Mark Ford

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Drafts, Frag­ments, and Po­ems: The Com­plete Po­etry by Joan Mur­ray, edited by Farnoosh Fathi, with a pref­ace by John Ash­bery

Drafts, Frag­ments, and Po­ems: The Com­plete Po­etry by Joan Mur­ray, edited by Farnoosh Fathi, with a pref­ace by John Ash­bery. New York Re­view Books, 257 pp., $16.00 (pa­per)

The only poem by Joan Mur­ray (1917– 1942) pub­lished dur­ing her short life ap­peared in the April 1941 is­sue of De­ci­sion: A Re­view of Free Cul­ture, an im­pres­sive monthly pe­ri­od­i­cal founded that year by Klaus Mann, son of Thomas Mann. Con­trib­u­tors to De­ci­sion, which folded af­ter only twelve is­sues, in­cluded Jean Cocteau, Vir­ginia Woolf, Mar­i­anne Moore, W. Som­er­set Maugham, Wil­liam Car­los Wil­liams, E.M. Forster, and Thomas Mann, as well as an­other re­cent im­mi­grant to Amer­ica, W. H. Au­den, who helped out with the edit­ing too. Au­den (who was, in­ci­den­tally, Klaus’s brother-in-law, hav­ing mar­ried Erika Mann in 1935 to fa­cil­i­tate her es­cape from Nazi Ger­many) was in­vited to com­pile for the April is­sue a se­lec­tion of un­pub­lished po­ems. In the event, how­ever, he opted to de­vote all of his al­lot­ted pages to print­ing a work by a twenty-four-yearold stu­dent en­rolled in his “Po­etry and Cul­ture” class at the New School.

This “re­mark­able piece,” as Au­den de­scribed Joan Mur­ray’s “Or­pheus: Three Eclogues” in a head­note, reimag­ines Or­pheus’s de­scent to the Un­der­world in quest of Eury­dice, and cul­mi­nates in the dread­ful mo­ment when he looks back at his beloved on the thresh­old of the land of the liv­ing. This story has ap­pealed to po­ets from Ovid to Rilke, and it clearly had a par­tic­u­lar charge for Mur­ray, who from her early teens was aware of the pos­si­bil­ity that she might die young. Her “Three Eclogues” give speeches to Or­pheus, his mother Cal­liope, Eury­dice, Charon, and the Shades that dra­ma­tize with star­tling fresh­ness and elo­quence the mys­ter­ies of life and death that the story broaches. Eury­dice’s slow re­cov­ery of her phys­i­cal be­ing, for in­stance, is con­veyed by Mur­ray with ex­quis­ite pre­ci­sion and ex­cite­ment:

Or­pheus I shall tell you that I am. I shape! I shape!

Here is the well-placed head, the del­i­cate trace of vein;

Through wrists and breasts whence these tat­tered drapes es­cape,

I put my hand upon my heart and feel its ac­tion once again.

The men­tion of her heart in the last line is par­tic­u­larly res­o­nant, for it was a dam­aged heart valve caused by an early bout of rheumatic fever that led to Mur­ray’s death, the year af­ter this poem was pub­lished.

No ex­pla­na­tion is given for Or­pheus’s glance back as their jour­ney nears its end:

I am turn­ing, Eury­dice, turn­ing . . .

It is the won­der of a sleep­ing child that turns upon its sleep: A doubt with­out dis­cern­ing,

A shy hand stretched along the edge­less wall where fear­ful shad­ows weep.

The fa­tal turn pro­ceeds as hyp­not­i­cally and ir­re­sistibly as the in­ex­pli­ca­ble on­set of a deadly dis­ease, and Mur­ray’s sur­pris­ing use of the metaphor of the turn­ing of a sleep­ing child typ­i­fies the fu­sion of the ran­dom and the in­evitable that char­ac­ter­izes much of her finest work. Most mov­ing of all, how­ever, is the al­most meta­phys­i­cal con­ceit with which Eury­dice re­sponds to be­ing re­con­signed to death:

In my palms lie these two clear ef­forts of my eyes, The very essence of this tor­mented mo­ment.

With this for­mu­la­tion, at once sto­ical and dig­ni­fied, Mur­ray trans­forms Eury­dice’s tears into pierc­ing sym­bols of ir­repara­ble loss.

Au­den’s ad­mi­ra­tion for his pupil’s po­etry was deep and en­dur­ing. In 1946, four years af­ter her death, he was asked to take over as editor of the Yale Series of Younger Po­ets, a post he would hold un­til 1959. That first year, unim­pressed by the manuscripts passed on to him for con­sid­er­a­tion by the press, he wrote to the editor in charge of the series with what must have seemed a some­what un­usual no­tion: “I have just heard that the po­ems of Joan Mur­ray which I told you about are avail­able, and, in my opin­ion, they are the best we have. May I have your per­mis­sion to choose them?” Per­mis­sion was given, and Mur­ray’s Po­ems ap­peared in May of the fol­low­ing year, with a fore­word by Au­den in which he de­clared:

We are not pub­lish­ing her po­ems out of char­ity, be­cause she will never be able to write any more, but be­cause they are good, and I hope that the reader will ap­proach her work just as ob­jec­tively as if she were still alive, and not be dis­tracted by sen­ti­men­tal spec­u­la­tion about what she might have writ­ten in the fu­ture which was de­nied her.

In his fi­nal para­graph he lists a num­ber of his fa­vorite po­ems from the book, and sug­gests that any “true judge and lover of po­etry” who alights on these in a book­store “will nei­ther leave the store with­out tak­ing the vol­ume with him, nor ever re­gret his pur­chase.” Mur­ray’s Po­ems also in­cluded an editor’s note by Grant Code. Code was a poet him­self (his work had ap­peared in Eight More Har­vard Po­ets in 1923) as well as a lec­turer on the­ater and dance. Mur­ray’s mother, Peggy, a diseuse, or mo­nolo­gist, and fre­quenter of the­atri­cal cir­cles, had com­mis­sioned Code to un­der­take the dif­fi­cult task of sort­ing through her daugh­ter’s pa­pers in order to es­tab­lish what po­ems should be in­cluded in the Yale vol­ume, and which ver­sions should be used. Mur­ray’s manuscripts, Code re­ported, were in a be­wil­der­ing state of “con­fu­sion, pages of prose mixed with pages of verse and scarcely two pages of any­thing to­gether that be­longed to­gether.” Her spell­ing was “capri­cious,” her punc­tu­a­tion was ab­sent or er­ratic, and her hand­writ­ten re­vi­sions on type­scripts were often dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble to de­ci­pher. Few po­ems were ti­tled and there was lit­tle to in­di­cate the order of drafts or which ver­sions were near­est a fi­nal or fair copy.

The prob­lems, as he ob­serves, were anal­o­gous to those con­fronting Emily Dickinson’s first ed­i­tors, and like them he at­tempted to bring Mur­ray’s verse into line with the con­ven­tions of the day—as, pre­sum­ably, Mur­ray her­self had when ready­ing “Or­pheus: Three Eclogues” for pub­li­ca­tion in De­ci­sion. Code added con­nec­tives, punc­tu­a­tion, and ti­tles, nor­mally mak­ing use of the first line of each poem for these, while oc­ca­sion­ally im­pos­ing a “de­scrip­tive ti­tle” of his own.

Code also ar­ranged Mur­ray’s work into seven sec­tions whose con­tents are loosely the­mat­i­cally linked, and added sub­ti­tles that are miss­ing from Farnoosh Fathi’s Drafts, Frag­ments, and Po­ems: The Com­plete Po­etry, based on Mur­ray’s orig­i­nal manuscripts. “An Ep­i­tha­la­mium: Mar­riage Poem for an Age,” for in­stance, a won­der­fully ex­pan­sive poem that cap­tures the awak­en­ing sex­ual con­scious­ness of a choric group of young men and young women, was pub­lished in 1947 with the in­trigu­ing sug­ges­tion that it was writ­ten for a “Mar­riage Day in a Lit­tle­Known Coun­try,” but that sub­ti­tle has now van­ished; and “The An­chorite,” a dis­jointed but haunt­ing med­i­ta­tion on lone­li­ness, and ide­al­ism, has lost a puz­zling but evoca­tive phrase in­serted be­tween ti­tle and poem in Code’s edi­tion: “The Her­mit Sees Through a Month’s Dream­ing.”

Code also set about di­ver­si­fy­ing the po­ems by ar­rang­ing pieces that were writ­ten as sin­gle blocks of verse into a range of stanza pat­terns, as well as by adding paren­the­ses and in­sert­ing speech marks that cre­ate a sense of di­a­logue, or at least of to-and-fro be­tween dif­fer­ent speak­ers or per­spec­tives. Fi­nally, he cor­rected ne­ol­o­gis­tic com­pounds such as “tall­gaunt” or “greyskirts” by adding a hy­phen or sep­a­rat­ing into two words.

Poor Code has on oc­ca­sion been pil­lo­ried by Mur­ray’s ad­mir­ers, but it is only with the pub­li­ca­tion of Fathi’s edi­tion of her com­plete works that one is able to gauge the na­ture and ex­tent of his ed­i­to­rial in­ter­ven­tions. De­spite Au­den’s ad­vo­cacy and a num­ber of pos­i­tive, if some­what baf­fled, re­views in jour­nals such as Po­etry, The Satur­day Re­view, and The New Yorker, Mur­ray’s Po­ems slid rapidly from sight—although not be­fore catch­ing the at­ten­tion of an­other of Au­den’s choices for the Yale Series of Younger Po­ets, John Ash­bery. In 1968 Peggy sold both her own pa­pers and those of her daugh­ter to Smith Col­lege; mys­te­ri­ously, how­ever, it ap­peared that only Peggy’s ma­te­rial ar­rived. The as­sump­tion was that the trunk con­tain­ing her daugh­ter’s manuscripts had slipped off the back of the truck trans­port­ing them and dis­ap­peared for­ever. In a piece writ­ten in 2003 for the Po­etry Project News­let­ter (and reprinted as the pref­ace to this vol­ume) Ash­bery lamented the fact that Mur­ray’s po­etry could only be ex­pe­ri­enced in Code’s gussied-up ver­sions, while also in­sist­ing that her imag­i­na­tion “was pow­er­ful enough to stand up to the min­is­tra­tions of a well-mean­ing but some­what heavy-handed editor.”

Hav­ing my­self fallen un­der the spell of lines such as “A witch is more lovely than thought in the moun­tain rain,” or “Time was like the snail in his cupo­laed house,” or “Drop your lids lit­tle ar­chi­tect ad­mit the bats of wis­dom in

your head,” I em­barked, in 2013, on an es­say for Po­etry out­lin­ing the dis­tinc­tive and orig­i­nal as­pects of Mur­ray’s work. She seemed to me a cru­cial link be­tween two of the cen­tury’s great­est writ­ers, Au­den and Ash­bery, and to have evolved a po­etry that was at once rig­or­ously im­per­sonal and yet ex­pres­sive of a pe­cu­liar, al­most elec­tric vi­tal­ity. I liked the mer­cu­rial na­ture of her work, her will­ing­ness to “re­sist the in­tel­li­gence/Al­most [or, on oc­ca­sion, com­pletely] suc­cess­fully,” to bor­row a phrase from Wal­lace Stevens (“Man Car­ry­ing Thing”). Like Stevens, Mur­ray can often seem elu­sive, but her puz­zling syn­tax and im­agery gen­er­ally com­mu­ni­cate a sense of ur­gency, how­ever oblique or far-fetched the state­ments made:

Dried leaves like scales over the land

And the slow blink down to win­ter.

Fa­ther of shiv­er­ing times crazed by each spring’s de­mand

Why would you know your daugh­ter?

Spec­u­lat­ing about ex­actly what Code had done to her orig­i­nal ver­sions, it oc­curred to me that I might as well check with the Smith ar­chiv­ists on the sta­tus of the trunk; it was, I was in­formed, still miss­ing. My in­quiry must, how­ever, have stim­u­lated a fresh search, for just be­fore my es­say went to press I re­ceived an e-mail from the Smith archivist Karen Kukil telling me that it had fi­nally been lo­cated, hav­ing pre­sum­ably lan­guished in some dusty store­room for the last half-cen­tury. I felt as ex­cited, open­ing that e-mail, as the name­less nar­ra­tor of Henry James’s “The Aspern Pa­pers” felt on ap­proach­ing Ju­liana Bordereau’s desk. I was de­lighted, fur­ther, to learn that the trunk’s vo­lu­mi­nous con­tents in­cluded let­ters, drafts of po­ems, and much prose as well. A large dent in its side sup­ported the story that it had at some point been mis­han­dled and dropped, but its re­cov­ery at least ab­solved the mov­ing men of the more se­ri­ous crime of hav­ing lost it al­to­gether. As Fathi notes, she had the “ex­hil­a­rat­ing priv­i­lege of be­ing the first to go through . . . the long-lost pa­pers,” and this new vol­ume is the re­sult.

Mur­ray’s cor­re­spon­dence, of which a se­lec­tion is re­pro­duced here, makes it clear that the star­tling tran­si­tions and un­pre­dictable metaphors that char­ac­ter­ize her po­etry re­flect her in­stinc­tive men­tal habits. Con­sider this para­graph, writ­ten when she was twenty, to the novelist He­len An­der­son, whom she met on only four oc­ca­sions, but who served as her ini­tial lit­er­ary men­tor:

Paint me a scene of slopes and trees, but let there be two sad­boned horses dropped to­ward the dark brown and the greens. Give a world of white and snow. I’d henna the clouds or flip off to perdi­tion. For there’s no mean­ing to it. Give me the lake, the woods, the spa­ces where you stand. The birds are quiet. The sun­set back is still and void­less, the lake a half re­flec­tion, and the fields melted into the fi­nal mists that fill the shadow, and the trees, a draw­ing, a draw­ing back dif­fused, so that one cool col­ored thing may be­come essence of them­selves. A sim­ple ques­tion an­swered with a smile, per­haps, or per­haps a lit­tle dust that throws a star into relief. Who knows? This is what counts now, and the only thing that lasts. The ac­tu­al­i­ties, the peo­ple, move, but blur­ring so swiftly with time, they are as un­re­li­able as last night’s foo­leries.

“Sad-boned horses... I’d henna the clouds . . . a lit­tle dust that throws a star into relief . . . as un­re­li­able as last night’s foo­leries . . . . ” Like that de­ployed in her po­etry, Mur­ray’s richly fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage flirts with ec­cen­tric­ity and gram­mat­i­cal im­passes, in­deed con­sis­tently makes us won­der if the pas­sage has been copied out cor­rectly; it also, nev­er­the­less, man­ages to in­car­nate a re­fresh­ingly open space in which words seem only loosely teth­ered to fa­mil­iar us­ages and mean­ings, even to trem­ble with new en­er­gies and pos­si­bil­i­ties. She didn’t, it must be ad­mit­ted, al­ways find in­ter­est­ing or ef­fec­tive nar­ra­tive forms for the im­ages that un­reel like a force of na­ture in both her po­ems and her imag­i­na­tive prose, but she un­doubt­edly did so in her most am­bi­tious works, such as “Ep­i­tha­la­mium” or “Or­pheus: Three Eclogues” (the poem so ad­mired by Au­den), or “The Dream of the Ar­chi­tect,” the most im­por­tant and ar­rest­ing of the un­pub­lished pieces dis­cov­ered by Fathi in the bat­tered trunk.

The free­dom and orig­i­nal­ity of Mur­ray’s lan­guage clearly re­flect the un­con­ven­tional na­ture of her up­bring­ing and school­ing. She was born in Lon­don in 1917, in the midst of an air raid, to Cana­dian par­ents; her fa­ther, Stan­ley, who had served in the war with a British in­fantry reg­i­ment, was a painter and il­lus­tra­tor, and her mother a trav­el­ing solo per­former whose act in­cluded mono­logues, dance rou­tines, and songs. Stan­ley and Peggy sep­a­rated when she was seven, and Mur­ray seems to have had a lit­tle sub­se­quent con­tact with her fa­ther. As a child she lived in Lon­don (a city that fea­tures fre­quently in her po­etry) and Paris, but at the age of ten was sent to live with her ma­ter­nal aunt and un­cle in Chatham, On­tario, while her mother pur­sued the peri­patetic life of a per­former. There, the fol­low­ing year, Mur­ray suf­fered her first bout of rheumatic fever, which left her with a badly dam­aged heart valve. An even more se­vere at­tack two years later had the doc­tors de­spair­ing of her life. It was an in­fec­tion re­lated to these early pe­ri­ods of ill­ness that led to her pre­ma­ture death in 1942.

Her school­ing was patchy, but in­cluded spells at an Ur­su­line con­vent board­ing school in Chatham and at a high school in Detroit, where her aunt and un­cle set­tled when she was fif­teen; the head­mistress of the lat­ter de­scribed Mur­ray as “a soul apart,” and she was clearly not well suited to a con­ven­tional ed­u­ca­tion. Af­ter com­plet­ing ninth grade she de­voted her­self to soli­tary study, and an ac­count of her read­ing found among the newly dis­cov­ered pa­pers sug­gests a vo­ra­cious ap­petite for books: all of Dick­ens, Ib­sen “from stem to stern,” Mau­pas­sant, Balzac, Hardy, Ana­tole France, Poe, Irv­ing, Hawthorne, Scott, Tol­stoy, Dos­to­evsky, Strind­berg, Haupt­mann, Wedekind, Maeter­linck, Thomas Mann, Goethe, Yeats, Hous­man, Eliot, Pound.

Ini­tially she was at­tracted to a ca­reer, like her mother’s, as a per­former, mov­ing when she was eigh­teen to New York, where she acted and danced semipro­fes­sion­ally with the Irvine Play­ers and stud­ied with Maria Ous­pen­skaya and Mikhail Mord­kin. At twenty-two, how­ever, she dis­cov­ered po­etry—or it dis­cov­ered her: while Yeats, it seems, was the ini­tial cat­a­lyst for this con­ver­sion, it was Au­den, as her po­ems tes­tify so vividly, whose id­iom had the most ef­fect on her at­tempts to de­velop her own poetic voice. She signed up to study with him in the spring of 1940, and the two clearly hit it off. Fathi in­cludes a cou­ple of drafts of let­ters to Au­den found in the trunk—let­ters that she may or may not have ac­tu­ally sent: in one she refers to their shared sense of “affin­ity,” and in an­other in­vites him for a sum­mer hol­i­day with her and her mother in their apart­ment on Saranac Lake in up­state New York.

This “affin­ity” is also strik­ingly in ev­i­dence in her poem “To W. H. Au­den,” which mem­o­rably catches the mix of fear­less ex­per­i­ment, prophetic out­rage, and nag­ging un­cer­tainty so es­sen­tial to the Au­den of the 1930s:

Lon­don al­leys and bus tick­ets snapped at Pic­cadilly

With the soot and the rain and the wind let loose . . . .

We have watched you am­ble there with­out ma­tu­rity,

Flung be­tween can­des­cent thoughts on land that killed the goose

Des­tined to lose the golden egg, this is­land that we knew,

This river, this Em­bank­ment, this power for the few. Like so many of Mur­ray’s po­ems, this one demon­strates her fa­cil­ity with rhyme and off-rhyme, as well as her abil­ity to push the rec­og­niz­ably Au­de­nesque (lit­er­ally here, for Au­den him­self al­most never set po­ems in Lon­don) in sur­pris­ing new direc­tions.

Code, for some rea­son, re­moved the ti­tle from this poem, em­ploy­ing in­stead its strik­ing first line, “You, Held in the Thin Cusp of the Night.” He also con­flated two drafts to make it twice as long as the ver­sion printed by Fathi. De­spite this and a num­ber of other ques­tion­able choices, Fathi finds much to praise in her pre­de­ces­sor’s heroic ef­forts to make Mur­ray’s po­etry ad­here as closely as pos­si­ble to the ac­cepted stan­dards of its time of pub­li­ca­tion—although she swiftly goes on to ex­plain why her edi­tion will undo all his “im­prove­ments.” “I’ve pre­served,” she writes,

Mur­ray’s for­mat­ting and punc­tu­a­tion ex­actly as it ap­peared in the typed manuscripts. While Mur­ray prob­a­bly would have fid­dled fur­ther with the punc­tu­a­tion on many of these po­ems, I wanted to let the po­ems stand as they are, as much as pos­si­ble, rather than chan­nel ed­its.

Given the cur­rent con­sen­sus on how best to present the works of John Clare or Emily Dickinson or Sa­muel Greenberg or Mur­ray her­self (i.e., in their orig­i­nal states), this is wholly un­con­tro­ver­sial. I must con­fess, how­ever, that an un­pro­gres­sive part of me re­grets the loss of ten­sion that the 1947 edi­tion of­fers be­tween Mur­ray’s wild and wacky

id­iom and the stiff, for­mal pre­sen­ta­tion of each poem, its rig­or­ously cor­rect mise-en-page valiantly sig­nal­ing its am­bi­tion to be thought of as a well­wrought urn. On the other hand, and in am­ple rec­om­pense, this new edi­tion makes us con­sis­tently and mov­ingly con­scious of the ex­tent to which all Mur­ray’s writ­ing was work-in-progress, ex­pan­sive, pro­vi­sional, ex­ploratory, and wholly un­aware, it can often feel, that it would ever be pub­lished and read. As Ash­bery put it in a pas­sage com­posed for this edi­tion and tacked on to his orig­i­nal es­say, when printed in their orig­i­nal ver­sions Mur­ray’s po­ems “are given new space to breathe.”

Fathi has also added to the Mur­ray canon. The book is di­vided into three sec­tions. The first pre­sents the orig­i­nal ver­sions of the seventy-six po­ems that Code in­cluded in his 1947 edi­tion, with a range of vari­ants listed in the notes. Given the in­de­ter­mi­nate na­ture of Mur­ray’s style—surely one of the rea­sons that the book so ap­pealed to Ash­bery—it is not al­ways easy to ad­ju­di­cate one way or the other when pon­der­ing these ed­i­to­rial cruxes. “Give back night to re­ced­ing sky,” runs the ninth line in the first poem in Code’s edi­tion, which be­comes “Give back height to re­ced­ing sky” in Fathi’s. The point worth mak­ing is that the line, in ei­ther ver­sion, might eas­ily have found a place in an early Au­den lyric, or in­deed in a poem such as John Ash­bery’s “Clep­sy­dra.”

The sec­ond sec­tion of­fers ex­tended sam­ples of Mur­ray’s ex­u­ber­ant, un­struc­tured, free-flow­ing let­ters. These com­bine gnomic pro­nounce­ments (“I am held speech­less in the hands of some spirit in­def­i­nite and pros­trate,” opens the first of them) and pros­e­po­etic ur­ban vi­gnettes that cap­ture her im­pres­sions of New York, where she spent much of that year: “Here where peo­ple are rivered in in­ter­minable blocks, wits have been sharp­ened at the wrong end . . . . Here is mi­cro­scoped the whole hu­man­ity, shilly-shal­ly­ing from filth to wider com­pre­hen­sions.”

In­deed, de­spite that open­ing sen­tence, “speech­less” is one thing Mur­ray seems rarely to have been. She re­flects elo­quently on her read­ing and artis­tic am­bi­tions—how, she won­ders, can she “de­velop a whole­ness and a pur­pose out of fringed ideas that seem so small and run tan­gent to each other”—and that sum­mer she con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity of join­ing An­der­son and her boyfriend at an artists’ com­mune in Ore­gon, rig­or­ously com­mit­ting her­self, like the as­cetic in her poem of that name, to her artis­tic vo­ca­tion “in a tur­ret or in a desert with a sack cloth and noth­ing more.”

At this point she was try­ing to write a novel, but by 1940 po­etry and poetic drama had come to ob­sess her—Peggy once ac­cused Au­den of hav­ing killed her daugh­ter with the com­po­si­tional fever that his classes had in­spired in her. A let­ter to an uniden­ti­fied woman known only as “Baroness” from the sum­mer of 1941—Mur­ray’s “liv­ing year” (to bor­row Robert Git­tings’s phrase for Keats in 1819), as well as her last—of­fers an in­ter­est­ing in­sight into the mythol­ogy of the Uni­ver­sal Ar­chi­tect that fea­tures promi­nently in a num­ber of her po­ems. She was at work, at this point, on a dance drama, “The Dream of the Ar­chi­tect,” in which she hoped to in­ter­est Martha Gra­ham. The mind of her ar­chi­tect-hero, she ex­plains, is “epit­o­mized in the de­sire to recre­ate what is des­o­lated, to re­build; the fact that the spirit ex­ists be­side ev­ery ter­ri­ble de­struc­tion; that the sen­si­tive but inar­tic­u­late line is be­ing put upon in­nu­mer­able plans while all is in sham­bles.” This pas­sage per­haps in­di­cates that the source of her ar­chi­tec­tural myth was Yeats’s res­o­nant dec­la­ra­tion in “Lapis Lazuli”: “All things fall and are built again,/And those that build them again are gay.” But while her verse drama on the theme un­doubt­edly has its ori­gins in the choric plays of Yeats and Au­den, it also re­veals Mur­ray at her most in­ven­tive, mak­ing it hard to fathom why it was omit­ted by Code from his 1947 edi­tion. “The Dream of the Ar­chi­tect” is un­doubt­edly the most pre­cious trea­sure to have emerged from the mis­placed trunk. Most of the other ma­te­rial in­cluded in the book’s third sec­tion of pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished po­etry dates from 1936, and is not, it must be ac­knowl­edged, of great in­ter­est. “The Dream of the Ar­chi­tect,” on the other hand, although in­com­plete, con­tains many fine and in­ven­tive pas­sages.

The ar­chi­tect him­self never speaks, but his “var­i­ous sides,” as the let­ter to the Baroness ex­plains, are ar­tic­u­lated by a Cho­rus of Five Women. Other char­ac­ters in­clude the Civil­ian, the Leader, and the Boy. “We are the five dreams,” the Women de­clare in their open­ing speech,

of the Un­em­ployed Ar­chi­tect. Five cities upon five hills, five ar­range­ments of the in­tel­lect, Five women of con­cep­tion and de­light

Struc­ture within struc­ture, life in life, breadth and height.

Like “Or­pheus,” the play makes su­perb use of rhymes that often link hands only at the end of long, tum­bling lines, although Mur­ray also, on oc­ca­sion, de­ploys short, syn­co­pated ones. The play’s over­all schema re­mains opaque but, again as in “Or­pheus,” the shadow nar­ra­tive that it de­vel­ops curbs her ten­dency to heap up ab­strac­tions, in­stead pro­pel­ling the play’s star­tling for­mu­la­tions on­ward with an ex­hil­a­rat­ing sense of pur­pose. While it’s hard to guess ex­actly what re­la­tion the three scenes that sur­vive bear to Mur­ray’s con­cep­tion of the piece in its en­tirety, what re­mains might well serve as the cru­elest tes­ti­mony of all to the loss that po­etry suf­fered with her pre­ma­ture demise early the fol­low­ing year. The speeches of the Boy in par­tic­u­lar cap­ture the up­lift­ing sense of pos­si­bil­ity cours­ing through Mur­ray’s po­etry at its best: “Free with a free­dom that ran to meet me with the shock/Of new angers and new loves im­me­di­ate and my own.” Cer­tain lines, on the other hand, com­mu­ni­cate a more omi­nous vi­sion of the costs, or at least the imag­ined end, of such spon­tane­ity:

The mad child’s vi­sion made me like a reed And play­ing my own mu­sic I was flung from the tired tur­ret, time’s ejected seed.

Whether her silent ar­chi­tect—a semi­par­o­dic ver­sion of Ni­et­zsche’s Über­men­sch who might be set be­side the comic/heroic air­man of Au­den’s The Or­a­tors—would have man­aged to “recre­ate what is des­o­lated” and build the just city does not be­come clear, but the po­etry that his dream in­spires is more than merely promis­ing: it is a vivid and mov­ing achieve­ment.

Dur­ing the sum­mer that she was writ­ing this play Mur­ray was ei­ther stay­ing with friends at Saranac Lake or tak­ing long soli­tary walk­ing trips through the New Eng­land coun­try­side. From one of these she re­turned with a fever. It was ini­tially hoped that this might have been a re­sponse to a blis­ter, but it was soon di­ag­nosed as an in­fec­tion spread­ing from the heart. She died on Jan­uary 4, 1942, some five and a half weeks be­fore what would have been her twen­ty­fifth birth­day, hav­ing de­creed that one of her own po­ems be re­cited at the scat­ter­ing of her ashes. This poem ends:

It is not I who am sleep­ing in the rock or the wedge,

And yet I thrust back the wrin­kled earth for breath

And in the dark ex­tend thin wind stalked fin­gers to ex­tract the brit­tle ledge.

Joan Mur­ray, late 1930s–early 1940s

Martha Gra­ham in Let­ter to the World, her bal­let about Emily Dickinson, 1940; pho­to­graph by Bar­bara Mor­gan

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