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Thomas Fink reviews

Incessant Seeds
by Sheila E. Murphy

88 pp. Pavement Saw Press. US $12. 1-886350-67-1 paper

This review is 1,600 words
or about 5 printed pages long

See-through sacraments

Formally, Incessant Seeds returns to a kind of experiment that has proved fruitful for Sheila E. Murphy in such previous long poems as Teth and Tommy and Neil. In her Introduction, she explains that the poem consists of “14-syllable lines and 14 lines” in each stanza. There are 84 unnumbered pages, each with a 14 line stanza and a single-line break after every line. Commas frequently appear, but there are no periods; the reader has to determine where s/ he thinks a sentence ends. “Such a rule-based flow,” Murphy asserts, “has the capacity of allowing a wide range of subject areas, perspectives, concerns, and swatches of language equivalent to musical phrases”; for her, “rule-based composition leads the mind to find and gather like-sounding, like-shaped arrangements.”

Murphy’s remarks here certainly apply to Incessant Seeds, a long poem of various topics, unsettling transitions between topics, rich “swatches” of indeterminacy, and a singular musicality that overwhelms a reader merely hunting for signifieds. The opening passage, which introduces one recurrent theme, a dialogue with religious institutions, exemplifies the musical environment of Murphy’s text:

How many moot points does it take to move a mantra, how

Does divinity compare to home loan depth, or is this

Furniture we’re levitating from the underneath points

Of antipathy where listening reflects the spaces

We can recollect, simply regard the blue air loose in

Tangents fitted to the waistband of some hybrid creed, wind

Differentiates a salt day from a dry day from rain-

Light in its op-ed straight-line depreciation that makes

Philosophical renditions of diplomacy seem

Threads of reflex conversation . . . .

Although not one line of iambic hexameter appears, lines sometimes begin with a trochee or spondee or two, drift gently toward an iambic norm, and then depart from it. In the first line, the alliteration involving “m” intersects with the subtler presence of “t” in various positions in a word and, also, with assonance including a variety of “o” and “oo” sounds; in the second, “d” alliteration replaces “m,” but the variety of “o” sounds persists, and the near rhyme of “home loan” (a familiar term tweaked by the phonically distinctive “depth”) intensifies this. The impressive variety of long and short vowel sounds in line six plays against the fact that half of the line’s words end with “d.” In general, the contrast of monosyllables and polysyllables (suspended in the five-word line eight) creates a strong balance.

Throughout the poem, Murphy exhibits skepticism about “the grand scheme, fattened/ By the grand scheme makers themselves charred with speculation/ Infinitely spurious.” What Lyotard would call the “postmodern” critique of “metanarratives” never becomes obvious or stale. On the contrary, figurative accretions tend to submerge statement:

See-through sacraments delay the pulse of monetary

Governance, if it’s all the same to you I’d like my soul

Back to its original incision, breaded fish light

Comfort stoic forms of creased amends, impactful fissure

Where seams used to be the netherware recoiled from winter

As the skin rehearses prayer, slowly evenly parched

In the way of track lighting . . . .

Sacramental transparency, religious transport without the usual mediations, does not prevent but only “delays” the impact of economic forces. Almost reproducing the old cliché of spiritual autonomy, Murphy adds “to its original incision” to indicate that the soul exists by virtue of a (violent?) operation, perhaps on the body. The speaker wants the soul to be resituated in its “original” “place,” but the images that follow immediately in this grammatically indeterminate “sentence” are so far from “see-through” that origins cannot be discerned. For one thing, “light,” “comfort,” and “form” can be verbs or nouns. If “fish” is often a trope for Jesus, “breaded fish” alludes to an uninspiring, non-redemptive staple of an ordinary American diner. All “amends” for disruptions of spiritual unity are complicated (“creased”) by Murphy’s ever-imaginative departures from linear meditation. The mention of “fissure” suggests that such a gap is a primary form (deformation) of communicative exchange that is posited in opposition to former “seams,” “the netherware” or undergarment of common transactions. If “the skin rehearses prayer,” does it eventually actualize direct communion with the divine, or is there a “fissure” between the potentials of body and soul? The poet lets us renew our acquaintance with this puzzle.

Atonement, one feature of individual submission to religious orthodoxy, turns out to be an object of Murphy’s skeptical gaze: “She squalls mirth to replicate an atoned mentality/ Bless me father for I have sinned, and then the vitriol/ Beneath what made her drive retorts into the surfaces/ So they would remain immune to reason, so that they/ Would outlast falsehood . . . .” The mention of “vitriol” clarifies that “she” does not wholeheartedly repeat a ritual of atonement, which, oddly enough, involves a “storm” (“squall”) of “mirth,” not gravity. “Reason” is strangely linked by parallelism to “falsehood,” which in turn is based on “conscious aptitude for being lied to . . . .” Murphy is probably referring to a particular instrumental reason, probably the logic of Catholic confession italicized in the second line, as deceptive. She goes on to mention “effigies made half alert and preyed upon,” and the pray/ prey pun reinforces the sense of how icons are used to manipulate the faithful.

The stanza two pages later begins with a sense of a church’s leader’s fallibility (not the Pope’s traditionally asserted infallibility), as well as an appeal for acknowledgment of what has gone wrong: “Millennial refractive sores escape the notice of/ A pontiff one of us implores to make a clean breast of/ The nonsense we insist is going on unclaimed….” And two pages after that, in a section that goes on to speak of “the limits of our disbelief” surfacing and to include images of ominous industrial pollution in “the stratus quo,” Murphy uses intricate word-play to voice an even tougher critique: “Tender a resignation not your own, fanaticize/ Preemptive strikes against a sense not uncommonly owned/ By Vatican sources of contentment . . . .” The reader is encouraged to resign from fatalistic resignation, from inherited beliefs that promote passivity and thus inhibit positive choices. S/ he must not only “fantasize” an attack on the notion of a heavenly afterlife but be “fanatical” about it — perhaps to counter the grip that “Vatican sources” of thought have on the consciousness of believers.

Sometimes, a quiet, meditative, or decentered beginning of a section will give way to polemical motions. For example, after praise for a loyal friend or lover and acknowledgment of the resource of “subcutaneous bedrock/ Relativity” — in other words, a simultaneous flexibility and solid confidence (characteristic of Murphy’s work) — the poet uses various striking tropes to register dismay at patriarchal influences:

Toys for us to splay across intensive care as signs of

True found butter-fluency a cyclic form of distance

Lofted in the bluebonnet of cortisone injected

Where it is supposed to hurt but does not altogether

Outsource feeling due to the incessant monitoring

Of a kind of hostile cloth draped over female faces

Female forces, female strides across arched locked land toned

To bits and tossed over to clandestine spoiled agreements .

Like many others in the poem, this passage has a plethora of conjunctions and prepositions that do not exactly tell us how clauses and phrases are connected to one another. As resistant as this is to the imposition of narrative coherence, a feminist ethos is unmistakable. In the clash of “toys” and “intensive care” (which, after all, could be a reference to the strenuous care of the self as well as an ominous hospital unit), there is a collision of manipulated “need” and actual urgency. “Butter-fluency” could be a desirable form of grace, but the term “bluebonnet,” referring to a brand of butter advertised cheerfully to appeal to “housewives” and linked here with “cortisone” injection, has a sinister edge.

Though bruited as an empowerment of women, plastic surgery can be said instead to constitute a restriction of “female forces” and “strides” through accommodation to societal pronouncements about what kinds of appearance are acceptable or not. The individual almost “outsources” her “job” of expressing emotion (on the basis of her own beliefs and perceptions) by internalizing (partially?) the social values of those wielding “hostile cloth” and doing “the incessant monitoring.” The veil imposed on women in Islamic countries to “protect” them is implicitly related to western cosmetic surgery. And women’s strides are not “torn” but “toned/ To bits” — that is, oppression in the “postfeminist” U.S. can become a matter of nuance or hegemonic shading that reduces women’s better possibilities rather than violent thralldom. Since the reference to “outsourcing” evokes corporate culture’s cynical indifference to working people in the U.S., the entire section bespeaks a general resistance to antidemocratic stratagems that a variety of institutions employ.

Several sections of Incessant Seeds represent relatively clear childhood memories: “I would go upstairs and listen to my stereo, then/ I would plan achievements by delving into things that I/ Could do in twelves rather than simply twos, I would redeem/ My life by pushing breath into the flute . . . .” Such sections, like those exploring erotic or family love, might stand in contrast to restrictive social forces cited earlier because they celebrate the capacity for individual freedom to expand imaginative and productive possibilities: “I would amend the given constitution/ I would expertise my way through unlimited finesse….”

To flourish as a reader of this poem, one must be prepared to encounter a new “amendment” at any point, but after a while, the dialogic interplay between forces of liberation/ individuation and those of authoritarian constraint becomes apparent. Is this interplay the poem’s organizing principle? I don’t know: the language will not stand still long enough for a snapshot: “or else we censure/ Sterling inconsistencies that splice our edified tuned-/ Into-corrective-action templates transformed into ten/ Different alternatives….”

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