On Joan Murray

Patrick McGuinness

Joan Murray died of a heart defect in 1942, at the age of 24. Her first book, Poems, was published five years later, after her manuscript won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, which was judged by Auden. Murray had been his student at the New School in 1940 and, not caring for any of the manuscripts he had been sent, he asked her mother if he could publish her work instead. She agreed, but not before accusing Auden of killing Joan by infecting her with ‘poetry fever’. The book came out in 1947, edited – over-edited, it now seems – by Grant Code, a friend of Murray’s mother. Until now, this has been the only available edition of her work. Her poetry circulated on photocopies and photocopies of photocopies, distributed for teaching or among friends and colleagues. In 2003, John Ashbery claimed that a trunk containing Murray’s manuscripts had been lost by removal men when her papers were being shipped to the archive at Smith College where they are now held. In 2014, an inquiry by Mark Ford, who’d written on Murray for Poetry, prompted the trunk’s rediscovery (as Farnoosh Fathi tells us in her introduction, it had a dent in its side consistent with having fallen off the back of a lorry).

This new book, Drafts, Fragments and Poems (NYRB, £8.99), contains a revised version of Poems, along with eighty pages of unpublished work from the mislaid trunk. It has the rich introduction by Fathi, as well as a preface by Ashbery, and Auden’s original foreword to the 1947 edition. It also includes a generous selection of Murray’s letters, which are valuable because they show us a voracious inner life. Fathi has gone back to Murray’s original drafts of her poems, and many of the versions she prints are so distinct from their 1947 incarnations that they require reading anew. Ashbery writes that ‘Murray’s poetry was powerful enough to stand up to the ministrations of a well-meaning but somewhat heavy-handed editor,’ referring to Code’s tendency to tidy up the poems and smooth their edges, to give them titles, and generally make decisions that Murray did not make for herself. Fathi’s precise but non-interventionist editing, along with her shrewd choice of letters and unpublished material, makes Murray’s writing feel new and alive again nearly eighty years after her death.

Murray wasted no time, and nor do her poems, which begin at full tilt. Here is the first one in the book:

If, here in the city, lights glare from various source,
Look out of your window, thin faced man.
Three portent cities repeat the pattern and the course
That history ran.

Three slender veins, clotted and ambiguous,
Are these inlocked hands.
Three startled cries now rise incredulous,
Where once sprang barren sands.

Give back height to receding sky.
Let stars – the things that remain –
Orbit their quiet to the lie
That is here city and various city pain.

The perspective is both temporal (history and portents) and spatial (window, sky, stars). We imagine a face at the glass looking out across a night-time cityscape, like someone in a Hopper painting, where windows reflect the human figure’s isolation rather than assuage it. The rhymes are resonant, the lines are lean, giving the poem a compression and a tightness even as the words scatter its mysterious import. The unnerving effect is enhanced by the use of the singular noun ‘pain’ after the plural adjective ‘various’, and the inversion, in the same line, of ‘the lie/That is here city’. Also, who’s calling us a ‘thin faced man’ on the first page of the book? Who are they, and how do they know? There are a lot of interpellations in Murray’s poems: a ‘you’ is frequently addressed, or a ‘me’ invoked, giving her poems an immediacy of address that contrasts with their abrupt transitions and elliptical associations.

We don’t need to know quite what is going on here to feel the strange authority of that voice, enigmatic yet direct, or to respond to the poem’s vertiginous perspectives. ‘Where are we going, this world and I, with our rhythms, and our new-found old themes, and our cities that are dreams in time? Cities, great pools of forgetfulness,’ Murray wrote to her friend, the novelist Helen Anderson. There is something about this sentence, and many of the lines in her poems and letters, that makes us think of what would become the New York School of poetry, and it isn’t surprising that Ashbery should have responded to Murray’s work. That phrase, the ‘new-found old’ catches the way her poems navigate the seemingly unbridgeable distance between a sense of discovery and a sense of repetition.

Murray was born in 1917 during an air raid to Canadian parents who were living in London; they separated soon after. She was sent to live with an aunt in Chatham, Ontario, and though she remained in close touch with her mother, her father faded from view. When she was 11, she suffered a bout of rheumatic fever, which damaged her heart. When she was 13, another attack almost killed her. She should have spent her time resting, but she was irrepressibly curious and hungry for experience. She acted and danced, went walking and hiking. She wrote joyful, exultant letters to Anderson, to her mother, to Auden, and lived, as she says in one poem, ‘defiant/ As the shoot, while the bare earth turns.’ On 4 January 1942, after a five-month illness contracted after a long walking trip in Vermont, she died.

In one poem, Murray takes us on a tour of a museum, where tribes and civilisations, ‘dreams in time’ like our own, finish up as artefacts or in glass cases:

The caves are sad where the archaeologists stood
Out of the old brow of the rocks the wrinkles deepen
The trees whisper like grave ancestors and draw the occult hood
Over the horizon over the head over the unspoken men.

In museums small bones show their tender stone
The Neanderthal ponderously thinks his fossiled dream
And Egypt in its case admits more weary bone
Draws the great dust from its sleep and tends the
Sleeper’s scheme.

Murray’s poems close in on details, only to pan out suddenly to huge vistas of time and space. Certain images stand out – the Neanderthal with his ‘fossiled dream’, the ‘tender stone’ that preserves their long-dead forms – even as the lines trace wave after wave of extinction and loss.

Ashbery responds to the quality in her work that resembles his own when he writes that ‘the meanings of her poems are embedded somewhere in the fluidity and irregularity of her language.’ But compared with his poems, where the voice seems to come in and out of focus, in waves of varying slackness and tautness, Murray’s is sharp and cutting; everything is bright and distinct. It’s by no means easy poetry, but if it’s difficult, the difficulty comes from the build-up of clarities, and the sensation of life being experienced faster than it can be told. She is haunted by cities, ambivalently caught up in their intellectual and sensory overload. She writes to Anderson that ‘one comes away from New York and the living and the quicker dead, the grind your bones to make my bread, and never leaves.’

Even a poem with the title ‘Spring’, potentially hackneyed and predictable, becomes something unexpected:

O but there is a laughing spring
Even little men see that
A running through the white board towns signing
A light that glints from painted steeples
A minnow-silver rain
Of all the clouds contain

Spring crackling its buds
Every instant a remark
Each brisk spanked cloud that scuds
A brief out from the invulnerable sun
The sea in May
The barking ivory spray.

Just as she never succumbs to the clichés of city poetry (romantic solitude, ironic flânerie, alienated singularity), she bypasses the clichés of nature poems. What makes ‘Spring’ so enjoyable is the way she takes the traditional tropes – growth, sap, hope, renewal etc – and makes them produce something ironic, sexual and violent:

Sap goes to the head of it all
In a leaping drunk of remembered winters
Of tattered leaves their embittered fall
Ice to the bone to the heart in jagged splinter.

Spring like a cudgel beating fat out of the land
Waves breaking off of the sand
Swaggering all sex wise and opening the sky
Waves slapping on the hard bruised sand

In ‘Poem’ (the title doesn’t give anything away, but at least it’s her title), we see something of the fullness of the life that drives her poetry, its overflow of rich particulars. ‘I would hold the many sides of love with my two hands,’ it begins. This is the fourth stanza:

It is here and now, the love, the running child, the mind,
Recall divergent sides and selves: that walk,
Move as a pattern under god, expose to the natural loom the web of kind.
Love, the child, the thought and to the crest the metaphysic hawk,
Finite conscience star-based in the vaster unspecific.

Murray is interested in systems and constructions – one of the metaphorical maker-figures evoked in her poems and letters is ‘the Architect’. Where some poets find their metaphors of making in nature, music or sculpture, Murray looks to the built environment. She pits the heady hereness and nowness of living against the structures that give it shape and hold it in. She is a poet of the senses as much as she is a poet of ideas; her ‘divergent sides and selves’ cohere not because they cancel each other out but because they invigorate and energise each other.