Saturday, July 07, 2012

Continuations 2, Douglas Barbour and Sheila E. Murphy

beige stillness offers
a lament to seasoned children
held mid air whose longing
through the winter passes
acts of soft retention
treading memory

into a less sweet wine
somewhat drunk and lost to
purpose fall further into white
drift past forested hill up
rise to a portico inward per
vasive votive candles flashed (“xi”)

In Continuations 2 (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2012), Edmonton poetDouglas Barbour and Phoenix, Arizona poet Sheila E. Murphy extend their sequence of ongoing collaborations, producing a rare second volume of a contemporary collaboration between two poets (the two project-based book-length poetry collaborations between Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy—apostrophe (2006) and update (2010)—might be considered another example). This particular collaborative work is constructed out of numbered pieces made up of long stretches of six-line stanzas, continuing into an ongoing, serial project. As their first volume collected the first twenty-five poems, this collects the same number of pieces, collecting poems “xxvi to l.” Not held to the trade book as their unit of composition, this volume follows up their original, Continuations (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006), and suggest an open-endedness that just might continue for quite some time. As they write in their “afterword”:

Emmylou Harris, talking about her collaboration with Mark Knopfler, made a point that allusively applies to our work on Continuations: ‘When you combine two unique voices it creates a third, phantom voice.’ Over the years, as we have continued writing this odd serial poem together, it’s that continuing discovery of the third voice that has excited us.

Collaboration tends to encompass a wider reach than individual work typically does, although no such rule is constant. We have liked each other as collaborators because each of us has managed to balance his/her own uniqueness in service of the shared creation.

One of the delights of this collaboration has been our broader sense of subject; there is less sense of tightly controlled ‘about-ness’ to the process. Concepts, referents, even possible sites of imagery, are alive, balancing the roles of receiver and sender in a two-way process where the ‘music’ of what’s being produced provides much of the charge. When writing collaboratively, there’s a comfort and a simultaneous ‘ready for anything’ sensation, as the spectrum of surprise and expectation is touched in various places. On seeing or hearing the other’s response, each of us is often stimulated by the passage just received and read, then drawn into the work by wanting to respond.

Part of what makes this ongoing collaboration interesting is in the experience behind both writers, as Douglas Barbour has been publishing trade poetry collections since the early 1970s, and Sheila E. Murphy has been publishing nearly as long as well, and their collaborative efforts would be difficult to compare to much of their already-published individual works, truly creating something that is different in tone, style and voice. Continuations 2 furthers their collaborations in a similar way to how Toronto poet Jay MillAr composed his ESP: Accumulation Sonnets (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2009), writing on and then on, furthering the conversation through the structure of sonnets, as opposed to short stanzas that themselves accumulate into longer pieces. But what do the accumulations tell us?

how to hold a pose
position possibly as
truths spread slowly through
an evolution of light itself
etched quietly onto wide plates
stretching perhaps the scene

through pose           self
shrinks a posse distance
etchings quiet across
slow scenic plates
evolving into
a positioned truth (“xxxii”)

The first poem, way back in the first volume, opens with the three-line “sturm und / wrangling / with that angel always,” opening with a movement of language as much as music, rhythm and sound as meaning. This second volume continues the play of call and response, where Barbour and Murphy meet in the middle, with less a line that runs a linearity through. One could almost dip into any part of the collection and begin, allowing the meanings of the stanzas to collect. But where the first volume seems to open, this volume deepens, with moments darker than in the first. Just where is this accumulation heading?

beginning now to fade
from the predicted washing
rinsing washing yet perceived
as law while being ignored
because the truth is less
convenient than impromptu edicts (“xli”)

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