by Dante Di Stefano
by Patricia Colleen Murphy
Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. 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.
Patricia Colleen Murphy’s debut collection, Hemming Flames, dazzles and sears as it charts the wracked history of a family plagued by mental illness and addiction. With great nuance and empathy, Murphy resurrects the suicidal mother who lit herself on fire, the alcoholic father cursing and breaking dinner plates, the agoraphobic brother with an eating disorder that leads to crippling obesity, the crushing gravity of the family home, which is a frigate, a bridge for sale, a poker game, a firefly, a time warp, a time machine, a trap, a big sick lung. In lesser hands, the confessional mode that Murphy employs might come off as solipsistic and exploitative, but the poems in Hemming Flames alchemically transmute the base material of personal trauma; Patricia Colleen Murphy transforms the stuff of autobiography into the earned communion of poetry.
For Murphy, the earned communion of poetry thresholds itself between effusion and restraint. In her poem, “Good Morning, Mediocrity,” Murphy says: “…I’m stuck between the one who keeps it all/ and the one who gives it all away.” This is the dwelling place for poetry: the space between dispersal and recollection, the impulse that both gathers and discards. The poem, “Memory as Diary,” further articulates these competing impulses to affirm and to destroy. The poem reads, in full:
Because the body is illiterate, lacks
language any more complex than thirst;
and because the body came from another
body whose ultimate goal was to wean it;
and because the body saw a body burst
into flames on the bow of a boat;
and because the body watched its dog cross
the uncrossable street about to be stopped by
the unstoppable car; and because the body
went from soft & pink to rough & brown;
and because the body feels a stabbing, a
tingling, a dull ache, a numbness, a heat;
and because the body would tell you this
if it could, would say it hurts or I miss you.
“Memory as Diary” enacts the recursive strategies of the entire book, as the speaker seeks to find words for the throb that comes from being in a world where separation and loss are writ indelibly and indecipherably on our very bodies. In poem after poem, Patricia Colleen Murphy gives voice to a stabbing, a tingling, a dull ache, a numbness, a heat. She invents a new language for fire and this new language allows her to express anger and pain, desire and despair, regret and a wry hopefulness, despite it all. Her forte is not just the white space of her mother’s lunatic years, it is the restorative utterance of a daughter and a sister who has healed the torn cartilage and rebuilt the charred remains of her lost childhood. Hemming Flames is not merely a necessary book for anyone who has experienced mental illness and addiction in their family, it is a necessary book for anyone who cares about poetry.
To hear Murphy’s poetry and an in-depth interview, check out Audio Interview: Poet Patricia Colleen Murphy.