Review: The IndependentApril 27, 2007
The first review of my new book, The Rush to Here, appeared today in the Newfoundland Independent, penned by local poetry impresario Mark Callanan. There’s no link online, so I copy it below.
Ode to form
With a little ‘thought rhyme’ a new sonnet is born
The Rush to Here by George Murray
Nightwood Editions, 2007, 79 pages
When Robert Frost famously asserted he’d “just as soon play tennis ith the net down” as write free verse, he was thumbing his nose at poetry that played by no rules. He might have been pleased, then, to see that after a long dalliance in free verse modes of expression, Canadian poetry seems to have returned to use of form. The sonnet, particularly, is enjoying a new heyday.
Most of us have at least a passing familiarity with its two basic incarnations: 14 lines broken down into an eight-line setup (the octave), and the sea change that plunges us into the six-line conclusion (the sestet) of the Petrarchan sonnet, or the twelve line setup and two line conclusion of the Shakespearian sonnet. The beauty of the sonnet lies in the economy of its expression, and in its potential for variation.
From John Milton to Paul Muldoon, poets have been adapting the sonnet to suit their needs for hundreds of years. Ever since its appearance as a recognizable form in 13th century Italy, the sonnet has survived the loss of regularized metre, had its number of lines knocked about (see Gerald Stern’s twenty-odd lined American Sonnets), and otherwise been pinched and pulled to near unrecognizability.
In The Rush to Here, recent Newfoundland import George Murray adds another trick to the sonneteers repertoire, the “thought-rhyme.” The idea is simple enough: thought rhymes are conceptual rather than auditory in nature, bound by associations of meaning rather than tonal similarities. So, Murray can rhyme sun with light, scarves with flags,
or — less directly — bull with harassed.
There is plenty of room for playful punning here as well. Murray pairs the verb fall with autumn; bucket “rhymes” with the homonymous pale. The resulting poems are part formal experiments and part freely associative meditations on the process of maturation and the struggle towards greater self-knowledge — the stuff of the past arriving at
the present tense.
“Once I cooked in a greasy roadside spoon,” Murray writes in Truck Stop Gothic:
just like this, and during one rotten
lunch rush swiped my stainless steel knife
at a passing fly, cutting its head clean off,
right through where a neck should be. I felt divided….
The speaker, having admitted that he then “went back to slicing / toasted western triangles in a trance” with his soiled knife, apologizes to a nameless you (presumably the reader) who may have eaten that particular sandwich order. “And the quick death hiding in the bread’s darkness? / Sorry you tasted such greatness and never knew.”
Though Murray tends to vary the rhyming pattern of his opening 12 lines, he always ends on the double hammer strike of the rhyming couplet (as in the Shakespearian sonnet form). The result is often of an epigrammatic nature that could stand on its own: “It can be tricky to let yourself go / ways other than those you came in by” (Distilled Water); “There are so few barriers to proper sense, / but sense is among them, if you get my drift” (The Corner); “Open your mouth and fill it with food or rage. / The same leaf that turns to the light shies from the blaze” (Lullaby).
Purists of form poetry might be tempted to point out that the musicality of the well-placed end rhyme is absent here, and that, in choosing sense over sound, Murray has eliminated one of the sonnet’s chief virtues: its ability to insinuate itself into our consciousness through the pattern of the auditory echoes it creates. And while it’s true that we respond more viscerally to sound than we do to conceptual echoes, these poems are aimed more at the head than the heart.
In reading Murray’s sonnets, the question to ask yourself is this: Is his innovation on rhyme a useful system for developing language as a memorable and insightful fashion, or does it amount to sleight-of-hand that only ever mimics magic? I would suggest he has hit on a means of expression that works well to coax out his weighty, witty meditations. It is another kind of spanner for the poet’s toolkit. The “thought rhyme” is a fascinating concept, and one that provides limitless potential for poetic investigation. These are poems well worth reading.