Sheila E Murphy’s very American Ghazals

Sheila E Murphy. American Ghazals (Otoliths 2012).

Since I collaborate with Sheila E Murphy on a long poem, Continuations, I may be seen as biased, And I am: have been ever since I came across her superbly titled & terrific Selected poems, Falling in Love Falling in Love with You, Syntax. Readers who wish to can read what follows with that in mind, but it’s just another of my reviews of books I like.

In her short but pithy Preface to American Ghazals, Sheila E Murphy acknowledges the ancient tradition while pointing to the way the translated tradition of ‘American’ (or, really, English-language) ghazals proves so useful to many poets, including her. The results of her research & creativity, this set of 60 ghazals delights, exhilarates, provokes both thought & empathy. American Ghazals is very much a 21st century work, with all the slippery connections between the couplets readers expect, plus delightfully quick allusive grabs at the zeitgeist of now.

Take 22, for example:

Accidental friendship spaces itself, so psyche turns
to sponge, inhering and eventually releasing.

Together we enjoy the common area, a difference
between legal and ethical, regardless of desire to speak.

In America, one takes a class before claiming
to know a thing, at which point one teaches a class.

A meadow returns, by way of the olfactory,
moments that have meaning in the fore-life we now live.

Amber necklace that belonged to her is mine,
the mild opacity of separate pieces.

There’s a slip in each couplet, the third being the funniest. That’s the hidden connective, but there are political undertones, &, for some, a lovely remembrance of a famous poem, & poet that’s a demonstration of how memory is itself a kind of poetics. Every couplet makes grammatical sense, but all engage & explore the possibilities of that ‘mild opacity.’

So the couplets are complete in themselves & part of a larger mosaic, not just each ghazal, but the whole volume, in which writing, music, visual art, community, love, & the sheer complexity of living, among others, fade & cohere, escape & suddenly become the focus of attention/attentiveness. These poems circle back to earlier images, allusions, poems: they allow the feel of the deeply personal while giving away little (especially of the ‘confessional’) biography. In that sense they are ‘open’ in a most ‘American’ sense of innovative poetics. American Ghazals is a fitting addition to Murphy’s superb & growing oeuvre.

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