a scrap of linen, a bone
by Ginger Murchison
Press 53, $14.95 paperback, 82 pp.
I was nervous with excitement when Ginger Murchison’s collection of poetry a scrap of linen, a bone was put into my hands this winter, and the event came as both a delight and a surprise. I have known Ginger Murchison and her work for years in journals and her chapbook Out Here, and her name is one I continually run into when looking at the many patrons of American poetry: she helped found the Poetry@Tech program at the Georgia Institute of Technology (which first introduced me to this art as an undergraduate) where she continues to serve as a McEver Visiting Chair in Poetry; she’s the Editor-in-Chief of the Cortland Review (an absolutely essential online journal of literature with more than a decade to its credit); she has found a recurring position as conference faculty for the Palm Beach Poetry Festival and a member of the Board of Trustees for the Frost Place.
Normally, I wouldn’t spend so much time on résumé business, but her presence is felt in many places that matter and it’s a name that was never gone from my mind for very long. So my real surprise upon receiving this collection was that I hadn’t seen one sooner. That reaction aside, once I had the opportunity to see the whole book with its combination of poems both familiar and new, I understood that this book was well worth the wait.
In the poems of a scrap of linen, a bone there’s a knowledge and care that I can attribute to Murchison’s patience in pursuing these poems to their respective ends, rather than rushing them into the public realm. These poems are polished and poised. They’re careful, yet unburdened by any sense of hesitation or trepidation, and there’s a quiet confidence throughout. When her poems speak, they know what they’ve seen and experienced in precise detail lay it out for us. In some ways, they feel like poems that have had a long time to develop and mature, perhaps even during the three decades of teaching before she took to writing poems. And I say this because the poems seem to have perspective and resolution, the subjects carefully considered until they found a more permanent meaning.
In fact, the first poem to the collection, “The Failure of Archaeology,” almost serves as a type of mission statement for her poetry as it’s called to forge artifacts more definitive and clear than a present far removed from the people and the past it sifts through. She separates her words from those scholars who wait until “After the ashes have cooled, / the taste of catastrophe gone / from every mouth,” replacing them with a true witness. This is the move from a secondary experience to a more primary text that has an obligation to record the world while the memories still inhabit the living. In this poem, the central tragedy of this failure is that there is:
no one left
to say what really burned there,
what words drifted
on salt air,
now that the flames have died.
Murchison’s work serves to witness lives before they become forgotten, recording them while there’s still an immediate relevance rather than a historical curiosity (even on the occasions when the poems approach more historical figures). Within her work, we get something much more substantial than just scraps, we get entire bodies rather than a few loose bones from another era.
When the poetry of witness is typically discussed, I feel that it sometimes is conflated with or raised to the level of a major reckoning as though we’re supposed to witness famine or great conflagrations that leave cities as charred toothpicks or a colonel pouring a bag of severed human ears onto a dinner table, but these poems are less of a reckoning than a broader recognition of human experience that can be regional, generational, and personal. In this collection, we get poems of a great-granddaughter, a neighbor, a wife, a naturalist, a mother, and a teacher. I personally find extensive pleasure and complexity in the speakers in this book who are both notably diverse, yet collectively whole. I appreciate knowing that across the pages, I’m not going to run into the same poem or situation twice. In some poetry collections, there’s the sense that we’re getting a moment from the poet’s life that revolves around a singular theme or temporary obsession, and while some poets can manage turning obsession into a multifaceted jewel, I confess that even more frequently I’ve had the experience that the second mention isn’t as fresh as the first, so that by the third or fourth or seventh poem in the series my attention has been worn a little thin. It’s rewarding for a collection to be so cohesive in voice while not sparing in its subjects. This allows me to see the poet’s diverse interest instead of a one-dimensional fixation, and her curiosity is contagious.
Sometimes the fascination comes from a simple memory trigger such as a photograph of a Depression-era breadline, but then the poem hones in on the specific features of the family mouth. It can come from a newspaper headline that causes the calamity of a train accident to invade the speaker’s own train journey, the irreversible fact of death spilling into the boxes of her paper’s crossword puzzle. Looking out the window at a pear tree infested with insects may reflect our own hungers that are “fatal.” The poems come from a myriad of recognizable and sometimes ordinary places, but the end result is unexpected and transformational rather than predictable, and I enjoy them in a myriad of unexpected ways. The collection’s final poem “Delta to West Palm” has its speaker receive the gift of an orange from a stranger’s toddler before watching a nearby passenger in a tuxedo as he “lowers his tray table and the one between us / to spread an oversized musical score” which he conducts within his own world. This is an interesting-enough image on its own, but becomes much more special when punctuated with a final realization: “Three times in an hour, I am lifted.”
While not every poem attempts to be so uplifting—sometimes there’s the anger of a mother who wants to (but cannot) slap the child who jokes “Check out the retard” in reference to her daughter or a wife who reflects on an impending future waking up alone after her husband dies—they’re all mightily enriching emotionally; they can take us to difficult places and make some sense of the experience. Even poems that focus on larger regional and historical concerns—a mother taking “Wartime Measures” in daytime canning and night shifts in a Boeing manufacturing plant, a Kansas farmer’s “Honor System” trusting neighbors to pay for their wares during drought, Annie Edison’s calculated barrel ride over 150 feet of waterfalls at age sixty-three, a room full of unopened suitcases discovered in the back of a closed mental asylum—never feel without a voice or personality. There’s clearly a sense of personal investment despite the speaker’s willingness to observe and be a secondary character. Ginger Murchison’s poems clearly have a deep-seated respect for their subjects, and can serve as cultural artifacts, a collective memory for us to share, one that doesn’t require the scholarly salvation from historians and archeologists.