In the "throw-things house" where the speaker of Patricia Colleen Murphy's debut collection Hemming Flames grows to adulthood, a father asks of his wife, "could you / try not to murder yourself / in front of the children." Murphy opens with Bolsheviks; her mother, a Stanford graduate, communist, a woman with mental illness; and the speaker finding her mother after another suicide attempt. This entry into the family is casual, the implication that it's a commonplace occurrence, that at the dinner table, peas passed in irritation, we come to that query and enter into a family with more to show than can fit in a dining room window peek, so the pane (pain) is thrown wide open.
Murphy's playful nature makes this collection a resolute, deep-thinking, tribute to dark humor. Lines that turn and crackle with wit—an "on-call oncologist," "pandemonium lessons," "Maybe I'm Miss Remembering"—on and on the wordplay sparks, laughs with the reader, challenges perception. Cracks the window through which we peer.
A flirtatious, challenging mother seen through an adult's recollection, this collection has the audacity of acceptance, the view that her mother was wholly flawed and flagrantly affected by her illness but is stunningly absent judgement (though not anger). So too is it absent the victimization casting of the roles in the book. The parents stop just short of villain and stand firmly as catalysts to their own destruction. Murphy positions the collection at all times in the controlled pace of a panning lens versus an exploratory confessional. There is never a moment when the reader might feel as though Murphy has used the page to shock, or to assuage a need for vengeance. There is no victim here except, perhaps, the mother to herself. The brother, to his own rip tides.
The hand we hold is one of a stable, perceptive, deft poet.
The poet reveals the effects of an adolescence scrying an uncertain future in tight quarters and never lets the reader step back. We're granted access to the slow, deliberate fracturing of the family in the dining room. A crack moves across the glass, another breaks off the first, and the glass doesn't shatter so much as it just keeps cracking again, and again, and again. Our view spiderwebs and chips, but holds, and readers press faces to glass, Murphy's hand at the back of their necks, urging them closer. The poet never asks if we can handle the blows.
A brother agoraphobic, mother traversing the worlds of a turbulent mind, "Think of the courage it took for me to touch a doorknob" the speaker asks in "Scrotum and Bone."
This collection is a series of a momentous pauses that catch the reader up in earnest bereavement of the family at the center of the threaded narrative. Hemming Flames is the case study of one family, twenty years in the making, with a tempered control of execution—a profundity of content which reads like the catechism of a woman awakened.
Hemming Flames is published by Utah State University Press.
Patricia Colleen Murphy holds degrees from Miami University and Arizona State University. She teaches creative writing at ASU where she is the founding editor of the literary magazine Superstition Review. Her poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, and American Poetry Review, among others. Her poems have received awards from Glimmer Train Press, The Southern California Review, Gulf Coast, The Madison Review, and Bellevue Literary Journal. She lives in Phoenix, AZ.
Reviewed by CL Black, managing editor, Hayden's Ferry Review