North Dakota State University, $24.95, 192 pp.
The poet Timothy Murphy’s new collection, Devotions, begins with a trip to Disenchantment Bay, Alaska. There, the speaker and his companion witness the calving of a glacier: “Crack! A blue serac tottered and gave. / Stunned at the water’s edge, / we fled our vantage ledge / like oystercatchers skittering from a wave.” Once he’s scurried to safety, the speaker’s mind momentarily wanders, as the poem closes with different kinds of breakage, other forms of detachment:
Now separation has become my fear.
What was does not console,
what is, is past control—
the disembodiment that looms so near.
Detachment? So an ice cliff by the sea
calves with a seismic crash
of bergy bits and brash,
choking a waterway with its debris.
We clear the neap tide beach of glacial wrack,
pace and mark the ground,
then wave the Cessna round.
Pilot, we bank on you to bear us back.
As is so frequently the case in this book, the surface simplicity of “Disenchantment Bay” belies a deeper complexity. One of the obvious pleasures the poem offers lies in its precise natural description. Murphy knows his surroundings, and this knowledge makes itself felt in the technical language—the “neap tide” and “bergy bits”—that so effortlessly floats in and out of the poem. “Disenchantment Bay” is also a lovely piece of poetic music, with the alliterations of “bergy bits and brash” picked up again in “bank on you to bear us back,” with the play between long and short “a” sounds in “glacial wrack,” “pace and mark.” Murphy often uses regular rhyme and meter—he’s a formalist’s formalist, a protégé of the late Richard Wilbur—and his poems are a joy to read out loud and listen to, as we savor the glacier’s cracking made audible in “calves” and “crash,” “wrack” and “back.”
Most movingly, though, “Disenchantment Bay” becomes in its last moments a meditation on death and mourning, which Murphy describes here as “the disembodiment that looms so near.” Devotions is a deeply elegiac collection, and there’s hardly a better description of the elegist’s challenge, or the mourner’s suffering, than these lines: “What was does not console, / what is, is past control.” To mourn is to know the painful difference between was and is, and to know that the consolations offered—in the form of prayer, in the form of poetry—can soothe but never completely salve death’s wounds.
Indeed, death permeates Devotions, from its first poem to its last line: “Remember, we are clay.” Murphy was recently diagnosed with stage-IV cancer. Like the serac, Murphy must strive for a kind of detachment—a more difficult task for him than for the ice. (Note the question mark that comes after this word in “Disenchantment Bay”: it’s as if the speaker can’t believe that such a thing is possible in the face of such looming loss.) Separation, from the life of hunting and eating and cooking and writing that Murphy loves, has become his fear.