent energy, a constant searching, wandering, figuring, turning, returning, and the spaces left behind are often felt rather than filled. Not even Murray can find them: ‘I have looked for my childhood among pebbles my home.’

Many of her poems talk of the sea, the ocean, trees, fields, mountains; of men, women, mothers, fathers, children; of hands, feet, veins, bones, faces; of cities, buildings, rooms, houses, windows, corridors, doors, referring to a sometimes capitalised, sometimes lowercase Builder and Architect (reminiscent of Dickinson’s poems and letters about a Master). There is also the Anchorite, the Exile, the Unemployed Woman, letters to a mysterious Baroness. ‘The mind of an Unemployed or universal Architect’, she explains in a letter, ‘epitomised the desire to recreate what is desolated, to rebuild’. In order to make sense of the world around her, she tries to restore a semblance of spaces she recognises or recalls, then lets them collapse under the weight of dense sentences that suddenly warp, splinter, fracture, shatter:

Like cool stone poured to the palms of a corrupt shivering
Back to tangle and be lost –

In order to keep pace with Murray, one must leap from word to word, wander around with her a little. In a letter to Auden, she writes:

I was up to a rather off pursuit this last month and a half. I remember trying to tell you about it last season, and you said, Oh, boy scout stuff! And left me slightly non-plussed [sic]. I shall tell you now. I went out in dungarees and a small pack on my back and covered a scattering of New England states at a tangent. To me, this breaking away and arriving at lands’ end is a source of wide-eyed surprise.

And later in the same letter:

It is always a meeting and escaping. You see I never know what to say to people. That is because I have been mentally asleep for such an endless time. Thank heavens that’s over.

No wonder Murray was nonplussed. Perhaps she felt like the women in the 1894 painting The Garden Court by Edward Burne-Jones, seated on benches, chairs, the floor, and strangely, inexplicably, asleep. Their arms dangling, heads resting on a lap or a vase, a seat or a post, a thicket of roses thick with thorns behind them, it looks like they’ve been in a restless sort of slumber a long time, perhaps they’ve moved through the world that way, neither young nor old, unconsciously quiescent. There is nothing tranquil or natural about their poses. Wake up, one wants to say. That’s enough.

It hardly feels as though Murray slept at all. She seems, in fact, to ‘smite this sleeping world awake’, as William Morris wrote in response to Burne-Jones’s paintings. Along with over a hundred poems, she wrote over seven hundred letters to family and friends, only a handful of which are published in The Complete Poetry. She pushed past her disadvantages – inability to write (‘It’s so utterly bewildering to know just how to write decently somehow’; ‘no idea stirred toward a life’), dark moods (‘I am drab, grey fog!’; ‘Empty has head empty as mood and weak’), and recurring infections that left her bedridden and near death a number of times before she died – and leapt assuredly, boldly, from thought to thought, idea to idea. The leaps aren’t so much pole vaulting as a natural slide, almost imperceptibly, one on top of the other. Often the landscape is superimposed upon the body, the body upon the landscape, hands smooth over its rolling curves, waves have fists, the wind a white heart, and words have the ability to turn and walk away.

Turning into and becoming are not unusual in Murray’s work. In ‘Vermont Journey’, she exclaims, ‘Men are women!’ Men bear children, women bear trees, children become leaves, the leaves mutter, islands are mothers, seagulls sons. There is a gender fluidity, or perhaps a genderlessness in how Murray views the world, or wants to view it, pushing aside titles and roles into a space that moves amorphously between words and expectations. In the poem ‘Ego Alter Ego’, she writes, ‘You without place or sex’, and to Anderson: ‘I shall be neither male nor female. I shall be neither God nor Gamin’.

There is an abundance of unmet needs and untold desires, places that are barren, others fecund, ‘a night when women’s breasts / Hung heaped above my sagging mouth’, talk of virginity, lovers, voluptuousness, of panting and sucking and wanting.

Even her epithalamium, a song or poem celebrating a marriage, is a move towards the refreshingly modern. While Catullus, John Donne and Edmund Spenser wrote epithalamiums from the male perspective, and Sappho from a female point of view, Murray’s ‘Marriage Poem for an Age’ is a dramaturgical exchange that voices both women and men, more uncertain and questioning than celebratory, almost a lament:

Our skirts are so high in blowing. A little wild are the notes
That keep
In time, that sing out of the past the tune of the deleted swan.

It’s easy to get lost in Murray’s fragments, in her ‘full-gap-sky’, her ‘rattled heart’, her ‘vaster unspecific’, her ‘V’d wide unbreathing’. I look back through The Complete Poems to find ‘slattern hills’ in a letter turning into ‘maddening the slattern’ in a poem, ‘where people are rivered’ becoming the ‘rivered summer’, ‘the veriest seeds of inexplicity’, ‘the veriest patterns’. Moving from poem to letter to letter to poem upturns the writing in new and unexpected ways. Sometimes it becomes an archeological dig, sifting through words and phrases in search of ancient artifacts, pieces of an amphora or canopic jar, shards of luminescent blue faience, a broken cuneiform tablet from a lost Mesopotamian city. These are as beautifully satisfying as the poems and letters they are pulled from, no need to put the pieces back together. Other times the pieces are ultimately better than the whole.

One hears voices and influences from Housman to Yeats to Le Gallienne, and especially her teacher Auden, whom she was just as eager to dispute as please. There is a similar use of repetition in Auden’s ‘Prologue XII’ (‘And the car, the car’; ‘Give thanks, give thanks’; ‘But love, but love’) and the way he anthropomorphised the landscape (‘You are a valley or a river bend’), spoke of cities and mythology. There are times when Murray – dare I say it – surpasses Auden in her energy and uninhibitedness, which allowed her a certain freedom to say what she wanted without looking back. Unlike Auden, Bishop or Marianne Moore, who continually edited their poetry throughout their lifetimes, Murray wasn’t afforded such time or opportunity. She ends one poem (many of her poems are untitled) in an almost modern-day teenage­speak ‘As if’, her thoughts trailing off, never to be revisited. There is an unedited roughness there, some poems end without punctuation, some do, sometimes she moves in such tangents that it is difficult to understand what she is moving towards.

Her heart-racing, fist-clenching frustration is often palpable (‘A child is born not out of your womb, woman, / But out of the worn centuries of man’), her lines tightening until the point of breaking: ‘Of all the eyes that drub along the surface will there be one / catch beyond the the moment’. The two the’s no mistake.

Sometimes the frustration is the reader’s: ‘with only the thread of a self felt strand balancing out the fragile spanning’.

In André Kertész’s silver gelatin print Bird in Flight (1960), what is perhaps a fire-escape-ridden building looks more like a darkly tunnelled underground. Murray tunnels, pummels, pushes her words deeper, repeating and fragmenting and speaking out more often, more intensely, as though she were trying to get to ‘the end of the end’. Her repetitions, though frequent, are far from belaboured:

Mother mother my heart is like twin infants
Suckling dew out of grass
When there should be roisterous breasts
When there should be cornstalks whacking
Their vivid sweep into the core that barren bares
Tombs tombs more tombs

Like an incantation or hymn (‘Be careful of dead places. / Be careful of dead places’), these repetitions have a haunting, mind-hitching effect, a palilalia-like echo that moves through the page as though through a cave, one that, to my mind, looks like Lascaux, with its Magdalenian wall paintings of aurochs and deer.

One can feel the aftermath of the world wars in poems such as ‘This Makes for War!’, ‘London sits with her hands cupped…’, ‘The Coming of Strange People’, written on the day of Holland’s invasion, and ‘Poem’: ‘The speed of planes was still upon the noon… Windows were slammed and men stood in circles of eternity.’ Others reflect the prejudices and anti-Semitism of the time, with references to cripples (‘always the cripple’, a term also used by Auden), ‘the simple people of Vermont’, ‘the fat Jew fellow with the nose’, a ‘phlegmatic Indian’, and ‘(In the voice of a young black boy, sung to a lute) / Black people, you listen to me…’, which reveal naïve, stereotypical views unfortunately fueled and accepted by many.


When William Meredith reviewed Poems in the September 1947 issue of the US magazine Poetry (which was thirty­-five cents each or four dollars a year at the time), he wrote:

As brilliant and moving as [the poems] are, they frequently betray the imperfections of unfinished work, quite a different thing from unsuccessful work, but to the reader just as distressing. Insoluble ambiguities of syntax, unjustifiably abrupt transitions, and what the editor calls ‘makeshift’ words, inserted temporarily to fill out the shape of a poem, occur in several poems, and will keep them from being as widely read as they are entitled to be. These imperfections increase the difficulty of certain poems, already having a fine toughness of fibre, to the point where they become a chore to solve.

Nothing feels makeshift or made up in the words Murray chose to combine. Her inventive neologistic compounds – deadawake, riverrun, selfadvent, desertsea, unbornhour, mistressthoughts, coiledblue – are weighted just enough to keep a door propped open. Such pushed-together words alter sounds, intonations and stresses, hence the tension in a line. It’s a subtle but brilliant difference. When ‘coiled blue’ becomes ‘coiledblue’, a sudden tightening occurs, what appears to be a spondee turns towards an iamb. More turning into and becoming.

Her use of hyphenated words such as hung-sky and grey-swung are just as effective. Along with strong active verbs (everything from straddling, shivering, tangling, puttering and riddling, to perking, trammeling, rilling, rollicking and gutting), they insist on movement, helping to propel lines and ideas forward. Nothing is left to stagnate or settle or slam shut. There is no lulling sentimentality to rest upon, only a purity of thought, and a toughness that isn’t so much obdurate as relentlessly imaginative and complex, as quick and clever and unconventional as ever. ‘I find that like both sea and air I am two things,’ writes Murray in another untitled poem, ‘Crystal and clear and at the other hand sweet mad.’


Paul Klee said that ‘[a]rt does not reproduce the visible; it makes visible’. Murray may have written about ‘inlocked worlds’ and ‘inlocked hands’, of an anchorite living in an irreversible reclusory complete with a walled-up door, but she continually pushed against those boundaries and limitations, against the unknown. It is little wonder, then, that in Murray’s world the body becomes the landscape, something more substantially durable and enduring.

‘It is a bit worrying that I so rarely feel even a momentary belonging’, she confides in Auden. While Yeats talked about poetry as the thinking of the body, there is also a sense of what Emerson called ‘alienated majesty’ in Murray’s writing, suffused as it is with veils and sphinxes, hieroglyphs and symbols, seals and bones, something Delphic, distinguished, mysterious, that needs deciphering: ‘An illusion of dream veils the symbol of the symbol, / Puts its seal upon the head, a birthmark to the bone.’ The kinds of marks that appear and disappear, disappear and reappear, or are always there, hidden or in hiding.

When the windows break and walls crumble in a childhood home she can no longer see let alone find, or wars turn neighbourhoods into rubble, Murray speaks out again and again:

Believe me, my fears are ancient,
And I deal in ancient patterns
Like the burst into spring I am defiant

In this way, she had no choice but to make a space of her own, one that continues to move propitiously past the temporal. As Thoreau said:

We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology! – I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.

Or as The Shades chorus in ‘Orpheus: Three Eclogues’, the only poem Murray saw published in her lifetime: ‘Orpheus, springing towards the wonder of the dead / undead’.

This article is taken from PN Review 246, Volume 45 Number 4, March - April 2019.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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