Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Whiteout, by George Murray

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I attempt to review—even just briefly—virtually every book I read over the course of a year. It’s no easy task. But a curious thing happened back in 2011 when I read George Murray’s collection of sonnets The Rush to Here. Here was a poetry book that I enjoyed quite a lot, and yet found that I had nothing really constructive to say about it. It’s not that I didn’t admire the book—I did. I thought it was great. But I struggled to articulate why. So rather than force myself to put down thoughts I didn’t actually have, I thought it wiser to just remain silent.

I’ve had no such issue with Murray’s new collection, Whiteout. This book is a tiny tour de force, a gently but meticulously crafted array of poems about life, death, love, and the randomness of the universe. Indeed, Whiteout spins itself into its own little galaxy, tugging at us with the gravitational pull of life’s arbitrary moments. Murray understands that joy and tenderness can arise out of such machinations, but so too can chaos and catastrophe.

A fine example of theses ideas in action is his poem “St. John’s.” On one level, the piece takes us on a briny, beery tour of that city’s downtown, but there is also something larger at play. Murray hints at the possibility of alternate universes in this poem with lines like: “Your future could lean in that door and you/ might not recognize it as anything/ but the next in another series of nows.” And he closes this exploration with an arresting statement that halted me in my tracks:

… Somewhere under
every inch of skin is a Venn diagram

with lovers overlapping just so,
and it’s here I want us to be. No one asked,
What if there’s only the one universe?
If it turns out there is, then one is enough.

For me this statement hung over the entirety of the book, a kind of neutral resignation to the random power that life can exact upon us. I saw these ideas at play when I went back and reread “The Uncountable”, with its lines “Mass exists, numbers exist, but there’s no/ power one has over the other without/ the intrusion of our invention.” And I also saw it in the violence of his poem “The Ants”, where a bomb blast at an opera house leaves the audience in a state of shock as they “stumbled about like straggled/ scalpers calling out spares and outrageous asks.”

If this all sounds a bit intense, rest assured that Murray is capable of great playfulness here, too. His piece “Song of a Divorce Budget” uses traditional rhyme and the assemblage of puns to build a fun little counting poem about one of life’s least fun experiences.

Other critics of said it and I’m happy to echo them: Murray is at the height of his powers in Whiteout. This book is a great place to start if you haven’t read him before, with lots of ideas and imagery to savour.

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