Hemming Flames, by Patricia Colleen Murphy
Winner of the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award
Utah State University Press, 2016
Reviewed by Dayna Patterson
Hemming Flames. The title of Patricia Colleen Murphy’s debut collection suggests an impossible task—sewing the insubstantial, thread incinerating in the process. The book centers on Murphy’s experience in a dysfunctional family. With an alcoholic father, an unstable mother, and a food- and porn-addicted brother, the main speaker of the poems, the daughter, falters in her attempts to hem flames.
The arrangement of the collection is more or less chronological, moving from the daughter’s youth in the first several poems, to the daughter’s adulthood, her voluntary removal from the toxicity of her family, her parents’ eventual deaths during the same year, and, finally, a tentative resolution.
The dominant subject that emerges in these poems is that of the sick mother, whose multiple suicide attempts slash her daughter with guilt. In the poem “Cutlass Ciera,” the daughter recalls:
. . . How you tried
to taste volts the day my brother was born.
And, a bit later:
you watered yourself like a little
daffodil—splash, splash, splash
across your roots. (10)
The mother waters herself with gasoline and lights a match. Of all the suicide attempts, this is the one that is “hardest to forgive”:
. . . that burning
Oldsmobile, the Sheriff who nearly died saving
you, the skin grafts, the methodone. Why? (10)
Murphy writes these confessional poems with deep honesty, channeling Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman in their poignant bleakness. Berryman saw his father commit suicide outside his bedroom window when he was 12 and was haunted by the incident for the rest of his life. Tragically, the poet committed suicide himself by jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis in the middle of winter. In Murphy’s poem “Bridges All Over the Room,” the daughter, forced to early maturity, begs the mother in a disconcerting reversal of roles:
to think like Berryman
since there are bridges
all over the room. (2)
Murphy clearly feels a kinship with Berryman as she evokes his ghost in the white spaces of this poem. The gaps also convey the halting terror of living with someone who is suicidal.
Sexton is another clear influence in Murphy’s work, and she gives a strong nod to the poet in her poem “Reading Sexton in Phuket.” She notes how Anne Sexton’s nervous breakdowns occurred only ten years before her mother’s:
Anne is breaking down, a decade before my own Anne.
What comes through in this poem is the speaker’s fear that she may also break down and fall into mental illness:
. . . I’m contemplating
losing my mind.
But she resists. In the poem she says:
I am using the pill to skip a period so I can swim
unplugged in the Andaman sea
Breaking the cycle of her period becomes a metaphor for trying to detach herself from her mother’s legacy. The daughter is not successful alone:
My period comes, spotting my polka dot bikini.
I’ve failed in my own annihilative way.
What follows her failure to break the cycle are two stanzas in which internal rhyme and Mother Goose meter indicate a dissolution into insanity, into the absurd:
I turn some pages. I can’t tell where Anne is.
And now where is the man? Where is the Andaman?
Catch me if you can. Anne is in the corner.
Anne falls down the stairs. Anne is in the bedroom.
Anne is on the chair. Anne pours out the whiskey.
Anne is in the shower. Anne applies her make-up.
Anne hikes to the tower.
The speaker and the poem snap out of this dangerous gyrating only with the help of an outsider, the speaker’s beloved:
. . . And a man calls my name.
Beautiful? He says. Up for a swim? (26)
The internal rhyme and hammering meter are broken. I find this a gorgeous and telling moment, not only in the poem, but in the collection. Murphy offers a glimpse of salvation, one sunray slitting gray strata.
It is a brief moment of clarity, though, in a collection tempered by absurdism. Murphy’s poems return to the irrationality and danger of “hemming flames.” They return to the myth of Sisyphus and his endless rock-pushing. If we feel hope for the daughter after her year of grieving for her parents, hope tips sideways in the last poem, “With a Whimper,” when we discover:
Doctor put me on the stare-pills.
I can’t feel my distal parts.
Yesterday I invented fire.
Today I’m hemming flames. (64)
Throughout the collection, Murphy juxtaposes powerful images to form a composite picture of familial disaster. In these wrenching poems, Murphy is unafraid to look pain in the face and give it a name, a shape. But beware: there isn’t a lot of padding on her walls; you’ll come away bruised.
DAYNA PATTERSON, chocolate hound and Shakespeare junkie, is the Managing Editor of Bellingham Review. One of her essays appears in the collection Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage, released by University of Illinois Press (2016). She is also the Poetry Editor for Psaltery & Lyre and Exponent II Magazine. Her poetry has appeared in North American Review, Literary Mama, Weave, Clover, and others.