Rather than vulnerably acquiescent to the drab…
Murray seems like someone who set out to become her own favorite poet, prioritizing her pleasure in the sonic qualities of language. In “Instinct and sleep you are two passages that converge,” for example, she writes, “I’m adulted in your poised pant and pawing / And lightly gulls and birds are cawing / I am bent to the coastline running.” It’s a poem that revels in alliteration, musicality, and rhyme.
In a characteristically passionate 1937 letter to a friend, the novelist Helen Anderson, Murray explains, “Hysteria is to me preferable to the pedantic oscillations of a void. I would rather be mad and bad, erratic and incomprehensible, than vulnerably acquiescent to the drab.” Powerful, incantatory, and teeming with ideas, her poems unfold in a state of sensory overload, by turns agitating and soothing. In “You think you complain of the ugliness of people,” for instance, Murray writes,
Meet your own bedSmell what you saidYour words unmitigated deadSink like a noon sun in the crass tomb beneath the steeple.
The poem is thrilling to read, although the accusation at its core never quite becomes clear. The impression is that of a poet playing private language games, as voluptuous as they are sometimes enigmatic. The poem ends with
Claws like tumbled fingers hereStand for handsElastic bandsMinds and trendsThighs sprout here enough to breed the honour of yourMorganatic leer.
This poem and many others read like imprecations or magic spells that seem as though they ought to conjure something if recited with enough force. Here and throughout, her peculiar, intoxicating rhymes carry so much of the pleasure that if one is not reading Murray’s work out loud, then one is not really reading it.
Auden, her mentor, once wrote that “A mannered style, that of Góngora or Henry James, for example, is like eccentric clothing: very few writers can carry it off, but one is enchanted by the rare exception that can.” Murray’s style is mannered in the extreme, yet she carries it off with élan.
Part of how she does this is through arresting adjective-noun combinations that are often more surprising than they are apt. Consider, for example, just some of her juxtapositions: “a dim prenatal distinction,” “emphatic day concave night,” “the paupered air,” “candescent thoughts,” “the narcotic snow,” “the deleted swan.” These moments cause readers to pause and ask, “How can that be?”