Book Review: The Morphine Poems (Bobbi Lurie)

Reviewed by Sheila Black

The Morphine Poems is a sequence of prose poems by poet Bobbi Lurie loosely covering a period of the speaker’s life when she is struggling with cancer. This is not conveyed in a direct narrative form but rather through gesture, off-hand remark, sideways image in which the reader must piece together the life from the details.

The book is, thus, not a sequence in that the whole tells a clear-cut story, but more in the sense that Shakespeare’s sonnets are a sequence. The poems cover what feels like a fairly specific period in the speaker’s life–perhaps the span of a few months or a year--one in which facing illness, death, family troubles and financial difficulties, she contemplates or works around such essential questions as what does the voice mean when all things must dissolve, where is one to find comfort, what is one to make of the endless changeableness of the body, its frangibility, and, perhaps most pointedly, how does one connect with other people?

Around these large questions, the book creates a sustained yet impressionistic narrative, one that gathers complexity and force in part through the compression poetry allows–the way images can sometimes do more work than a whole paragraph of exposition, diction can be high and low, mashing together discourses from different lexicons, juxtaposing different registers, the way a brief stanza can evoke a novel-yet-to-be written. The sheer compression of Lurie’s technique is strikingly illustrated by these lines from the poem "horrors of morphine" which opens the book:

forgive them says who not being jesus for no reason for friends will greet you differently like someone they knew once but thought had died on an island they forgot the name of but just the same they greet you and cloak you with news of their latest addictions and admit at last that what surprises them is to see you still alive like someone they loved once but now choose to lie to like someone abandoned in a field of regret your friends greet you like a stranger rearrange you in their mind for they have books to sell and one calls her readers her "fans" her thighs are not tanned but cellulite while you bleed to death she sees you in a different light

As this demonstrates, Lurie’s is a narrative dense with allusions and also one which relies much on "white space" or "silence." Often we have the feeling that the poems are responding to specific incidents, but ones that are not spelled out for us; the poems are also responding to or building on each other so that similar terms, images, or motifs appear across multiple poems. In a recent interview, Lurie descries the process by which she develops individual poems into a complete manuscript, thusly:

I order the poems into a narrative. That is important to me. It can be surprising at first: going through poems, discovering a pattern of memories and ideas, looked at as a whole. The pattern is created long after the poems have been made. Seeing a whole new entity emerge is very exciting. Keeping to it, building on it, having the right tone, the right music, is very challenging.

As one reads through the book, one gains a sense of this later ordering as providing a space for reflection. In the choices Lurie makes, we apprehend the presence of the organizing mind reflecting on and frequently considering quite coolly the terrible immediate feelings that the individual poems often document. The Morphine Poems takes no prisoners in its often headlong, grief-stricken, and chaotic depiction of what it feels like to have a serious illness, but it keeps from being predictable or self-pitying. The process of "ordering into narrative," seems to provide Lurie with a way of restructuring her immediate feelings into something much larger and stranger–a narrative at once brutally close and distant as prophecy. Initially, the poems are not easy to approach–blocks of text with no punctuation; they echo the vedic or prophetic and mystic density of such pioneers of female writing/language and creation as Djuna Barnes, HD, and Maya Deren. Yet once you sink in, the words are charged, revelatory and highly concrete–addressing the particulars of the patient experience in bursts of vital imagery leavened with a strong vein of gallows humor:

the altar is a menace

my wallet reprimanded my body put through torture yet morale expected to be strong in spite of life turning into formica counters bottles of pills and beyond that abrasive therapies surgeries and worries the surface of existence the predictably parched lips and scars many scars how alone one is diminished by sickness the doctor’s pockmarked face up close as the iv drips "i’ll kill you," says he, "then keep you alive" and i….i…i…

Titles are important to Lurie, and the poems, while often going to a lyric or visionary place, achieve a good portion of their effect through Lurie’s mordent wit—her willingness to, in the words of Tony Hoagland in his essay "Negative Capability" "talk mean and influence people." As Hoagland points out, there is "truth-telling and more in meanness," and in the case of Lurie’s work this truth-telling is important in reframing typical attitudes towards illness and disability. As a person with a "medical history" (and, really, who doesn’t have "a medical history?"), I appreciated the book’s intense awareness of the tyranny of pretending bodies somehow "should not" change or decay, that illness is a crime–or at the very least a personal failure–and disability equally so.

Lurie is not shy about expressing her contempt for this medical pretense and the elaborate culture of pretending people who are sick or disabled should be somehow otherwise, which in Lurie’s view often additionally tortures those with serious illness and/or physical and mental disabilities, or as Lurie writes: " no longer a world in a valley of skulls beneath the skin faking it for so/long that the dying ones are lonely." In poem after poem, Lurie makes you feel viscerally that the notion of the body as one in which illness, disability, or change is the exception, is a lie–a profoundly unnatural construction—and its very unnaturalness explains the silencing, policing, and outright oppression which people who are sick or disabled often face—cast as outliers or outsiders in the game of life everyone else is playing–or as Lurie puts it: "…so why talk /intentionality if betrayal is in the eye of the beholder its purpose one /thing unintended wrestling a word which might have been a silent thin veneer of caring it’s a myth that’s why."

As I read through The Morphine Poems and considered the various issues of embodiment, social position, connection, illness and loss, Lurie explores, I kept thinking of the word "nostalgia" –that compound word "consisting of νόστος, nóstos, "returning home", a Homeric word, and ἄλγος, álgos, "pain" or "ache." The concept of nostalgia is interesting because it can be seen as both a good thing–tying you to your roots–and a kind of illness or pathology in which one is unable to live fully live in the present because the present is continually being interrupted by an often idealized vision of the past which, in turn, creates an unanswerable longing. For me The Morphine Poems possesses a similar duality in its passionate consideration of the body. In a sense this is a book about death; yet it is equally a book about connection. Lurie decries our failure to connect truly, and the tragedy of the decline and fall of the body–every body. Yet the deeper underlying argument of her book is about how the failure to connect honestly with the truth of the body–to acknowledge that truth, however difficult–is a source of suffering, pain, and dis-connection for all of us. As Lurie titles one of her poems "the antidote to pain is more pain."

As The Morphine Poems moves toward its conclusion, Lurie’s disappointment in the inadequacy of our social engines to hearten, sustain, or nurture enough–a theme which seems especially timely in this age of Facebook--gives way to a series of radiant mediations on what would constitute a more connected way to live:

life then ash here-now beyond question

materialized across my life a path a sadness i had not planned for no grace to surprise my gestures always settle for less said my fear an unhoused creature dark and barbed wild words silent in self actions paralyzed no joy he said find something of joy each day i lay my head on his chest unscripted closeness spontaneous the five senses inside marked a path of troubled space receding into dead leaves shame to be kept alive.

Lurie is too good a writer to fob us off with the usual threadbare spiritual tropes; the vision of transcendence she seeks arises more closely, directly from her experience of pain, frustration, silence, one she answers through a language that is oblique yet authentically visionary. The visionary has become a deeply unfashionable mode, discredited by having too often been used too carelessly to allow any confrontation with the contingencies of human existence. But the stark specificity of Lurie’s visions, their grounding in close observation of the actual combined with their wild, individualistic beauty makes a powerful argument for its return into the landfalls of our art.

Lurie’s vision of joy is believable precisely because it is so rooted in the body. Simply, in The Morphine Poems Lurie argues that the body will decay and decline, but this is no reason to fail to find joy. This is a book which covers enormously painful subject matter and territory; yet through its ferocity--its cri de coeur for a recognition of body as a site of negotiation in, around, and through "sickness," "health" "abled" and "disabled," and her pointed refusal of the standard hierarchies of "good" and "bad" that attach to these terms, Lurie somehow accomplishes the miracle of making one feel oddly exhilarated, even heartened for the dark ahead.