“Gold Friend” Chris Murray (Turas Press) – book review

“Gold Friend” explores the healing power of the natural world, returning to a common theme to poetry. In “it held—” a bird bell hanging from a thread nonetheless “took their weights,/ and they gave you their low/ flying wingbright song”. The birds’ solid bodies become something light enough to fly and raise spirits, perhaps even carrying the observer’s sadness with them.

Similarly, in “Heart” a common flower surprises the observer who,

“Holding it a moment
in its cup of earth/ feeling its newness –

.                   Odd how
it produces itself/ for my eye –
.                          We are embodied
.                           I,
.                           the tremulous flower”

The power of a dash of colour in catching the observer’s eye is sufficient to alter the observer’s attitude towards herself. That jolt is just enough to make the observer reframe herself as being part of the world rather than separate from it. This theme is picked up in “blue stars” where flowers become

“upturned stars
.                      stare
in their dance-caught-stasis
their beauty is more than”

The open ending invites the reader to image what the flowers’ beauty might be “more than”. It’s a soft echo of Wordsworth’s daffodils, where the poet marvels and feels repaired by the daffodils. Leaving the last phrase in “blue stars” as “more than” takes a risk that the reader is of a similar frame of mind and just as appreciative as the poet.

On occasion the link feels stretched and introducing humans to this celebration of nature feels awkward. In “Delicate” the observer finds,

“We find small rib bones scattered there.
I pick up the cap of a skull. Small, its
sponge ossified to a mineralized honeycomb.
I cup its yellow cream in my hand. Delicate,

a sea snail, most precious egg, as if
it had touched the ruby feather of a
bluebird. Most precious thing,
bird-egg-shattered, dust in my pores..”

Suddenly it jumps from a small creature to “Are they human bones, those of an infant?” and concludes “We lay them under the wing of a sheltering grave,/ a small bone heap. We move through the labyrinth.” The implication in the description in the bones is of a small animal, possibility a bird, so why introduce the idea that these are human bones, which wouldn’t normally be left for anyone to find? If we are to believe these are human bones, there’s no idea to introduce the idea of an infant since it’s already been established that the bones are small. It seems contrary to the mood of the poem, full of details about the bones themselves, for the narrator to leave them in a heap rather than where they were or arranged in the form of what they once were. Why does the graveyard suddenly become a labyrinth? A graveyard seemed sufficient.

“Five buttercups in a glass dish” starts with “Ophelia never made so pretty a picture./ Look how sweetly they sleep,// those five princesses in their crystal bed.” The poet seems to have in mind Millais’ painting of Ophelia, not the Shakespearean character who was in love with Hamlet, maddened with grief and took her life by drowning. But even behind the painting is the sad story that the model, Lizzie Siddal, became ill with pneumonia as the water she was lying in became cold when the lamps that were supposed to keep it warm when out, and she didn’t feel she could disturb Millais’ to point this out. The comparison is not as clear-cut as the poet seems to portray. The poem concludes, “They are so beautifully accomplished,/ dreaming their lotus dreams by my bed.” There’s an echo of Sylvia Plath’s “Edge”. Inserting “lotus” before “dreams” implies vividness, the buttercups are not the pale pastel of a primrose but vibrant and bold.

Nature cannot heal everything though. In “Lament for a lost child”, a refrain is built around the phrase “miserable am I”. The speaker,

“I awaken dreaming of your forgotten face
I cannot feel where you lay

.                           small child wrapped into my side
.                            love alone lonely”

It concludes,

“Love alone lonely,
miserable, miserable
children small ones
I cannot feel where you lay.”

The lament is clear. But the language generic. Perhaps it’s trying to be a poem which would be suitable for any loss of a child.

The final poem, “Eve Labouring for 37 hours; the Yes poem”, starts with an unusual word play,

“Eve in pain.

will bring
forth a Cain
.                  Abel

It carries the reminder, “(‘in sorrow you shall bring forth children’)” and ends (the c-word is spelled out in the original but I have to be mindful of spam filters),

“                                        There are piles of skulls
.                                        pushing through my grimacing c**t

all the pretty things.
stones/ bones / buttons
a knee-piece / skulls

the threads—

.                                                        sous justice.”

“Sous justice” means “under judicial supervision”, a reminder of Eve’s fall from grace.

Poetry and the natural world have long been bedfellows and through “Gold Friends” Chris Murray seeks to reinforce poetry’s link with the natural world and its healing properties. She aims for a gentle touch, focusing on the beauty in a flimsy petal or the vibrancy of a buttercup’s gold. The poems feel weighed down by the traditional they seek to carry and their messages feel familiar.

“Gold Friend” is available from Turas Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

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