Book Review: Poetry Roundup

issue 38 2020 Prize Winners

Dante Di Stefano

A Mad Caesura: Two Poetry Books on the Consolations of Mortality 

Bully Love
Patricia Colleen Murphy
Press 53, 2019

Sweet World
Maureen Seaton
CavanKerry Press, 2019

In the foreword to Maureen Seaton’s Sweet World, the poet recounts the circumstances for the new book’s initial composition; Seaton drafted the manuscript while receiving breast cancer treatment in Boulder, Colorado. The foreword, a prose poem itself, which Seaton titles “Fore/words: 2017,” ends with the injunction: “I hope you will forgive me, dear reader, if I’ve mixed up magic with grief, love with terror, light with impenetrable dark.” In the pages that follow this Brontean apostrophe, Seaton proffers a bewilderment of lyric riches that confront life, death, art, love, loss, the divine, and the mysterious slippages between those things. 

Sweet World displays Seaton’s mastery as a poet, nimbly shifting as she does between formal approaches ranging from the American sonnet to the textbox prose sonnet, from short lyrics composed of couplets to a sequential ekphrastic poem. Seaton’s formal dexterity, as impressive as it is, however, remains secondary to the moral and imaginative heft of her poems; these poems are antic, lustrous, vital engagements with the tangible artifacts of aging, illness, and the promise of dying. The promise of dying, in Sweet World, is always passing into the promise of the present moment, a moment where grief, love, terror, and light intermingle as they do in the poem “I Dreamt a Land of Someone Else’s Invention”:


            I saw snow geese heading in opposite directions,
            passing through each other’s flight patterns

            like subatomic particles or the sudden astral bodies
            of Americans killed last year by other Americans

            with assault weapons, and I knew it was a sign


These ordinary omens witnessed in route to her stay in Boulder do not prepare the witness for her cancer treatment, for the ways in which she will grapple with death, for the loss of her left breast.

If Sweet World only dramatized Seaton’s coming to terms with the trauma and loss involved in surviving breast cancer, it would still be among the finest poetry books published in the last decade; Sweet World does so much more than that. It’s the kind of book that reminds one why one began loving poetry in the first place—the wildness of it, the way it engenders radical vulnerability, the way an utterance might lead to avowal and renewal. Seaton allows us to overhear her conversations with the Buddha and Ginsberg, brings us to her dying mother’s bedside in 1999, recalls the joys of watching Harold and Maude, invokes Ravel at IKEA, and allows us to enter into the astonishing heart of her imagistic imagination. In the title poem, Seaton registers her own surprise at calling the world “sweet,” but concludes: “Surviving something can do that, make things taste different. // …All this devastation— / and you’re still standing in the middle of it.”

Patricia Colleen Murphy’s first book, Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press, 2016), was all about surviving family dysfunction and standing tall in the middle of devastation. Bully Love derives its momentum from survival of a different kind; it’s a book about finding love, learning to live in a place that is different from the one you were raised in, dealing with the realties of coming into middle age, and grieving the deaths of one’s parents. In the poem, “Go Anywhere,” Murphy articulates these central concerns, speaking to her partner:

            If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
            You and I can, now that all four of our parents died.
            I thought I’d move to France, maybe lose too much
            weight. But I fell in love with you and here we are.
            So now what? Will we go to the Costco, maybe Home

            Depot? I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll have time.
            Should we go to the park, help ourselves to free wall art?
            Since living here already feels like stealing?

The “here” in this poem is Arizona, the landscape of which serves as the starkly beautiful backdrop to most of the poems in Bully Love, while affording a counterpoint to the Ohio landscape that provided the axis for the poems in Hemming Flames.

In Bully Love, Murphy eschews the heavy referentiality that layered Hemming Flames; gone are the direct allusions to poets such as John Berryman and Anne Sexton, but the fingerprints of those poets, along with Russell Edson and Sharon Olds, remain as whorls between the lines of poems such as “Goodbye, Ohio,” which pivots on the tercet: “Crops on the brain, / father sends me to mice the fields, / his low-ground cat-lover child.” However, Patricia Colleen Murphy’s body of work is as distinctively her own as any in contemporary American poetry; she ranges from subjects as seemingly banal as beauty salons and barber shops to the drowning of a beloved dog and the death of a former student. Often, her poems employ the neutral or mildly sardonic tone of a survivor, but sometimes this tone effloresces into an almost Blakean warmth and wisdom. In the poem, “Remission” after visiting her partner’s father, who is near death, Murphy remarks: “…Some people / are longer for this world than others. / I want to hold them in my hands like a bird.” Murphy’s poem “Morenci Arizona” ends: “My only power is this ability to name.”

The ability to name so accurately, and the will to hold that naming in an outstretched palm, renders Bully Love by Patricia Colleen Murphy and Sweet World by Maureen Seaton unforgettable. These are books that address the most important questions we pose to the universe from the frail vessels of our bodies. Is this life—our griefs, our loves, our lights—as brief as the pause between a cricket’s song, as lengthy as the interval between stars? And what to make of our sorrows, our joys, our heartbeats and the mad caesuras that constitute a lifetime? The answer to these and other questions posed by poetry as good as that of Seaton and Murphy is always an enormous “yes.”