A letter from Jessica Murray containing seven prompts


[In response to prompt number one]

I have a love of middlebrow food, cheesy
Casseroles with mid-century pseudo-French
Sherry-and-cream-of-mushroom-soup sauces,
Salisbury steak, iceberg lettuce, Doris Day
Movies, and the Brothers Gibb, especially
The maudlin strains of “I Started a Joke.”
I seem to cause my students a form of pain
When I try to explain issues of otherness
By means of exemplary Star Trek episodes.
My husband prefers me silent on the subject
Of the Grail legend and shudders at much
I admit to in poems. But by most accounts,
I am what The Economist called, of the few
Remaining residents of the planet who had
Yet to read Harry Potter, an Impossibly
Highbrow person. I am offended when a man
Pours himself wine without first offering
The women, and I despise family news.
*  *  *


[In response]

I can pronounce (with ease) Brillat-Savarin
though that’s my limit of all things French—
well, perhaps a passable Sauce Bordelaise,
gougères in honor of Bastille Day.
And who wouldn’t love a new Serge Lutens, especially
jeux de peau, its scent a playful, not-so-private joke?
But enough, just now, about Tarkovsky’s existential pain
or Malick’s questions of interconnected otherness.
Sometimes I prefer the blunt and homely episodes
of David Simon on the subject
of his “love letter to Baltimore”----as much
an artifact of if and when a body counts.
I’ve found there’s no insomnia that a few
18thCentury lines won’t kill, one thousand pages of who had
(or didn’t have!) sex with whom, and an impossible,
excruciating drawn-out plot—but, alas, such is man?
Kitten Wars is my kind of ablative offering----
and, what’s that? Your sister’s pregnant? Ah, the family news!
*  *  *
Read a prose commentary by the poets.


JMox & JMurr

[In response to prompt number two]

Coleridge privileges Imagination over Fancy,
reviling ornament and too-easy arrangement.

Jackson Pollock, lest he be taken for passive, turned his
brushstroke into a left hook. He was not a fancy man. 
Spicer was hired as the moon’s secretary
which is why he milked his brandy.

And Whitman told the sun and the stars: 
If you do not say any thing how can I say any thing? 
Yes, Whitman flirted with every mother’s love, but it was Dickinson
who cocked her gun or went down on everyone.
Thank goodness Woolf wasn’t born a son: she scorned
the milk and bore her prose between awake and woke.

Bishop always thought before she spoke, but when
she washed her lover’s hair, she stooped to stroke the stars, the moon.

And Weil deplored the use of force: our collective human coarseness
coarser ornament, an elementary arraignment.
*  *  *
Read a prose commentary by the poets.


[In response to prompt number seven]

The senses are the doors to memory, or
so St. Augustine discovered, using his mind
as evidence. Yet memory is gentler than experience:
“For if we had to experience sorrow or fear
every time that we mentioned these emotions,
no one would be willing to speak of them.”

Your remembered Edenic childhood scene longed
to conjure a palpable joy, and therefore conjured
longing. I folded it into a childhood jigsaw puzzle,
a checkerboard of painted New England scenes—-
each rustic tableau framed by rough-hewn wooden
beams. A hay bale in one square, fall’s rushes
attractively leaning against a grey barn in another.
A cornucopia on the left, a well-trod path to a
humble cottage, galvanized milk cans, a grazing cow.
All labor distilled into the dreamy aestheticism of idealized regions.

The colors in your memory are as soft as Keats’s consonants,
the bounty rich in safety. But my puzzle was unpeopled.
It provoked in me a mysterious yearning for a past
and landscape not my own, seasonal in its rituals,
filled with the slightly haunting beauty of woods
wind-spoken beneath bright grayish skies. Firelight.

But I cannot fold your glamorous mother,
in her Douglas Sirk-style kerchief, into a memory
of my own. Mothers, it seems, are singular.
In a very early scene I see mine in our
Mazatlán apartment. She is clung to by an
Elizabeth Taylor-style white slip, her hair
set and motionless. A tall thin woman fastening
a string of pearls behind her neck. A sensuous
non-maternal silhouette set against the backdrop
of the heavy floor-length curtains lining the
off-limits-dark-cool air of my parent’s bedroom.

*  *  *

[In response]

She will adore it, I am certain, the kerchief you have given her,
a thoughtful and beautiful gift from a stranger.
Though none of this (the orchard, the kerchief)
is quite how she remembers it, perhaps you have seen her,
a sort of communion each of us desires.
Sirk said, your characters have to remain innocent
of what your picture is after.

Mothers, it seems, are singular—-
you’re right, I think, though it may be true
that we sometimes glimpse the interiors of others’
so much more suddenly and clearly than our own,
for your memory of your mother in her slip and satin
Delman heels reminded me of another,
the mother of an old friend, who hovers in my memory,
one of Tennessee Williams’ beautiful scorched women.

They were the permissive parents,
whose house was loud, chaotic,
conspiratorial; whose motto was anything goes.
She was pale, thin, blonde, and wore pastels.
The whole family was known
for its willingness to frame the truth through lies.
Once she pulled onto our dirt road and she stopped
the car and let it idle—-for how long, I don’t know.
Sitting there, she said something I couldn’t
have dreamed my mother dreamed:
Jessica, sometimes I just don’t know what I’m doing here.

My mother won’t like it, I’m certain, the way all of this
has been hijacked by a woman she considered a stranger,
but Sirk also said, you have to think with the heart,
which is one primary and precipitate mode of thought.
And though I’ve never seen one of his movies,
it seems the endings both solve and complicate things,
so cue the deus ex machina, the stranger at the door—-
I’ll start that instinctive run as the phone begins its ringing.

*  *  *
Read a prose commentary by the poets.

JMox & JMurr

Toward What Conquests

The bird sits on the body’s tree,
at least that’s how the parakeet sees it.
I felt my tree would surely be felled,
carved into, or made a victim of blight,
and yet I still kept singing. At night
I was free but by daybreak compelled
to fly back to my tree, as if from some
strange sympathy, or fear of perpetual flight.
As if to temper my abuse the tree at times
cried out. It took my nest, bereft of eggs,
for its own adornments, meant to aid
in its affairs with philandering winds.
It spoke almost with longing, a paltry bid
For sympathy, as you shall witness:
Me, I welcome your fragile nests
and the pretty bits of detritus you tuck
into my crevices each spring:
so many hopeful dormitories!
But the bark has a memory all its own
and to lean into the wind, the sun,
to grow outward toward another’s leaves----
yet nights you leave me for what conquests, 
to claim what territory? When even
the songs I like, which rise as you abandon me.
As you see the tree is filled with envy.
with talk of territory and conquests
it tries to root me down to this one spot.
But thought’s pliant geographies will be
conquered by none. Tree, my dormitory-
building days are over. Moss grown and
fragile you creak beneath the ever increasing
weight of my song. Your roots are twisting
in the ear of earth, hoping to smother me
in dark soil. A perfect tune awaits me.
In the bright instant it leaves your leaves
without my wings you will have won.
Bird, how you love to mistake me, to turn
the tunes I cannot sing against me.
These nests, those feathers are not alone
the stuff of baby birds: in each thread
or bit of cloth you brought, you made me
strange----I crave the shabby ornaments
of your experience, rendered by the sort 
of thought, because I cannot share your flight,
I know not. What cruelty makes you 
begrudge me this, to spurn your childish lover
as though an overbearing mother?
Yes, my body has grown old----the senses,
which you once deigned to know, hold.


JMox & JMurr


I’m in mid-recollection when my husband asks,
why do we persist in telling others our dreams?

Is it because in dreams there is no natural object,
no certainty, only couldn’t be or seems?

At most turns, there is something to flee or be fought—-
the 21st Century consciousness?

(But no, let’s admit that dreams have always been that way.)

And so, like the dream, we spell out our reveals:
it was like an animal, or it was like a person

who we couldn’t place but definitely knew; as long
or as far or as wide as the silence after a confession,

the lights at night in a far more optimistic city,
the tender freshet we couldn’t bring ourselves to cross.

Das ding an sich. Can we know the world anymore than dreams?
Or make another see? Sappho began this lyric journey

with the words, he seems to me…And we believe her.
There it is, in the poem, the visual jealousy of springtime,

the lover has turned “greener than grass.” But even Sappho
felt no need to paint Helen’s particulars. Hair of gold, etc., 

with each reveal her legendary beauty leaves our reach.
“She alone above all others.” It is enough.

But to create an image, a “picture in the mind,” remains
the dream of poets, yet the miracle behind the famous

urn was not that it became concrete, but that a mute thing spoke.
Another sort of dream, the way Sappho herself became the dream of eros?

The quotidian might be a thousand urns, a thousand Helens
each more comely than the next,

but who can divine them in this jaded economy,
where the buzz of drones, the static on the line, and seasons of

the Bachelorette, suggest a third party much more sinister
than that first rival lover—-

I wanted to make you something that couldn’t be,
the object is immaterial, the something, too, it seems.