Bobbi Lurie’s The Morphine Poems is not an immediately accessible book: close to fifty prose-poems that eschew punctuation, syntax, and for the most part, coherent narrative flow. Yet there is something that grips about this lonely voice emerging thinly from a welter of images and incomplete thoughts. Many of the pieces are concerned with the act of writing, and Lurie describes her own creations well:
my brain is a lake of wild geese a willow without dignity blank face of birch trees saturated with migraines and questions on how to survive
(“something like a mime in a busy airport”)
The central themes of the collection are illness, love, isolation, the desire to speak truly, and an awareness of the unspeakability (and the unlistenability) of life. The tension between these final items seems to motivate Lurie’s choice of form, although the emotional fragmentation that can be exposed through experiences of illness, isolation, and unlove also plays a central role. Perhaps the poem that sheds the most light on this fragmentation is “felt hat with a veil”, where the narrator evokes ambiguous family relationships that seem to slip in and out of existence and affection, with the consequence that the narrator realises she is talking only to herself:
never a daughter had though was but never a mother really yet not a daughter sons yes and the geometry of that in the extended family i do not have for they love me not and i refuse to rot in that bar wood shame of unlove i slipped against it most of my life but now refuse its abuse… nonexistent are the ones i need to speak to and therefore all the more i write realize there is no one reading this but me
Despite the disjointed nature of the text, a character and narrative emerge from the overall arc of the poetry: a figure (probably female) struggling with an illness (probably cancer), and facing the prospect of death; the attempt to love and to communicate, and the pain of finding herself unloved and unheard. Although the individual poems vary from the anecdotal to the haiku-like, philosophical observation, and from the intensely lyrical, broken soliloquy to the rambling dream narrative, Lurie takes care to return to this underlying situation at key points in her text, particularly at the beginning and at the end of the collection. In the opening poem, for example, she addresses herself directly to the readers of her pamphlet, and their encounter with her strangeness:
the subject of a pamphlet people don’t read but throw away contains
the ones without pamplets who are then taken revenge upon for original thinking / they’d rather not read pamphlets / they’d rather be nomads with past lives / they’d rather be myocytes in petri dishes scaffolding their migration into biology …
Lurie’s concern with people who would “rather be myocytes in petri dishes” than read poetry pamphlets triggers a persistent anxiety that “there is no one reading this but me” (see “felt hat” above). This is not an entirely off-the-wall concern. As I have emphasised, Lurie’s writing is “difficult”, and sometimes the fragmentation is such that the reader struggles to get beyond the private encryption of the images and their association. Given the apparent intent toward such obscurity, it is hard to know whether this can be described as poetry that does not work, or as poetry that does precisely what it set out to do; however, it seems safe to say that it is poetry that will attract both keen adherents and curt dismissal.
At her best, Lurie presents fluid, gripping narratives, as in the convincing and colourful “begging at the door was a reminder that some lived hungry” (a woman “feeling feverish among the range of squeaky voices” at a children’s birthday party invites in a beggar for a piece of chocolate cake) and the tragic/comic “blog of solitude chapter one the party ok i went saturday it was for sunday” (with its killer first line: “so i went sunday too the mozzarella and tomatoes not as fresh as yesterday“), or pared-down observations, such as the haiku-like “not even frightened”:
on operating table so light everything left lit but unconscious from anesthesia wild horses couldn’t neither could the threadbare I returned to
Lurie’s work rewards close reading and rereading. It is not cheerful material, but seeks to cut to the heart—to retain her medical metaphor — of muddled and often broken human relationships, between herself and her family, her lovers, her children, and, of course, us, her not-entirely-comprehending, distanced-yet-intimate readers. As she concludes in “clotted or crooned the heart turns physical in older age”:
forgive me for merely sitting decomposing exponentially on your tragically picturesque front porch
Lurie is at her best in pared down observations, in the haiku-like, and the more narrative-centered of her works.
These are not easy poems, but they reward careful reading and rereading.
Jessica Wright is an editor, translator and poet currently living in a small glass-making town in the West Midlands. Most recently, she has come runner-up in the James Kirkup Annual Memorial Poetry Competition, run by Red Squirrel Press. She also runs a weekly writing circle, and an online, occasional poetry co-composition group.