What does loss mean in America? We take it for granted that here middle-class people with good jobs, vacations, and retirement plans live protected from much of the ordinary horror of human life in other parts of the planet. It would be a mistake, though, to think that in what used to be called “the first world,” loss has been minimized or somehow doesn’t exist. It may be that in such circumstances loss takes center stage precisely when it cannot be ascribed to great outside events, to wars, revolutions, famines, and all the acts of God excluded by insurance policies. Americans are not able to comfort themselves by saying everything will be better after the political situation improves or after the next harvest.
This situation is one that confronts American poets on a daily basis. Poets are mythmakers. They take their losses, personal and otherwise, and create lyric, that odd descendant of song and story. They take events in their lives and use them as occasions for exploring the historical, emotional, and intellectual realities that are larger than themselves. This is the context in which I read Nancy Murphy’s debut collection, The Space Carved by the Sharpness of Your Absence. Her job as a poet is to bring us, her readers, into the events of her life and show us their significance for our lives as well, to make us see more clearly and feel more deeply.
Murphy’s poems use the absence in the book’s title as a reference point, a sort of homing beacon that provides a way for her to find out where she is at any given moment, but I don’t want to give the impression that the book is limited to the subject of loss. Some of its best moments are erotic. In “Lipstick,” one of the book’s finest poems, she recounts the sexual gestures and hierarchies of American office work:
Work was a world
of men—suits, shiny leather, sleek
briefcases, endless algorithms
of blue, gray, and stripe. I understood
the rules. I liked the rules. I thought
the rules would protect me. My skirted
suits the length and tightness
to reveal me female but not secretary,
brightly colored paisleys around
my neck (easily untied).
Soon I would discover the office
was bursting with indiscretions,
invisible to me through the haze
of our after-hours drinking. I thought
it was only me misbehaving, staring
across the floor at him longer
than is incidental, feeling that series
of small clicks when we first talked,
a locksmith shifting a dial,
making my insides tumble.
The poem ends with the reflection, “I never / imagined this could be habit forming.”
The poet does not shy away from judging the world and herself with the “cold eye” that W.B. Yeats recommended, but notably, she is without regret. This is one of the most appealing aspects of the collection. Murphy has experienced both leaving and being left, the death of a parent, a child growing up and leaving home, the end of a marriage where she was the one who left, and the knowledge that everything ends somehow. She accepts this—perhaps more than “accepts,” “chooses this”—because absence and loss are the occasion of desire. The exploration of the absence promised by the title takes place in a world of opposites where each depends on the other in order to exist. The first poem in the book, “What I Want You to Know,” perfectly describes/enacts this relationship:
I choose to live in the spaces
carved by the sharpness
of your absence.
It’s not what you think.
Neglect becomes me, my desire
gathers and elongates so that
if our shoulders should touch
when we walk, you know,
the heat in me catches
like a burner. And you can see
a small opening between
my lips where steam escapes.
Desire gathers in that space occasioned by loss, and it is a powerful, disruptive force. “Aftermath,” another one of my favorites, begins with the declaration: “After my mother died, I left my husband. / He had always been a rock / but I had stumbled upon someone more / like fire, and I needed to ignite….” In “Dimming,” she tells us what leaving feels like: “Sometimes a mandarin / is so ripe that its skin wants / to be peeled, falls away / as your fingers get close, / pockets of air under the surface // waiting for release.” Only a poet committed to an honest self-examination can write this kind of image. There is nothing dramatic about either leaving or being left. Like entropy, it simply happens.
Murphy does not seek or offer certainty, and if she has pity, it is a pity for everyone, not just for the man she left because, as she unabashedly puts it in “Betty, Poolside,” “he would not swim naked with me / in the dark in the pool behind / the fence at our house.” “Fluency,” written to the one no longer loved, is as close to an apology as she gets:
The guilt of leaving you burns not without a little
pleasure. I am alive and well and living I want to say.
I am sorry, I think. Sorry to write back with no
ambivalence, there is no subtext between
us anymore. The one I am with is the one
I am with. We are all so flawed, moving
from one person to the other just raises hope.
These lines are a good example of Murphy’s subtlety. Knowingly, she denies one kind of ambivalence, her feelings for her former partner, while opening herself to the larger ambivalence, whether love without ambivalence is possible at all.
One of the fascinating realizations of The Space Carved by the Sharpness of Your Absence is that ambivalence is an inevitable result of the awareness of loss. Afterwards, we see the world differently. In “It’s a long way,” Murphy is on a road trip through Ireland with her partner in what is also a space created by absence, in this case the absence of their day-to-day lives. There is shared intimacy and shared frustration. Murphy explains: “We need to / be here, to remember what keeps us together, to spend hours / in a car where the silence slices both ways.” To be with someone requires the possibility of not being with that person. Referring to what appears to be the same relationship, she writes:
Together ten years now
and I still call him new, this is just how
I talk, tell myself I’m free, remind
myself that I could be reduced to ashes
There is a wise edginess here that Murphy cultivates, knowing that the erotic requires choice and that without the erotic, love is reduced to obligation. Ambivalence becomes a way to achieve balance.
While Murphy is a poet whose focus is on her own consciousness and emotions, she is not a “confessional poet.” She is far too savvy. She comes from a generation that learned to distrust confession, to understand how easily it can become performance. In Dublin, she watches “a young / girl weaving around slow walkers, / jumping across narrow streets / as buses bear down.” When the girl steps into “a basement coffeehouse” and takes off her coat and scarf, “her heat / and secrets release into the room,” “the smell a mix / of sweat, / sandalwood / and recklessness.” Murphy moves the next six lines to the right-hand margin and confides in the reader:
A girl tries to keep her secrets close,
They are the mistakes she yearns to make.
A woman knows the currency
what it can buy, how you pay, how it
She wants to tell the girl of the poem “it takes a woman / a lifetime to know / if she is real or only appears so / in a mirror.” (“Heat and Other Burnings”) To be “real” is to understand that the cost of desire, just like the cost of being alive, is loss. Murphy is real. She not only understands the cost but she chooses it.
Another pleasure of this collection is the transparency of the verse. Murphy does not, as Auden would put it, “ruin a fine tenor voice for effects that bring down the house.” The lines are cadenced and refuse to draw attention to themselves, favoring instead the naturalness of speech. They are conversational in the best possible way, and that relaxed quality enables the reader to move in, sit down, and get comfortable, much as we do when reading a well-written novel. The poet wants us to experience the narrative embedded in these lyrics, not to ignore the aesthetic elements but also not to be distracted by them. Murphy will not let us forget that her poems enact the history of a human life and that they exist in order to recover that which has been lost.
“After Life,” the last poem in the book, speaks directly about these lost things she recovers in her poetry. Like Milosz, who believed in the heresy of apokatastasis, where all things will be restored in their glory, Murphy imagines a space after this life where she can recover vanished things, the sapphire ring her husband had given her during her pregnancy and that she had lost “taking my small / daughter out of the car.” She writes that “After this life, / I would find that ring and wear it / again, not in apology just proof of something that mattered.” This is the worldview of all the poems in this lovely, courageous book, and it is also what makes them so valuable. Murphy’s subject is the life she has lived, and continues to live, in a space occasioned by loss. She does not seek validation of her choices, and she does not apologize for them. Her poems are “just proof of something that mattered.”