SKINNY BUDDHA by Sheila E. Murphy
1. (The Explorer)
"Give of selves we have not known
Or counted. All the integers
Have been browned beneath
The clouds of sea and broad ideas."
S.E. Murphy's Skinny Buddha, page 22
Sheila Murphy writes, I might describe, as a prism, seen through which drab reality, never apprehended by her under its obvious aspects, is transmuted into the stuff of Sokratic or pre-Sokratic philosophy — or dreams. The crystalline, mineral world of words which is her domain bursts asunder like a lump of flint brought to a white heat. The feeling of vertigo induced by many of her writings is rather like the sensation one has at County Clare in the west of Ireland, at the Cliffs of Moher, haunted by crows & herons, & haunted by the manifestational ghosts of the goddess Badb, to whose slopes cling precariously the low, faintly sinister mists that seep out of disintegrating cairns.
Sheila Murphy is always trying — & how difficult it is! — to grasp that invisible bluewhite filament of marvels which, vibrating in the dialectic of philosophy, or vibrating in the music of the void, emits dreams & objects with the sound of a stream rippling over tiny, living pebbles. Everything Murphy describes or presents is recognizable, even when it relates to composite beings or objects. That strange world known to her alone, whose secrets she elicits & reveals in the course of ardent explorations, belongs to the domain of travelers' tales, those imaginary ocean voyages in which the helmswoman of a ship of dreams watches for the faint faraway signals that will orient her to long-lost lands.
However, the composition of Skinny Buddha itself is extremely daring: the central plane revealed by the cleft in the printed texts & the mostly white of the paper, on which the words are lying, opens out into a great spiral of words culminating in the sphere containing the vision; this is linked with the foreground group of images by a triangle of convergent perspectives. The symbolic & structural complexity of the work is obscured only by the dramatic intensity of the figure of the Skinny Buddha himself, as but an echo of the "vision" theme.
2. (The Trembling Insect)
"... gray feathers tingle in a mittened wind
and sundry long waits
spawn a parakeet-like riffing
joie de vivre projected onto imagery
tucked between pages
sliced by chance ..."
S.E. Murphy's Skinny Buddha, page 18
Sheila Murphy brings to her writing a wholly personal sensibility, the grace of a trembling insect or the grace of a quivering bird, which lends a poignant beauty to her recent works, notably her Incessant Seeds, or the stunningly beautiful Case of the Lost Objective (Case), or the Skinny Buddha. In this latter poem, verbal objects & verbal figures reshape themselves in a welter of flames, & we see their elements hovering in turbid air, as if upheld by unseen magnets. Nevertheless, Murphy leads us into verbal forests of verbal trees that weep or bleed or laugh with joy. These verbal images of everyday objects transform or combine in such a way that their agreement with our preconceived ideas, simple or sophisticated, is obliterated. But it is the unique way in which the verbal parts are assembled that gives these (verbal) images a new identity.
Sheila Murphy takes to burying the eerie figures of her private verbal carnival under verbal cairns of ice-cold stones, or volcanic stones, or the dialectical & musical stones, as in a landscape of harrowing but humorous desolation. Yet nevertheless, it seems clear that precise & charming evocations of the mystery of the Skinny Buddha are furnished best by the verbal images of everyday encounters combined or transformed.
Indeed, the composition of the Skinny Buddha is if anything more lyrical & sublime than Incessant Seeds itself; & it bears the unmistakable imprint of Murphy's imagination. For in a broad landscape, as transparent as the landscape in the Incessant Seeds, the verbal figures are disposed according to a plan which is perfection in itself. The wonderfully straightforward, monumental design flows so smoothly & harmoniously from the figure of the Skinny Buddha, that this is surely a great achievement in Murphy's art, & a milestone in this reader's experience. Thus indeed, this work is based on a perfectly symmetrical design realized with the utmost of sculpted poetry.
"Maligned worth ceases speech
A divination clusters its way safely
Through chance light's
Fidelity as triumph waits
To formulate momentum
Factors seen to magnify
A calculated speech."
S.E. Murphy's Skinny Buddha, page 17
My own poetry is typified by "visionary landscapes." Unfortunately my landscapes have always been bounded by a distant horizon line & located in a space in which all seems strangely remote, petrified in ice-cold light. However, in Sheila Murphy's work both horizon & weight cease to exist; undulations of verbal images, beams of verbal light, & streams of verbal "force" interpenetrate, whirling up & up like spiral nebulae. She is one of those rare poets who, by veiled allusions & in a discreet light, reveal the deadliest, most lawless urges & passions of the mental underworld. Her skies are peopled with winged & beaked clouds, verbal clouds, hovering above archetypal soundscapes or archetypal spacescapes.
Many years ago, Billy Butler Yeats was counted up as one among the Modernists — even though he did not experiment greatly with structure, form, etc. Yeats, however, was reluctant to move too far away from the human voice, or the music of the speaking voice. Thus, even when he struggles with "difficult" or "complex" ideas there is an impression (from the music of the voice alone) that he is accessible in his inaccessibility.
Sheila Murphy does not hesitate to plunge into one wild experiment after another with content & form & structure, etc. However, like Yeats, & almost always, she expresses herself through her writings in the music of the speaking voice, the human voice. Thus, even when she is inaccessible she does not seem to be so.
In the Skinny Buddha, we see vast expanses reaching out into infinity & dappled with bone-like verbal objects, wisps of mist, pebbles or round boulders sometimes standing on end like the cromlechs of old Ireland, & the music of a dialectic of the human voice. Sheila Murphy surrenders wholly to an instinctual drive seconded by technical gifts of the highest order.
Sheila Murphy's work, in which images & ideas are tossed to & fro in terms of a "metalogic" peculiar to herself, appeals to the mind by the witty byplay of her humor & the unfamiliar, fascinating soundscapes it opens up to us. Nevertheless, there is something of Shakespearean comedy in Murphy's handling of the themes of anguish, human solitude, & the elusiveness of human desire, which always slips through the fingers just when we think we grasp it.
It seems to me that the Skinny Buddha is set in a scene of utter tranquillity, beside a lake; from the distance comes a flight of birds, some of them landing on the strand, giving definition to the perspective. Then the strand curves round two circular groups of figures, which are separated by the standing figure of the Skinny Buddha as such. The right hand group of figures is full of dramatic tension, but this is dissipated in the elongated forms of the text itself, stretched in supplication before us. The Skinny Buddha himself, with a gesture, stills the turbulence of the drama & leads our eyes on into the peaceful air over which the herons & crows fly.
4. (The Goethean Perspective)
"One limbered up the body to recast the point of mind space. Buildings full of toys nested alongside square points. Referenced panes lifted from scorch points. There were Everest spiels beside a person's striking hair. The kind of smile one held when blessed or so. With nest egg sizable by craft. Unless the suddenness retracts her best."
S.E. Murphy's Skinny Buddha, page 12
The world of Sheila Murphy is wrought of dreams & light & dark obsessions, teeming with incongruities, at once disquieting & lyrical, joyful & amusing. At times her writing is so greatly simplified as to evoke, through dialectic, some protohistoric chant. Verbal seeds burst into furious life, verbal leaves grow dagger-sharp & malignant & non-malignant orchids blaze forth in magic swamps where the civilized people & the savage people meet on common ground in a quest for truth, multi-dimensional truth. For, in this context to be sure, I greatly admire Murphy's subtle sense of marvels & her transposition of everyday reality into a wonderland built of the golden dreams of childhood. These figurations of the verbal marvels, so strikingly remote from the disincarnate poetry of our time, may console us for the passing of the superb illustration of post-symbolist & post-surrealist literature.
Sheila Murphy's inspiration, like Goethe's, is essentially warm & life-affirming & optimistic if not childlike but it is tinged with melancholy: with constructive or constructivist (not nostalgic) yearnings as well as with the spirit of play. Her poems & texts seem like natural growths, each form giving birth to another, without any logical necessity, but in accordance with the promptings of some wholly personal compulsion.
In the Skinny Buddha, the way the two groups of images revolve is brilliantly original, & so is the contrast between the static hieratic figures in the center of the text & the twisted motion of the Skinny Buddha in the foreground. & thus certainly Sheila Murphy is capable of turning an abstract intellectual proposition into pure poetry (if not pure music & pure geometry). In the Skinny Buddha, she has introduced a more majestic & dramatic use of space, & in effect this will be the occasion of the collapse of the proportional schemes that have seen fashionable use by poets until this time.
5. (The Dialectic)
"I thought participation
once a fair disturbance
then some vatic change
of scope to sequence
images from lurid
to the topic brand of
white blue satchel hope"
S.E. Murphy's Skinny Buddha, page 6
The space of Sheila Murphy's poem becomes a meeting place of lamellated figures, gliding like hieratic robots along sloping planes & caught up in electric storms. Indeed, Sheila Murphy places the whole world under the sway of hieratic & sacred incantation, always, which rules the fashionable districts of the mind & the body, where the old mills of old Ireland grind out pearl necklaces & other philosophical jewellery in a hard metallic light. Murphy, depicting with rare expertness & fine precision the joys & fears of woman & man, blends up meticulous description with verbal figures materializing in a misty, curiously sensuous ambience.
The general effect this Skinny Buddha produces might be described as one of a humorous or desperate & musical dialectic between nearness & remoteness, charged with sculptural overtones rarely found to this extent in poetry. Hmmmm, but this is not the dialectic of the Marxists. No, it is the dialectic (or, the yin vs. yang) of Hegel & Kant & St. Thomas Aquinas & Plato & Sokrates. Yes, & it is the dialectic of John Eriugena, the Irish philosopher of the Ninth Century. Sheila Murphy makes a point as far as possible of presenting only sculptural texts that evoke the mystery & the music & the dialectic of all existence with the precision & charm essential to the life of thought.
But in this rationalized space the story unfolds around verbal architectural protrusions, some of which are in motion, like the high wall on the left, almost hidden by the splendid figure of the young man climbing down from it, & some holding firm, like the colonnade on the right between whose pillars the magnificent procession of women is moving. Verbal architecture plays an unprecedentedly important part in the narrative action of the Skinny Buddha. & indeed, this is a new departure in the work of Sheila Murphy.
6. (The Golden Geometry)
"Temptation's like a latitude remaining on full throttle. Maybe she induces fragile reach. Perhaps not near the tundra. Equally perhaps apart from strings in keepsake midsect springs. For nautical to work, there need be stray mammalian glands. And this was how she tried to work, foregrounding in the midst of improvised quick winter."
S.E. Murphy's Skinny Buddha, page 5
Sheila Murphy, not haunted by nostalgic yearnings for Proustian intoxication, mysterious subterranean halls of long ago, conjures up in her writing verbal wonderlands of voluptuous delight, & her verbal figures, masked & fancifully attired, roam a mesmeric world of magnetized water & gold-veined rocks of words bathed in the light of dreams. She creates a new space filled with a haze of broken lights in which transparent & opaque objects alike are bathed in the prismatic radiance of sunrise, yes the Goethean sunrise. In her art remarkable inventiveness is joined to writerly craft & precision & she has a gift for blending fantasy & humor in compositions where recur, like leitmotivs, objects diverted from their practical uses, & in which asteroids of ice gyrate in frost-bound forests.
Skinny Buddha is a ship in which page by page Murphy sets sail to uncharted lands whose spacescapes & soundscapes, bathed in the light of dreams, she records with meticulous precision. The verbal figures in the Skinny Buddha are constructed according to a golden geometry, yet it has a subtle vigor & urgency, & an airy majesty with the total abstraction of a vision.
The space around the verbal figures is almost non-existent, & the figures themselves are linked together in perfect circular motion. Like a reflection in a convex mirror the sphere seems to protrude towards the reader. Nevertheless, the reader is drawn into the orbit of the sphere in the same way, & led breathlessly through a series of rotations & oblique angles. The light, beating in on the solid figures from behind, shows the careful delineation of the verbal forms, & seems to be the source of visions rising from the darkest depths of the mind & the body.
Indeed, & to be sure, I think that Sheila Murphy succeeds in rescuing poetry from the doldrums of academicism & the sterile disputations of the literary claques, & in restoring it to its place as an active element of life, a burning topic of the day, & a means to probing the utmost possibilities of being.
Information about Séamas Cain are available at HERE and HERE. See also his websites: