Book Review: Patricia Colleen Murphy’s Hemming Flames
Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, American Poetry Review, North American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, Natural Bridge, and others. Her work has received awards from the Associated Writing Programs and the Academy of American Poets, Gulf Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, The Madison Review, Glimmer Train Press, and The Southern California Review. A chapter of her memoir-in-progress was published as a chapbook by New Orleans Review.
A Review Patricia Colleen Murphy’s Hemming Flames by R. E. Steele
As readers travel through Patricia Colleen Murphy’s Hemming Flames, they become familiarized with family mental illness. We see it in the speaker’s abusive home, the asylums in Moscow, and the fires that destroyed the Namdaemun Gate. The author's variety of form allows her to explore the speaker’s progression from abused teen to an adjusting adult. Influenced by poets like Hart Crane and Sharon Olds, Murphy’s book offers a reflective, personal, and emotionally cognizant series.
The most indicative device that Murphy uses to approach mental illness within the home is through the use of different poetic forms. Her work moves throughout the narrator’s life from adolescence into adulthood. Breaking away from traditional stanzaic constructions indicates the changes and development readers see in the speaker:
A car could be
a bottle of pills. A car could be
an antenna. A road could be
a curve. A hill could be green.
A family could fall apart while holding hands
with 6.5 million people.
How many of them are smiling?
How many are receiving bad news?
Notice how the line breaks stagger one another? Murphy separates the speaker from what “could be” with each new line, which resembles how she is emotionally disconnecting from her family and the instability that is created when mental illness is not properly treated. Everyday aspects of life--like cars--become the unexpected, made destructive by “a bottle of pills.” This separation is also apparent in the shift from staggering lines to the space between “fall” and “apart”, creating distance between the family holding hands. Her lines then revert back to a staircase pattern, shifting the gap Murphy made and causing the lines to barely reach out to each other. Though the speaker’s family is still bound by blood, they lose each other in between the manic episodes of mental illness.
A more subtle choice Murphy makes to display familial relationships is with the narrator’s reference to her parents not by name, but by using their family title as a proper noun. Notably, this is clear in “With a Whimper”. “...all I can think of is Mom and Dad in urns./Then I see a man with his small son./I see a tender look between them…Just say man or son. Just say woman or daughter.” In this stage of life, the speaker wants to refer to her own family this way, but maintains an inner conflict between a healthy family relationship and the dysfunctional relationship she grew up with. It is not until she reaches adulthood that the titles finally change to “mom and dad”. It can be inferred that the relationship does not change, but rather the narrator’s perspective does. She knows that the relationship she longs for cannot exist, so she settles for using these titles only as identifiers of their familial roles instead.
Murphy deconstructs the identity of a family beset with mental illness by unraveling the basic form of poetry and hemming it back together. In Murphy’s work, the effects of the mother’s destructive tendencies are dismantling the family; and, even beyond the home, figures from history are brought to life in this book. Individuals like Chae Jong-gi who set the Namdaemun Gate on fire, setting ablaze the morale of the people with it. His character in Hemming Flames and the real destruction he caused creates an understanding of how the narrator’s mother perceives the world around her during her manic episodes. The mother embodies these propensities and the desire to burn down any bridges held dear. Patricia Colleen Murphy does a remarkable job commenting on this fragility of familial relationships as they are pitted against mental illness.