Review of Christine Murray’s books – She and Cycles – by Peter O’Neill
Christine Murray is known internationally for her work as creator and curator of the website Poethead, a free, open access database of women’s poetry which is dedicated to the written expression of women poets from Ireland and throughout the world. She is a passionate advocate for the voices of Irish women poets and an active member of the group Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon, who campaign for parity of esteem and inclusion of Irish women poets in the literary canon. Her work is a resource and inspiration for poets and readers, women and men, everywhere. Christine’s own poetry has been widely published, both in print and online, in chapbooks, anthologies and journals. Her books include: “Three Red Things,” (Smithereens Press, 2013), “Cycles,” (Lapwing Press, 2013), “The Blind” (Oneiros Books, 2013), “Signature,” (Bone Orchard Press, 2014), “A Hierarchy of Halls,” Smithereens Press). Anthologies representing her work include “And Agamemnon Dead: An Anthology of Early 21 st Century Irish Poetry,” (eds Peter O’Neill and Walter Ruhlmann, “All The Worlds Between,” ( Eds Srilata Krishnan and Fióna Bolger, Yoda Publishing, 2017), “The Gladstone Readings,”(Ed. Peter O’Neill, Famous Seamus Publishing, 2017), She was a contributor to “Eavan Boland: Inside History,” (Eds Siobhán Campbell and Nessa O’Mahoney, Arlen House, 2016). Christine Murray’s latest collection Bind (Turas Press) will be launched by Peter O’Neill in the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin on the 8th of October 2018.
With the news that a new collection Bind, is to be published by Turas Press in Ireland this coming autumn, making it her first book to be published in her native land, fellow poet Peter O’Neill thought it timely to write a kind of homage to his fellow Dublin based poet.
In She Christine Murray takes a figure from ancient Irish mythology the Sí, as in the shee in Banshee for example, who are powerful feminine forces in pre-Christian Irish folklore, taking on the many guises. In Murray’s She they are represented by the Crow Woman, symbolised by a black feather. And it is with this singular image, of a black crow’s feather, that Murray enters the text.
A black feather
Black feather tree
She has spread
Her blacks out
For carrion lovers
Lace their moons with trawling nets
Bird-pecked crabbed and sweet apple
Roll them into grass
Bamboo worms a curve into flared ground
Black feather sways down
To this waking place/
She tells the tale, in two parts, of ‘Miss Constance Byrne who died on the 21st of January 1883 at the St. Lucy Hospice, after 25 years in a comatose condition’. What happened to her? Did she encounter a Sí ? Apparently in Irish myth, if one did encounter one by malevolence they might reach down and touch your foot and you would disappear from mortal sight! We don’t know, as readers. But, after reading a short letter, signed Constance, we are informed by her that she has entered a kind of dream world which is as real as our own. So Murray, by invoking this myth of the Sí, or She, is allowed access into the comatose world of Miss Constance Byrne, a figure from the mid- nineteenth century when the gothic novel was still very much in vogue. It is a very clever conceit, allowing Murray the possibility to explore multiple worlds drawing on such parallel universes as: chess, ancient Irish mythology and stone cutting; Murray is a stone-cutter by trade.
However, the poems which make up She have their origins in another book, Cycles published the year previous and by Lapwing in Belfast. The Eamon Ceannt Park: A Cycle is the beginnings of this extraordinary world which Murray conjures. I would love to quote the cycle in its entirety, as it merits it, but will have to be content with giving snippets. The first poem in the cycle, there are 7 in total, is called Ingress. Murray is about to enter the park which is situated in Dublin 12, and is named after one of the executed leaders of the 1916 rising.
Her boots are wet, grass-greened.
Things have gone aground at the grove,
only the fairy-ring stands in her circle
of spectral gowns,
So, already within the very first poem Murray invokes fairy rings and the idea of haunting or the otherworldly is suggested in the ‘spectral gowns’. In the second poem of the cycle Inscription Murray introduces her two other themes stone- cutting, in the title, and chess.
The park is scattered as after a storm,
The destruction is knave wrought.
In the third poem of the cycle, all three themes are further developed. I shall quote it in its entirety as it is very short.
There is a man in the stone.
The dew is playing at her feet,
wetting her legs.
A legion of rooks guard his stone.
Now, let us return to She. Here is an extract from the second poem in the collection, which follows immediately the first poem A black feather from her black feather tree, which I quoted in full at the start of this overview.
I have awakened in a place of stone
In the midst of man-bearing stones
There is a sense of tree
There is of no-light
There is some debris
That includes the carrion feather
From where did it fall?
As we follow Constance Byrne on her journey through this ever- widening dreamscape the lexicon and syntax that Murry employs conjoin in unaccustomed ways. She will use an all too familiar noun, for example, in its verb form throwing the reader. Language is physical embodiment for Murray, which for the reader makes a refreshingly novel experience. And, when you think about it, isn’t this just exactly what we require of our poets and writers, to take us out of the ordinary realm, even when describing the ordinary? Was not this Pound’s famous modernist dictum.- Make it New? Murray has been making it new for years, its high time we all caught up with her.
Indeed, as I found myself going further and further into the text, I was reminded of many writers from the past; Lewis Carroll because of the fantastic references to rooks and queens and other chess pieces. But, also the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, through the way in which Murray, like Lorca, is obsessed with ancient figures from mythologies which are now merely creatures of folklore. Both poets bring them into their work, reinvigorating them. Also, both poets use modernist imagistic techniques. There is but one difference. Christine Murray is alive and writing among us, and I for one am very glad that she is. One has the feeling that you are reading the work of someone who will be remembered, long after you and she are gone from this world. The fact that she is only now getting a book published in her own country speaks volumes about the state of poetics in contemporary Ireland. The gate-keepers have such incestuous claims on one another that they are sleeping the sleep of entropy. Good luck to them!
 Murray, Christine: She, Oneiros Books, 2014, p.3.
© Peter O’Neill