Poem of the Week: ‘The hour like a child’ by Joan Murray

Paul Norris 4 January 2019
Image Credit: Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

The hour like a child runs down the angle of star and rests at the bottom

It is a strange woman that may hold that child in its arms

But women prefer to see the hours slip from their fingers

For they are dancing an old earth constituency

 

I am a little beyond the river and stare from my particular casement

I am slender as the stalk and have my own flowering

I don’t draw from women but I prefer the truth and not the trick of living

 

Therefore I walk by women as the sea ponders by the shore

I tremble and splash my spray by the cavern

Hear my own strange breath and laughter

But is my echoing and I am unalterably the sea.

 

Poetry (January 2018)

 

Joan Murray belongs to an unfortunate school of artists best known for the circumstances of their deaths. Hers occurred in 1942, and is remarkable for its prematurity: she was 24. It is hard not to read this poem through Murray’s knowledge of the heart condition which would kill her. The poet here feels different from those who ‘prefer to see the hours slip from their fingers’, perhaps because she knows her quotient of hours is smaller; this could be what she means by her ‘particular casement’. But there is no panic in this poem; none of the ‘drum-beat sounding in my mind till all I could hear was lazy, lazy, work, work, work!’ (as she writes elsewhere).

This is a poem about being young, but it bears no trace of the tired archetype of youthful invincibility. Perhaps I’m more nervous than most, but I very rarely feel invincible. Vulnerability, slenderness of the stalk and spray of the sea, rings more true. Of course there is a limit to how much this can relate to me personally, not so much because it is about suffering from a terminal disease (which it isn’t really: the words on the page show no symptoms of cardiac disorder), but because it is about womanhood (or approaching womanhood, or not approaching it).

In a poem replete with ambiguities, where ‘the mere act of reading… always seems to be pushing one closer to the brink of a momentous discovery’ (as John Ashbery describes Murray’s poetry as a whole), it is tempting to close down and resolve. An extra ‘i’ in the first line, making ‘star’ into ‘stair’, would return us to domesticity, to a child descending the stairs. But Murray doesn’t want us to see clearly. The hour running down, pondering by the seashore – these are clichés. But Murray’s hour is a child, and she is not walking by the sea: she is the sea. It is hard to summarise what all of this adds up to. Individual lines are strikingly beautiful, sometimes in the mode of self-empowerment slogans imbued with authenticity  (‘I prefer the truth and not the trick of living’), sometimes for their uncanny union of people with their natural surroundings (‘I am a little beyond the river’, ‘I am unalterably the sea’). Throughout, there is an enduring sense that ‘something important is hidden’ (Ashbery again), that these disparate images are united somehow, and that someone is speaking.