Philip Ruthen on

Sally-Ann Murray

open season - Sally-Ann Murray, HardPressd 2006, Dolbridge, Durban. South Africa. 83pp
ISBN 0-620-37102-1 murrays1@ukzn.ac.za

The blue whale’s oral cavity is propped into awning expanse by pointed poles, disturbingly reminiscent of the female genitalia, and underfoot - flesh gouged by boots of climbing fishermen. Two men ‘pose’ as if contemplating a construction site. Here, and within the pages of Sally-Ann Murray’s poetry collection, are the deconstruction sightings of Durban as a port city within its peoples’ lives, and her South Africa. There is awe; but the apparent mystery of the unknown or unknowable of the people and the country is not a mystery. The ageless battles of subjugation move through her poetry of real history, histories of indifference towards other’s lives, and battles with and against poetry. Murray reaches - as intrinsically depicted by her choice of whaling scenes for her collection’s front cover - art, reverence, uncertainty, and horror.

This is not a history book, or an imprint of times past, or snapshots of now. Whaling always recalls for me Charles Olson’s ‘The Maximus Poems’ and it is this sense of cultural collision, reflection and the pushing beyond the present that Murray’s poetry of places translates across boundaries and contingent politics. These are impetuses behind my attempt review the collection, and seek the causes of the collection’s relevancies.

Idioms, the ‘found’ in place, are not discarded in this poetry as being simply the remains of a society depicted in turmoil. They enter narration, the narrator, are transferred, and enabled to demand a hearing for the reverberations - personal and political - that emerge from the transference. I use here the expression ‘transference’ for the poetic or aesthetic tensions in movement arriving in poetry from an unsettled stance of ‘inside-out’ - the poet/academic/politician/woman/rooted yet moving above or through the lands:

‘As she gets older it seems he/
wants her poems/
more perfect/
so/
wants her poems/
less.//

Something about/
utterly transparent/
and/
completely achieved/
and/
finely balanced.’//

('Imperfect')

Sally-Ann Murray, I think, provides in ‘open season’ a robust response to multi-dimensional existing, when I consider Damon Galgut’s more detached reminiscence, or the putting of words into mouths of female characters in ‘The Good Doctor’. There, the expression of women having many different lives takes the author part way in surveying both himself and a populace, but with an uncomfortable gaze.

The form of the work occasionally overwhelms Sally-Ann Murray, as she is attempting to advocate with poetry, and argue with and against the role of poetry itself in contemporary time. She seems suspicious, and rightly so in my view, of word designs, but often finds boundaries in poetry’s ability to express thought and feeling; individual poems have produced effects leading to over-similarity with others in the collection. Rhythms, constructions can become a holding back of experiment in some poems, yet elsewhere, where the words stretch and enter from transference, they encourage empathy. If
Sally-Ann trusted poetry more, allowing her work to roam by a loosening of form and structure, I feel this might be another route to overcome any sense of stricture.

The similarity of effects caused me less irritation than I might have had with other poets, whether that was because of content, shifting perspectives - and Murray can present differently, originally, playfully from linguistic possibilities - but I felt she stepped aside too often and too knowingly due to her own irritation with poetry, the academy, and their politics. This is not to say the repercussions from her work are not causing tremors in the institutions.

Where Murray’s poems are the history of the poem/poetry, the veneers can crackle as ‘polished poems’ become – in their self-conscious move to realisation or re-installed political morality - the aesthetics of progression:

‘As long as I can remember (well, long/
as memory goes), I have been a killer/
of sorts, and for real, though not everyday,/
…You may beg to differ.’//

('Vigour Mortis')

By this final poem in the collection, ‘Vigour Mortis’, the domestic or domesticated epic is ironically as truncated as an ‘open season’. Murray shows that the epic, in life and poetry, causes endings and damage amongst the provisions
even as it attempts to build:

‘…In the dark, the stream of traffic sounds wet,/
a riverine rush that moves across a plain of flooded light.//

Nothing can force the river to give its passing judgement/
But never imagine that we bridge above the old warning/
And do not attempt to cross when the waters are in spate.//

('Mbilo')

‘…I watch you lug your own beach baggage home/
and place the pieces – paired, grouped, alone./
Not poem, not totem, this unbalanced cairn,/
But sea-silent fragments racked against your ruin.//

('Brighton Beached')

Here is a collection forming a question, from an award-winning poet with extensive publication in local and international arenas - writing which complements her life, and also her work as Associate Professor of English at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Is poetry the ‘good doctor’ of cultural form and conscience? Sally-Ann Murray is honestly undecided.

Philip Ruthen © May/September 2007. A version of this text was first published by The Poet’s Letter on-line magazine, May 2007 www.poetsletter.com, and is reproduced by kind permission of the editor.