Nina Murray declares that practising the balance beam at her school in Ukraine made her ready for the unknown. As a ten-year-old girl, she was terrified of the gymnastic equipment but now she acknowledges her survival: ‘`I’d gotten on/and I’d gotten off/and am still alive clearly’. As she walked across the beam, she had visions of ‘mangled limbs’ but now she understands that ‘it is the uncertainty/for which I trained’.
Murray may have learnt to balance but her poetry in Glapthorn Circular, named after a village in Northamptonshire, is full of uncertainty. Lines are short, and there is no regular metre. There are hardly any commas or full stops, and there are few capital letters and even the I is often in lowercase. For her poems to surrender their meanings, they often have to be read twice. Some poems, however, remain defiantly abstruse while others get stuck in laborious wordplay.
The poems that recall her childhood in Lviv are the most successful. ‘picture me’ is a short but powerful study of abandonment. The poet as a young girl looks out of a tower block window in winter waiting for her mother to come home ‘from the distant bus stop’. A prose poem, ‘Ink’, recalls the fact that in Ukraine schoolchildren were required to write their lessons using fountain pens filled with purple ink. However, one day, sitting behind two of the most popular girls in the class, Murray sees one of these girls get out her pen to write in blue ink. The poem ends: ‘The revolution had begun.’
After moving to the US in 2002, Murray now lives in England and has given up her Ukrainian passport. Her current position in a post-Covid world where a war rages in her homeland is confused, ‘the map/ a mere contour.’ Perhaps only nature remains the same in such an uncertain world; throughout the volume, there are poems entitled with months of the year suggesting that the ‘Circular’ of the title doesn’t just refer to a walk that takes you back to where you started but also to the cycle of nature itself.
These nature poems evoke images that are familiar to anyone living in rural England. In ‘June’, white yarrow drapes the roads…like feather boas’ while in ‘April’ the daffodil, a little too grandiloquently, is a ‘summons/to prophetic ecstasy/of spring.’ Wheat lies in ‘tempting golden runways’ in ‘July’ and ‘new hard/strawberries’ appear in ‘May’. Empty landscapes figure in the lockdown poem ‘COVID-19’ where apple blossoms provide a ‘ticker-tape parade/for those not present’.
Murray’s metaphors and similes work better when they are simple. Describing the linden ‘buoyant as swizzle-sticks on bubbles of champagne’ takes one too far from Rimbaud, the poem’s initial focus. A poem about the reappearance of traffic noise after lockdown is undermined by its wordy ending where ‘ambidextrous egrets/pierce the synthetic bubble’. The imagery in ‘dream sequence’ where ‘sentry cyclamen/in window boxes/like Lilliputian cyclops/kiss/catacombs’ seems just an excuse for some extended alliteration.
There’s little rhyming in Murray’s poetry, but when it does appear it is effective. In ‘the avian advantage’ where she describes swallows feeding in the air there are a few rhymes, ‘sweat’ with ‘threat’ and ‘fly’ with ‘sky’. These rhymes, one extending over a few stanzas while the other comes in consecutive lines, form the pattern, the ‘web’ that the birds make as they swoop, catching insects in flight. In the excellent ‘Shevchuk’, which is a history of her family name, the rhymes come right at the end, but before them, we discover the many meanings her maiden name has:
The name means ‘an apprentice’
The name means ‘not an important person’.
It means ‘disregard’.
It means ‘nothing to see here.’
But the meaning of Shevchuk is uncertain and varied as it also means ‘he also knew how to thatch a roof’ or ‘whatever that is in his pipe, bees love it.’ These contradictory definitions are like adages that stretch back generations, but Murray seems to want a simpler life when she takes the name of her husband, as suggested by the easy rhymes ‘came’/’name’ and ‘team’/’cream’ that come at the end of the poem:
When the time came, I slipped the name
like a surveillance team and taught my husband
to say azohen vey and add some sour cream
Autobiography comes so easily to Murray that perhaps a more traditional memoir beckons. But until then, the poems within Glapthorn Circular are like spring blossoms, signs of future fruit.
Glapthorn Circular: A Gleaner’s Journal is published by Live Canon at £12