I think I heard about Joan Murray via an article in The New Yorker by Dan Chiasson. What jumped out at me was a poem short enough for him to quote in full:

Three mountains high,

O you are a deep and marvelous blue.

It was with my palms

That I rounded out your slopes;

There was an easy calmness,

An irrelevant ease that touched me

And I stretched my arms and smoothed

Three mountains high.

I rarely remember in detail anything I read on the internet, but this poem stuck with me: it has a sort of slant symmetry to it, an incantatory quality, a mysterious momentum. I love that the word “irrelevant” is used instead of “irreverent,” and I love that calmness is modified with “easy.” The poem’s design is small even as its scale expands so that the speaker can hold mountains in her arms. It expanded in my mind after I read it, acquired a prismatic quality. I found a collection of her poems shortly after that.

She had a short, strange life. She was born in 1917 and died before her 25th birthday, leaving behind a body of work largely incomplete and fragmentary. Toward the end of her wayward, largely self-directed education, Murray took a few classes in poetry from Auden at The New School and sought out his feedback. Before then, she had studied acting and dance, but it was her encounter with Auden that prompted her to focus on poetry and to produce most of her extant written work. Her mother blamed her death (from the heart condition she had since youth) on Auden, who had prompted her compositional mania. Grant Code, the editor who prepared her poems for posthumous publication, described her papers as “a confusion: pages of prose mixed with pages of verse and scarcely two pages of anything together that belonged together.” Her poetry existed at the time of her death in a stage of complete disarray, as it was largely all still in the process of being written and edited. 

The exuberance of this brief period of composition is palpable in the writing. There’s an unschooled sincerity, an absence of being weighed down by what came before her. It feels like she is perpetually stumbling on her own ability to send sparks flying. Her poetry finds unexpected connections between images, juxtapositions that have a mysterious, incantatory energy. It’s unsparingly sharp, with little connective tissue, jumping from vague impressions to deep feeling and back again. The strength of her images insists on meaning that must be disentangled from the surface texture, which is often grammatically ambiguous and sparsely punctuated. Take this untitled poem, which opens as follows: 

Instinct and sleep you are two passages that converge 

Two faces that stare and reflect back one vision 

The sea and the night both stir their profound surge 

Each shouldering the boundary of their prison.

A man who has raised the inhibited line of off horizon

Will stretch his thought to the beach where two converge.

The poem begins by setting up an opposition that wanders into a metaphor and runs with it, then introduces an inexplicable character, creating convolutions in its structures of meaning that aren’t entirely clear on the surface. It’s also possible that this first stanza is just the product of a wandering mind — the image of the sea simply letting sleep reverberate through it. She has this way of remaining declarative and knotty all at once, delivering ambiguities emphatically. 

She writes with themes in mind, though, themes that become more apparent the more one reads her. Her repository of images is more schematic than it appears at first, tending toward the Classic and pastoral. She frequently uses the image of small, insular groups of people, marriage, heady admiration and longing (which can bring Sappho to mind — she gets a mention in the poem “Ascetic: Time Misplaced”). She finds in water (especially the ocean) a metaphor for instinct and indeterminacy. The sea appears as a kind of Dionysian force, symbolizing intuition and sensuality alongside the immateriality and uncertainty of the mind. Just as frequently, the built environment stands in for human agency and ambition and all we want to accomplish in the world. These two opposing poles are frequently played off each other. In one of her only titled poems, “The Builder,” “the young of the people” insist that “it is the action of water that is the nearest thing to man.” They are rejoined to remain at their task — “We’re building towers of Babel that will crumble down before dawn.” The striking fourth stanza of the builder recounts an intense desire: “If there is sea I want to pack it up in my arms / And let the blue globe of all that water fill in my mouth / Rill up my head, my chest, burst out of the sullen seed of my loin.”

The built environment is a central concern of hers more generally. Buildings are the product of the mind that change their meaning by being lived in, a canny metaphor for cultural production and the weight of history. She has multiple poems that use an architect as a sort of archetypal figure. She frequently imagines her architect as “unemployed,” dreaming about possibility without being able to act.  To me, this misses according with Ayn Rand if only because she devotes pages and pages of poetry to the lives of workers. She has poems that examine the builders who enact the designs of architects and devotes special attention to the small country houses she saw in Vermont. More anecdotally, Farnoosh Fathi, in her introduction to the 2017 NYRB edition of her poems, quotes her as once self-describing as a “labor-unionist or communist” Joan of Arc, which is the kind of image that would sound ridiculous from anyone else but just about fits her. She makes a convincing mystic and has the same fervor.

Like Joan of Arc, Murray has a kind of lowercase “q” queerness about her, intimations that never really rise to the surface. She describes husbands hypothetically in her pastoral poems, but her own devotions, both in poetry and prose, are to other women. She has two poems, “Ego Alter Ego” and “On Dit!” that recount extended gazes on women, the former close by the sea (again), and the latter during a candlelit night. Fathi opens her selection of Murray’s correspondance with a jaw-dropping letter to the novelist Helen Anderson that opens with something that feels like erotic worship. “Dear Helen, I am held speechless in the hands of some spirit indefinite and prostrate. Oh, believe me, the nights slip an endless chain of thought to where the curve of your body and the subtle uplift of the neck and head are pillowed, and I may only dream that perhaps there is a traced loveliness that is your thought, lingering for a moment in the vacuum of a moment’s shadow or a moment’s life.” It’s possible that she means this in what is ultimately a chaste way, but it’s also undeniable that this breathless sentence speaks for itself.

There’s another poem, again with the sea as a figure, where Murray writes of her own relationship to womanhood. “I am slender as the stalk and have my own flowering / I don’t draw from women but I prefer the truth and not the trick of living / Therefore I walk by women as the sea ponders by the shore.” This poem reminded me that Murray frequently writes about women, elaborately describes them, but rarely inhabits them — that she sees herself as somehow outside of not just heterosexual society but outside of the category “woman” itself.

I don’t really know what I mean by all this. Overreading, probably. It sometimes feels like a kind of joke for someone’s favorite poet to be an incredibly obscure woman who died very young. I sometimes try to advocate for her and usually end up falling flat on my face. I’ve been trying to write this essay for a long time and still feel like I haven’t succeeded. Whenever I show people her poetry its surface inscrutability rises again to the surface. Later, of course, the poems expand to their previous size in my mind.

Fathi closes her introduction with a dedication: “This book is especially for all young women poets who see themselves in her.” I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom her unflagging exuberance speaks to an inner voice, one contending with the watery energies of my mind. I want to find a voice for all the conflicts within me, the thoughts that drift and collide with each other, to articulate the roiling drama of my mind in a way that doesn’t feel facile or unimportant. Sometimes when I write I feel like I can hear her pacing the floor above me, like the architect she returned to over and over again, and I’m reminded of what she wrote in a letter: “I do see how it could be done and if I am unable to handle it yet, I know that it must come.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *