Bully Love (Press 53, 2019) by Patricia Colleen Murphy
“My only power is this ability to name,” proclaims the speaker of Bully Love, contrary to the title’s suggestion. In a collection rife with the macro-conflict in nature and the micro-conflict in the body, Murphy’s poems evoke the pain of the death of the speaker’s mother, who was mentally ill, while making characters of the places that the speaker inhabits: each state, both physical and mental. Each landscape. These states are sanctuaries from both enduring conflict and sources of new conflict as the speaker grows older and suffers new losses.
What is important about this collection: whether in short, terse lines or in long-lined narrative poems, the questions of mental stability, fertility, disease, and love become backdrops for the greater mother-daughter relationship that has failed the speaker in ways that caused permanent trauma. Though she moves on physically when she moves west from Ohio, and mentally when she begins new relationships, early childhood relationships continue to drive decisions that the speaker makes as an adult, such as whether to have her own children or how to center her health. In “Tell Your Story Walking,” the speaker states:
There are two ways to tell a story.
When I was fifteen you went mad and I saved you.
When I was fifteen you went mad and I never forgave you.
The idea of love, then, is something sinister in its applications. The “bully” kind of love is the one that we have no control over. Control, or loss of control, is another deeper concern of the poems. When we have the power to name the things that hurt us, but not stop them from happening. When we have the power not to hurt someone who has hurt us. When we are powerless to help them. When we are powerless over mental illness, or love, or forgiveness. Over the way love can be abusive in its failures. The speaker can quit smoking, eat better, take care of herself, but cannot influence the world in other ways. This conflict is at the center of a larger question: why do we want love so desperately if it is bound to fail us?
Louise Glück famously wrote in “The Red Poppy:”
oh, I have those; they
This sentiment is the through-line of these poems. Who are we when all we want is a parent to understand our pain? What if that parent inflicted that pain that will stay with us? Bully Love. In an elegiac sequence of poems, the speaker describes little ways of dying on a daily basis in different places, against different physical and psychological backdrops. Because she is credited with “[saving her mother] from suicide” in “Little Colorado,” the idea of suicide becomes one in which the person doing the dying finally has some measure of control over dying. In the “dying” poems, the speaker is trying to assert her authority over circumstances she can and cannot control, such as in “Dying, Four Ways: Arizona:”
Lose your husband of fifty years while you
go blind. Leave the Bay for the Desert.
Complain about Bush/Cheney and eat
sandwiches while watching CNN. Flirt with
the paramedics. Tell everyone you have quit,
then sneak smokes all day. Buy identical
tencel suits in three colors that you will never wear
because we’re not going to Charleston’s
for ribs anymore. No Olive Garden, no lasagna.
The dying in this collection isn’t only being accomplished by the speaker’s mother. Everyone and everything is dying, “the stars and the spaces between stars / it has taken me all my life to accept.” This lack of acceptance included.
In terms of place, Murphy firmly situates her poems in time and space. These places exist inside and outside the speaker, so dependent are we on our physical environments, particularly the natural world that we often neglect to take care of. Many of the poems have place names in the titles, which demonstrates how important these places are to these poems. At the end of the collection, forgiveness is another place the speaker must visit: “the meticulous accounting / of daughters” is the flipside of the, “bright, sharp edges / on the periphery of praise.” Thus, forgiveness is the toggle—besides naming, it is the one thing we have in our power to give or to refuse.
The poems in Bully Love appeal to the senses: lush imagery coupled with song and silence. Even the dead sing. Even moments where the speaker is being insincere ring with the sincerity of the heartbroken. All years add up to the types of love that keep us alive: past and present, fair and ugly-unfair, forgivable and unforgivable.