Nightwood Editions - June 26, 2007 - 1 Comment
The Rush to Here by George Murray
Reviewed by Alessandro Porco
George Murray’s fourth collection of poetry, The Rush to Here, is a collection of 57 sonnets that employ a poetic device Murray describes as thought-rhyme. “Instead of rhyming ‘night’ with ‘fight’,” explains Murray in interview, “I can ‘rhyme’ it [night] with any of a series of [word] associations.” For instance, “night” may rhyme with “the synonym ‘evening,’ the antonym ‘day,’ the homonym ‘knight,’ the anagram ‘thing,’ a synonym of a homonym ‘soldier’ (for ‘knight’), a homonym of an antonym ‘dais,’ [and even] across phraseology and idiom ‘silent,’ etc.” Thus, the “sonic” value of rhyme, whether euphonic (perfect-rhyme), dissonant (half-rhyme), or somewhere in-between (assonance), is no longer a determining criteria for rhyme-word selection. In fact, Murray’s use of thought-rhyme is prompted by a general dissatisfaction with what he refers to as “the faux Elizabethan sing-song sound” produced by the more-commonly deployed conception of rhyme-as-aural-phenomena (“Interview,” Northern Poetry Review). Before discussing some of collection’s recurring ideas and its better poems, I would like to begin by briefly illuminating philosophical-aesthetic issues underpinning Murray’s though-rhyme device.
First, as scholars such as Henri Meschonnic and Marjorie Perloff have argued, sonic- and thought-rhyme are not necessarily exclusive of each other: sound interpenetrates denotative-connotative word-meanings (Murray’s thoughts) and vice versa; one does not preclude the other. Purposive semantic connections are intentionally made via sound affinities, resulting in puns, irony, paradox, dramatics, sentimentality, and absurdity. Even in the case of non-semantic or purely affective rhyme-patterning, with the word reduced to its non-semantic materiality, interpenetration of sound and sense is an inevitable felicity of language that cannot be prevented. Second, Murray incorrectly determines rhyme to be indicative of antiquated poetics out of sorts with our particular epoch’s speech patterns. Consider the polysyllabic rhymes of Paul Muldoon or Ghostface Killah; consider Robert Pinsky’s slant-rhyme translation of Dante’s Inferno. Sonic rhyme does not hinder a contemporary poet’s speaking to his epoch’s concerns. That said, Murray’s desire to un-shackle thought-rhymes held prisoner within each word is, in large part, very commendable; as Baudelaire writes, “every poet who does not know how much each word includes rhymes, is incapable of expressing any idea whatever.”
Murray wants new rhymes; as Meschonnic argues, “poetry is not poetry unless it invents new rhymes.” New rhymes “[transform] reason.” By transforming reason, rhyme transforms living and, consequently, may be understood as an “ethics” (“Rhyme and Life” 95; 107). But I qualify these last commendations with two points: first, while Murray’s sonnets are the first extended engagement-in-praxis of thought-rhyme I’ve encountered, the theory itself, of thought-rhyme, is not new. Emerson’s “Merlin II,” from his Poems 1847, includes his musing on the very concept:
Like the dancers’ ordered band,
Thoughts come also hand in hand;
In equal couples mated,
Or else alternated;
Adding by their mutual gage,
One to the other, health and age.
(94; emphasis mine)
For Emerson, as it is for Murray, thought-rhymes exist in symbiotic relation within a larger sophisticated living thing we refer to as the “poem,” full of denotative and connotative organs that allow it to succeed or fail. Second, and more importantly, it’s important to understand that thought-rhyme as a poetic device does not ensure with absolute certainty the production of “new rhymes.” In fact, when relying too much upon unfiltered associative processes, Murray at times slips into “cliche” correspondences that are as uninteresting as the worst sonic rhyme — let’s say “death-breath.” “Mind / heart” (17, 46); “you / me” (46); “day / night” (25); “paradise / bliss” (41), “self / other” (20); “water / fire” (20); and “air / earth” (20) — these are the uninteresting by-products of the collection’s technological determinism (i.e. thought-rhyme).
As for the sonnets generated, well, a handful of very good ones are present. Here’s “Many Worlds,” in toto, the final poem in The Rush to Here’s second section:
Sure, there may be other universes,
as many as there are options at all
given moments, branches from branches
until choice becomes more bush than tree,
but in some ensuing universes
most everything stays the same as in this one.
a butterfly tilts to another bearing,
the old lady turns left instead of right,
you spend an extra night alone with the lust
that keeps you lonely, and nothing new comes
of it, no catastrophic difference
felt, no recognizable consequence made.
There are many worlds we can’t tell from our own
because some choices don’t matter at all.
The poem is concerned with the relation between the singular whole (sameness, stasis) and its plural parts (difference, action); or, the rather Neo-Platonic-like enfolding of the latter into the former. If one breaks down “universe” into its constituent part (uni and verse), thus, recognizing the root-word “verse” (literally meaning “to turn”), then the fourth couplet’s “turn” towards navigational terms becomes all the more effective: “tilts,” “another bearing,” “turns,” “left,” “right” — these “turns” are the decisions that we all like to think make some difference within our respective universes, as if we could each will our imminent futurity. But, as Murray intimates in his delicately stated yet harrowing-in-implication epigrammatic finale, “some choices don’t matter at all.” And though it’s perhaps comforting to fancy other universes to which escape may ultimately lead to a more fruitful existence, it’s more plausible that escape leads to a world or “many worlds” no different than our own. I appreciate Murray’s easy manner as he tackles grand ideas: the colloquial touch of “sure” or “most everything” or “nothing new comes of it” is particularly effective. And I appreciate a hesitancy on the part of Murray to insist upon an easy answer to the poem’s existential problem: If our choices here hardly matter, and if our choices in an elsewhere “universe” are equally impotent, how is it that we might come to “feel” as if we exist? He accords himself well as a contemplative poet.
Another fine poem is “Days of Glass” (14): “These are the days of glass, each pane clear / enough to show what’s beyond, yet stacked up / against one another, they begin to blur” (14). The poem, like many others in The Rush to Here (see, in particular, “Distilled Water” , “Reno” , “Push” , “Line of Sight” , “Erode and Flow” , “Exit Strategy” ), is concerned with phenomenology and the epistemes both at work within, and which might possibility be derived from, our subjective perception-experiences. For Murray, nothing is transparent ergo nothing is absolute (“It’s difficult to be sure everyone / sees the same thing” ); and there are limits to the value of our perceptions (“His self-image can’t be shared with anyone living” ). Returning to “Days of Glass,” it’s worth noting the pun in the title: “days” / “daze” — the latter indicative of sight (i.e. dazed off into the sunset) and a stupefied mental or physical condition. Also, in the passage quoted above from the poem, “each pane” also reads as “each pain” (i.e. the hurts we suffer), which, over a life-time, pile up. “Each pane” of experience “[stacks] up,” and it is with difficulty through such a pile that we experience everyday living and phenomena. Yet, as Murray points out, the piled panes become a “barrier to sense.” One’s sense of the world is always skewed and peculiarly one’s own and, in fact, not quite living.
There are a couple more fine poems, most notably, “Truck Stop Gothic” (31) and “Erode and Flow” (52). But, for the most part, Murray’s sonnets tend towards disappointment because, often, they do not fulfil their initiating premises’ promises. For example, “The Revolution” begins with these wonderfully enticing lines:
What I don’t understand is how to decide
between beauties, how to know if the best choice
for the empty plot is an English garden
or a uniform bed of French poppies.
Unfortunately, this line of thinking is immediately abandoned. And, sometimes — at least, for this reviewer’s taste — Murray’s guiding conceits are too abstract (“Your actions like invisible dog tags” ) and often mixed (“a submarine breaching the ocean’s skin in a flower of froth” [16; emphasis mine]). But, to end on a more positive note, Murray does have a penchant for constructing wonderfully closing couplets that, despite their occasional failure in terms of adequately responding to or filling out the sonnets, are interesting in and of themselves:
Everything can’t stay this way forever,
but that doesn’t mean it won’t be this good again.
Common sense says from this point the rules may vary.
Things are never the same, but even that may change.
(“Tear-Water Teat” 43)
There are so few barriers to proper sense,
but sense is among them, if you get my drift.
(“The Corner” 33)
Are such couplets enough to recommend the book? Not entirely, no. But the occasional success and Murray’s experiments with thought-rhyme merit at least some looking into.