Yvonne Murphy’s Aviaries

by Jennifer Whitaker

by Yvonne Murphy
Carolina Wren Press, $15.95, 65 pp.

Given the title of Yvonne Murphy’s first book, Aviaries, it comes as no surprise that the collection is a study in scapes: the poet pulls the reader from the safety of the expected by circling and spinning us through land-, city-, and airscapes, creating poems that delight with their exuberance and avowal of both joy and sorrow. The book’s central tension is apparent in the title, suggesting a space both defined by what it contains (in this case, birds) and one that sufficiently confines that which it houses. And while many of the poems contain birds in title and content, the focus is never on the birds alone, but rather on how they interact with the human (as in “Jefferson’s Parrots”) or how their behavior serves as a metaphor for ours (as in “Nests”).The reader becomes the subject of observation as the poems take us through myriad cities, landscapes and airspaces with considerable ease. In Murphy’s poems, we aren’t allowed to sit and watch; instead, through the energy of these poems, she makes us, in effect, the things watched, as in “Hummingbirds”:

We do the dearest, small darling
movements around and near each other.

Reverse and forward, the stirring
rush buzz of your wings.

Red, the throat full of warmth
or embarrassment as we flit

and somersault—chirping and chattering

until our bodies are together
and hover.

Thus, the book’s action happens “simultaneously within us and out” (“Wonder Wheel”), as Murphy complicates the idea of the space of each poem not as a means of voyeuristic pleasure, but as a means of edification, of reflection.

The geometry of Murphy’s book is made up of circles, which bring us as close to flying as we’ll get through the likes of roller coasters and Ferris wheels, and rectangles—boxes that contain, enclose, frame. Throughout the book, the reader finds herself venturing into the air not on the wings of birds, but through manmade invention, atop a Ferris wheel, barreling in the Cyclone roller coaster next to Marianne Moore, awed by the Unisphere at the 1964 World’s Fair, or pulled metaphorically to Coney Island’s spinning Wonder Wheel. These are massive structures, each giving audiences an experience of something once thought impossible, and in this element of Murphy’s book we again get the focus on being both within and without, both the viewer and the viewed.

In “Bridge, Circle,” the poem’s organization brings into focus this complexity by first describing the experience from without—the “slow throb of pinions, popinjays / gasping at the panorama” of the Ferris wheel and the people who surround it as “perpetual, transfixed”—then moving the reader in the final stanza to the tender “personal” experience of the poem of the creator and his family:

Ferris’s wife sipped champagne on her maiden voyage, toasted her clever
husband, her gold-trimmed gown grown flush with flickers of color.
He couldn’t have predicted it would be blown up later, left in pieces under
the Mississippi River—alone in a Pittsburgh hotel room, his oversized invention
could not save him, he became another bridge suspended, turned in on itself.

The double architecture of this poem—the creation and the creator both made machine—points the reader again to the tension of what happens when we try to leave our “enclosure” (in this case, the land). The play of manmade round and looping figures is punctuated by the nine “Mona” poems that serve as the touchstones of the book, focusing as they do on the boxed-in figure of the Mona Lisa. The Mona poems reveal a character we think we know—da Vinci’s portrait—as a woman very much alive, at times lamenting her situation, dreaming, hoping, confronting her observers—indeed, at times seen even as mildly threatening, as in “Mona Lisa” (p. 21):

It’s too much.

All day, watching camera-eyed
tourists. Their bumbling
conversations (as if she didn’t
understand) discerning her
as whore.

Bored whore, she thinks—
this glass box
their only protection, the only thing
keeping her back.

So even as Mona is trapped here by her glass and frame, she lives a life full of wit, desire and presence. By now the reader has grown accustomed to, though is always surprised by, Mona’s lively, irreverent approach toward her viewers—so much so that it’s easy to imagine her living a somewhat full life as da Vinci painted her. And yet as this “Mona Lisa” poem finishes, the reader’s view of Mona is challenged when the speaker asks, “Are they blind? // She has no legs to get between” (11-12).

Like the aviaries of the book’s title, the painting itself is defined by what it contains (Mona) and her experiences are shaped by it entirely—so much so that what is outside the frame does not exist at all. And so it is that the poet edges the reader into understanding the book’s drama. Complemented and expanded by the Mona poems, the pull between the power of the birds (or Mona, or us) to define the space and the power of the space to shape the living gives us the crisis of the book: how to live rich, full lives in the face of limitations, trauma, tragedy. In the final couplet of “Tijuana and South,” the speaker asserts,

I don’t want to translate, to push on, I’m afraid I’ll see only
the broken bodies of children, angelcitos, for the rest of my life.

This is the response, in a way, to Mona’s calls throughout the book to “get me out of here” (“Scat Mona, Scat!”); once “freed,” Mona would have to figure out how to deal with not just her individual tragedy, but with the haunting tragedies of the world, as does the speaker of “On Park Row by the Brooklyn Bridge”:

Could I breathe in the world’s suffering?
Just for one second, make room. Passersby
chatter to themselves, a quartet waits at the corner,
grown men holding suitcases and holiday bags,
DOT trucks zoom past with brooms and helium.

Here the speaker, in effect, sees these tableaus in the way she would see the Mona Lisa—trapped in a single scene, locked forever in a momentary pose or thought, with unknown sufferings underneath. And, even in the face of this, the speaker responds as we imagine Mona herself might, by saying, “I feel light: So many experiences left to have!” (11). Thanks to the poems’ trenchant optimism, the book doesn’t leave us in the tragedy, but instead offers an answer for how it is that we “push on”: “Suddenly in the chill of early December, I forget to grieve” (“On Park Row” 15).

By the book’s end, we are reminded that keeping on in the midst of grief is, in fact, what living is about—because living in constant mourning for the fact that life ends itself destroys life. This is a book affirming that the way forward is to let ourselves be wowed by the strangeness and energy of the everyday, which has nothing to do with denial of tragedy and everything to do with experiencing the world in the face of grief. After all, the book asks of us, “isn’t this life’s spectacle?”

JENNIFER WHITAKER is a lecturer in English and assistant director of the University Writing Center at UNC Greensboro. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Drunken Boat, and Pebble Lake Review. She has won an Academy of American Poets prize and two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prizes.