Thursday, April 21, 2016

Book Review/Analysis on Joan Murray's "SWIMMING FOR THE ARK" by Christal Rice Cooper . . .

Christal Cooper

Excerpts given copyright privilege by White Pine Press.

The Beggar, The Spiritualist, & The Seeker
*A Book Analysis On Joan Murray’s 
Swimming For the Ark New & Selected Poems 1990-2015 

White Pine Press published Joan Murray’s fifth poetry collection Swimming For The Ark New And Selected Poems 1990-2015 on March 3, 2015.

Swimming for the Ark is the first book to be published by White Pine Press’s new Distinguished Poets Series funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Murray has also written four other poetry collections:  The Same Water (Wesleyan) which earned her the Wesleyan New Poets Series Competition; Looking for the Parade (W.W. Norton & Company), which was chosen by Robert Bly as the winner of the National Poetry Series Open Competition; Queen of the Mist (Beacon Press), which was chosen by Joyce Carol Oates as the runner up for a Poetry Society American award, and earned Murray her first Broadway commission; and, Dancing on the Edge (Beacon Press).

She has also edited three poetry anthologies:  Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times (Beacon Press), Poems to Live by in Troubling Times (Beacon Press), and The Pushcart Book of Poetry: the Best Poems from 30 Years of the Pushcart Prize (Pushcart Press). 

Swimming For The Ark New & Selected Poems 1990-2015, 203 pages, is divided into five sections: from each of her four poetry collections, and “New Poems,” the first section in the book. 
There are three dominant themes in this collection:  that of the beggar, the spiritual, and the seeker.  
The beggar is defined as a person or creature that has exceeded all resources and capabilities of acquiring something that is necessary for physical life.  The beggar, in the process of begging, also makes it understood that he, she, or it will never be able to return the favor, the gift, nor the payment.   

Murray uses spiritual symbolism throughout the collection to impact her poems:  images of Jesus, Peter, Mother Mary, Thomas, scenes from parables Jesus told, and other spiritual elements are detected throughout her poetry.  In many of the poems the speaker of the poem is a little girl who portrays herself and her mother as the Mother Mary.     

Finally ingrained in all of humanity regardless if we are focused on begging for food or for spiritual awakening – there is the seeker in all of us, the seeker of a quest – the drive to find and discover something we don’t have and can not be granted by physical means such as food, clothing or shelter. 
At first I, as the reader, was only focusing on the “beggar” aspect of these poems but felt disjointed.  There was also spirituality and a quest theme in these poems that could not be denied.

In “What Was Expected” a woman encounters opossum – which in this poem is the beggar – begging the woman for food.    The woman experiences a sense of god-like power by comparing herself to Jesus’s disciple Peter.  She tries to practice her god-like power and convince herself that she could turn this opossum into a cat.  She opens the door, only to have the opossum back away in fear, abandoning the cat’s bowl of food.  She describes the opossum as a beggar, inserting even more spiritual metaphors- that of comparing the opossum to baby Jesus.

because he guessed, dumb beggar, I wouldn’t pursue him,
only leave him to his hunger and the dicey scraps of winter
as the stars did in December when he came.

The beggar in  “The Gypsy Child” is a mouse the reader is warned to stay away from, similar to the pig that Christ warned us to stay away from, and a warning of what would happen if we went near the pig – it would be like throwing out precious pearls into the swine.    In this poem the pig is the mouse and the pearls are the sugar. 

There is a twist – the speaker of the poem becomes the predator to the beggar by condemning the mouse to death by allowing it to gorge on the sugar. 

Give the mouse the run of your house
and it will beat a path to your bag of sugar
and gorge itself with a happiness that
could move you to tears, which is what
I gave it, right there –with my fingers
in the mess it had left with me.

The woman regrets the way she treated the mouse and feels guilty for not having sympathy for the beggar mouse, only to realize that she is the beggar in spiritual need.

And now I’m left with what I’ve lost –
the simple capacity to be stirred by simple things

The woman deems the humanity problem is not due to the amount of food begged for or the amount of good granted but the human race loosing the ability to feel surprised with each oncoming action.

Maybe sympathy comes best
when it’s got some element of surprise to it-
like when you stop on 14th street and reach
for your wallet the first time the Gypsy child
grabs your arm and tells you she’s hungry.
But the next time, though she’s probably
just as hungry, which may be
considerably or not at all,
you push her hand away

In the spiritual world we as humanity are all beggars praying to God, the One who has lost the element of surprise, a gift He’s bestowed upon humanity, a gift that we are begging God to take back. 

In “Just Taste Them” the speaker of the poem compares seven cheeses to the seven sacraments, the tasting of these cheeses to Communion, and chanting to the Catholic communion prayer.
In the closing of the poem the speaker identifies her father as a stranger of a god, who looks into the refrigerator wondering at these cheesey sacraments and what they are there for.  It is here that the old adage that daughters view god the way they view their father is true.

and would come upon those odd-named things
and wonder what they were doing there –
as if they’d come from somewhere very far away-
the food of some strangers
or maybe their gods

In “The Gardener’s Wife” the speaker identifies her father as a gardener and a nurturer, two traits that he shares with God, but those traits are lost the moment God brings the gardener and the gardener’s wife into existence.    

Perhaps God is Dr. Frankenstein and we are the monsters – or is it the other way around?

And every weekend he tended it by hand,
he put up twigs and twine, he weeded, watered,
the way God must have done before he brought in
the gardener and the gardener’s wife
and everything went wrong.

In “The Precarious Nest” God the father is depicted as a neglectful father which is universal to all of humanity – at one point or another every human being has felt neglected by God.  By sharing this universal truth there is hope and loss all at the same time.

Whatever we prayed to once
is there outside the porch panes, still
                                answering or ignoring our prayers.

There is always some weed that the garden loves. 

In “Swimming For The Ark” the speaker compares her mother to the Virgin Mary.

And my mother closed herself
into the phone booth like the Virgin ascending to heaven

In “Lifeline” the speaker of the poem compares herself to the Mother Mary with elements of being a savior to the sinful turtle, another beggar.

                                      and there I knelt
like the Madonna at the manger
on a rock big enough to sacrifice anything on,
and I set the turtle down and mumbled
something like “live long and prosper,”
to which it must have said “amen”
before I let it go.

In “Fiat” the speaker of the poem is the Virgin Mary and the God the creator all in one via the voice of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel and live to tell the tale.

Then – like the Virgin Mary –
I was quickened:
I got down on my knees
and spread two lengths of pattern stock
and began to sketch a shape:
I rounded it and tapered it,
added and erased
-till I knew it would accommodate my size.

In “Debriefing” the speaker of the poem compares herself to Thomas, the disciple who doubted Jesus and his resurrection and had to touch his side before he was convinced.
-until a trio of surgeons
began to probe my torso (maybe looking for a gash
to put their hands in – so they could prove, as in the gospel,
that I truly was alive.

In “The Same Water” one questions why he or she should believe in anything, when, regardless of what we believe, we all experience “The Same Water?”

Sooner or later each kid who fishes
                         in uneventful water
where the bob only bobs and is not pulled under
     will imagine the sameness of heaven
and by lunchtime will realize in his boredom
that all water converges
                                         and must be shared by everyone.

In these poems there are two dominant figures, both seekers and both women on opposite sides of the globe, one from South Africa and the other in Niagara Falls who experience her own individual water.

The woman from South Africa is seeking water on behalf of the children in her village who are dying of thirst.  This is the physical nourishment.

After a year drought,
when one child in three is at risk of death,
she returns from a distant well,
carrying water on her head. 

The other is Annie Edson Taylor who went over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel for something outside the physical realm: to experience a spiritual awakening or to experience god-like qualities, that of creation?

Niagara! - over meunder me!-
I spilled into it from every pore,
lost myself
in the blackness of its roar.
Something opened- grew wide- and tore-
till every part of me was new:
Brain.  Eyes.  Tongue
--down to the wet soles in my shoes.
I took my measure, checked my sex
and, pleased with what I’d made,
I slapped my back between the blades
and took a deep breath
of consciousness.

     Regardless of where we are at in our life - that of being a beggar, spiritualist, or a seeker-- Joan Murray’s book Swimming For the Ark speaks to the humanity within all of us, and is a testament that we are all in the same water, no matter how different our circumstances may be.


White Pine Press logo

Swimming for the Ark jacket cover

Joan Murray, image on back jacket cover.
Copyright granted by White Pine Press

The Same Water jacket cover

Looking for the Parade and Robert Bly (Public Domain)

Queen of the Mist and Joyce Carol Oats (Fair Use)

Dancing On the Edge

Poems to Live By In Uncertain Times jacket cover

Poems to Live By In Troubling Times jacket cover

The Pushcart Book of Poetry:  the Best Poems from 30 Years of Pushcart Prize jacket cover

Full Jacket cover of SWIMMING FOR THE ARK

Painting, Beggar Boys Eating Grapes and Melons
Attributed to Murillo Estaban
Public Domain

First Communion in 1896 by Pablo Picasso
Public Domain

The Seeker
Attributed to Christal Rice Cooper
Copyright granted by Christal Rice Cooper

Joan Murray, image on back jacket cover.
Copyright granted by White Pine Press

Sleeping Virginia opossum with babies in her relaxed pouch
Public Domain

Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus from The History Channel’s “The Bible” Episode 3
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

White mouse eating birthday cake
Public Domain

John Thomas Peele “Feeding the Pets”
Public Domain

“The Dead Mouse” by Louise Leopold Bolly I 1793
Public Domain

The Beggar Girl
CCASA 2.0 and Fair Use Under the Untied States Copyright Law

types of cheeses from cheese tasting party
Public Domain

7 sacraments
Public Domain

vintage of father at the refrigerator
Public Domain

Vintage of Adam and Eve
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.

Jimson Weed by Georgia O’Keefe
Painted in 1936
Photographed by Zambonia on September 29, 2011
Public Domain

Mother Mary in the Phone Booth.
Photo shopped of two images , both Fair Use, by Christal Rice Cooper

Little girl pretending to be Mother Mary with the turtle.
Four images (all Fair Use ad Public Domain) photoshopped by Christal Rice Cooper

Annie Edson Taylor
Public Domain

The Incredulity of Thomas painting by Caravaggio
Public Domain

A view of the American, Bridal Veil and Horseshoe Falls from the Presidential Suite of the Sheraton Fallsview Hotel, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.
Public Domain

Lithograph Original Antique Postcard from the 1930s and 1940s
Attributed to Kent Cottrell, born in 1887
Public Domain

Annie in the barrel – her head is visible
Public Domain

Annie after her successful trip over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Public Domain

No comments:

Post a Comment