The Uniform House
by Jim Murphy
Negative Capability Press, 80 pp., $15.95
Jim Murphy’s third collection, The Uniform House, takes its title from a ghost sign in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. This enormous banner and the smaller, subtler advertisement, which features a man in uniform, provides a salient image for the intersections of place, loss, memories, and remnants that this collection explores. Murphy captures this and many other fading facades in these poems. This collection sees everything from the beauty of the fleeting to mistakes made in an instant, like in “The Painted Men”, which explores the “critical lack of foresight” that leads to a “million mottos for the stretched canvas of a bicep.” These uniformed men point us back to Birmingham’s tattooed brickwork.
The advertisement lies on top of other coats of ancient advertisements, and it has also been previously painted over. Likewise, these richly layered poems peel like ancient paint a “cantilevered ladder team applies/ broad strokes to the vacant building.” What we see in the surfaces and exteriors of these poems is a poet deeply rooted in central Alabama. These poems do more than simply “[roll] dream insignias into Brusque reality,”—more than simply wearing the uniform of a “full range of quality apparel”—they entrance us with their powerful rhythm and potent diction to, in the tradition of Whitman, “drum the nation home.” The uniforms become a performative, layered symbol that allows Murphy to blend the personal and historical with his vision of the south as a place in constant flux: forgetting, changing, and remembering. He looks to the landscape, people, and artifacts and asks “When did the holder/ of this memento fling it back/ over her shoulder into a ditch?”
Murphy’s vision of Birmingham as a palimpsest, whose fading ads signal a past intruding on a conscious, includes his memories of Blues singers, and his own musical life. Murphy looks at his first encounters with artistic expression, mediated through “Kool Keith” his guitar instructor. His portrait of the artist as a child “hunched/ over the instrument I would quit in six months” is humorous and poignant, the fleeting memory of a younger self realizing that “the world was greater than I’d thought.” Murphy’s poems demand that we offer our awareness to the world around us because they show us the sacred in the mundane. From going for a jog to “large fistfuls of Bazooka gum, Pixie Stix,/ mystery rings and bubba teeth,” The Uniform House imagines “unexpected funnies” everywhere it looks. In “This Paradise Valley” Murphy imagines his daughter discovering Hayden’s work, hoping “she’s wide/ awake,” and in a sense he hopes that we are all attuned to the powerful voice of history as a means of revelation and inspiration.
Murphy’s interest in the atavistic bears its own historical presence in the collection. His vision in “Almost Georgic, Alabama seeks “[d]estinations fused for a few tight seconds,/ five thousand years’ geometry draws each/ figure to the others.” The relationship between human and animal arouses an ancient “muscle/ memory” for the jogging poet, “the tracery each beat and breath provides.” Artifacts find their way into these poems, too, as in “Ancient, Immaterial” when he looks at a Roman Imperial Coin of Julius Nepos, remarking “as if/ pure gold could counteract/ the poor workmanship” and the “carelessness stuns me.” The past becomes something that he can “mock in the daylight” but is “forbidden to touch at any price.” For Murphy, memory is not limited to what is consciously recalled. In this book, memory is an event, an immediate reawakening. In “Learning Norah’s Stars” he looks to his daughter’s “coos and squeals [the] giggled/ long and flamboyant sentences” which “must be from another world.” All of these poems evoke a fierce kind of joy that embraces the past. When they look back, they do so to celebrate.
The Uniform House gives us a close look at a poet who has endured loss. In an interview with Alabama Writers’ Forum Murphy talks about personal history in the poem “By the Banks of the Mighty…”
And it’s about this really heroic thing my father did way back around 1993, when the Mississippi
River flooded huge swathes of Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky. We were living in central Illinois
then, and I remember he went down and joined a sandbagging crew way down in the heart of that
flood-stricken area. He was sixty-one years old at the time. […] That poem is about this experience,
about everyday heroism. It means a lot to me now because we lost my dad a couple of years ago, and
this book is dedicated to him. It’s not entirely about him, but of course you know how it is with
fathers and sons. There’s a good bit of that relationship, told or re-told one way or another, all the
way through it.
It is in this poem that he “turned to face [his] father, his unlikely path, […] most of all his brotherhood” only to learn that “Nothing/ remains the same for long.” One might imagine that poems that carried the weight of such a loss would be sorrowful, and these poems do carry the “ballast of two broad centuries,” but they also contain “two hundred springtimes.” To look back is to lose, but The Uniform House profits from its reflection. We are richer for these poems.
Though many of these poems are about suffering and loss, they are also ardently hopeful. Murphy’s vision of the past insists that we do more than merely grieve. His memories and encounters with the landscape are important because they are constantly searching “Through the recessed door of history” to fuel the creative impulse. Of course, Murphy’s interest in and experience with the American literary canon is everywhere apparent. The seasonal Le Petite Mortof “One October Clearing” is reminiscent of Frost’s “The Pasture.” The moment of death and rebirth in the ritual of cleaning the pasture spring is reflected in burning a leaf pile: “Gathered, prodded, doused, then lit afire—/ little death’s head at the center of the leaf pile/ grins and glows.” The release found in these poems is beautiful and powerful. It is clear what Murphy believes is the work of the poet: to collect and arrange memories and then set them aflame.