Sunday, May 7, 2017



Ghazals 1-59 and Other Poems by Sheila E. Murphy and Michelle Greenblatt
(Unlikely Books, New Orleans, 2014-2017)

At my first read through Sheila E. Murphy's and Michelle Greenblatt's collaboration, Ghazals 1-59 and Other Poems, I was most struck initially by the collection's philosophical bent. I was, at first, looking for synesthesia due to Vincent A. Celluci’s Foreword, “Synesthesia in the Ghazal Garden.” (Synesthesia is the neurological ability to combine senses.) But from the first poem, philosophical mediations and meanderings surface strongly—fortunately, they arise beautifully! From the first poem "A Tone Endures" emanates this lovely, if devastating, line:

Tact blurs the architecture of integrity.


One washes young trees
as though a blossom would be truer
than root structures

You could open the book at random and come up with passages that pull you up and make think. Let’s do that—I open the book to Page 36 to see Ghazal “Thirteen” with such lines as

Thinking has become a hobby made of solvency

“I control what I have loathed and loathe what I’ve controlled.”

I open the book at random again to Page 44, Ghazal “Seventeen” whose lines include

Winter is a poor trade for the temperature of heart

In the above examples, the lines are individually self-possessed: they fit in the poem but also stand on their own. This result says something about the meticulous craftsmanship that made them. “Seventeen,” for instance, also contains the line “The ring on her finger that sprouts marriage” which provides a context for the poem as relating to a relationship borne from a romance. But “Winter is a poor trade for the temperature of heart” can apply to many things/events beside a romantic engagement.

The poems are certainly enhanced by both authors’ fabulously expansive vocabularies, e.g. from “Cresting”:

Here under the milklight of the tumid
mood, conveyance begins again: the aphotic afterdamp
collides with the intangible

“milklight of the tumid / mood” … “aphotic afterdamp” – gorgeous! To read these poems is to linger, to relish. In many poems, the words and phrases blossom sensuously, befitting, of course, synesthesia.   Yet the vocabulary is also resonant because the language is so disciplined: I don't think there's a single adverb in its 132 pages (though I didn't really read for that porpoise; in any event, I bet there ain't muchly there.)

Interestingly, in an Author’s Note, Murphy says they were “less deliberative about endings than the beginnings and middle portions of poems.” Yet there are many killer endings, as the saying goes, in the poems—which is an effect that says something, I think, about the authors trusting the power of language—that is, that  they can focus (deliberate or rework) lines but also loosen the words until the words speak for themselves into effective “endings.” And many of these endings are effective specifically because they lack banality—are fresh, e.g. from “Cresting”:

as though

formaldehyde were merely

or this from Ghazal “Forty-Eight,” also a deft use of imagery:

Shores attract what underwater singing cannot
A host of seashells scattered along the shoreline

The 59 Ghazals are special, sensual and luminous.  (I keep thinking/referring to sensuousness and sensuality and that’s indicative.) The authors apparently alternated couplets and the result—as with successful (duo) collaborations—is greater than its sum of participants: 1 + 1 does not equal two but a new three or third author. That third author is important for its authorial sensibility/decisions cannot be anticipate by either collaborator, which can be liberating and enervating. Thus, you might have a couplet like, from Ghazal “Eight”

Rough walls, paint along the curves of them, a place to look
For silence to clot on a windowsill in sunlight

followed by

Know in eyeballs how the archetypal blood says
Craft negates oncoming substance radiating

Or, the beginning of Ghazal “Nine”:

In other words, an individual author on her own may not have strung together the above four couplets. I’m actually reminded here of the wonderful poems of Arthur Sze which include listings of lines that seem unrelated but that retain a sunlit link and leap between each lines…

But, finally: synesthesia—what initially drew me to this collection in addition to that I would read anything by Sheila Murphy (I confess that this book is my first, certainly belated, introduction to Michelle Greenblatt). Here’s one example from Ghazal “Seventeen” that quite tickled with how on-point it inexplicably is:

Semicolons have a spicy taste.

Until the poets articulated thus, I hadn’t realized. Upon realizing, I agree!

And here’s an example specifically of what Celluci called Greenblatt’s “ability to smell color”—from Ghazal “Fourteen”:

A dawn-colored rose rises from clouds and bows to us.

Yes, I mean Yaaaas! to the pink/red color of dawn also found in a rose whose scent now rises for the reader from universal memory of this iconic bloom. How effective! How lovely!

Here’s another, not as lovely but certainly as effective—from “Ghazal “Twenty-Seven”:

You sizzle in my face like a fuse

You can smell the anger of that “You”—like meat burning on a grill (“sizzle”) or something more electrical as in a “fuse” burning out. Nonetheless, this is an anomaly in terms of the (first reading’s) overall impression gleaned from the book—I sense more of a flowing sensuousness (and sensuality) from the collection. Indeed, the lines are as sensuous as the cover image of a painting by Jim Tascio and if I envisioned both lines and cover painting in front of me, their physicality would be silk.

What a marvelously unique and uniquely marvelous creation—congratulations to the poets Sheila E. Murphy and Michelle Greenblatt.


I also feel compelled to indicate a note of appreciation for Vincent A. Celluci’s Foreword. It doesn’t just explicate on synesthesia but offers an interesting observation about American poetry’s evolution from individually-oriented (per the American) to community—a shift from “I” to “We,” of which the Murphy/Greenblatt collaboration is an example. Another reason to recommend this book.


Eileen Tabios is the editor of Galatea ResurrectsHer 2017 poetry releases include two books, two booklets and six poetry chaps. Forthcoming later this fall is a new poetry collection, MANHATTAN: An Archaeology (Paloma Press). She does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor, but is pleased to direct you elsewhere where she was recently reviewed: Neil Leadbeater reviews her The Gilded Age of Kickstarters for Otoliths, May 1.  More info about her work at

1 comment:

  1. Eileen, I learn from your review. Let me assure you how much I value what you share. I know Michelle would have been moved as well. You are tremendous. Thank you for your generous spirit and excellent analysis.