Bully Love
by Patricia Colleen Murphy
ISBN 978-1-950413-03-4
Press 53, April 1, 2019
9 x 6 paperback, 84 pages

The neighbor’s poppies
have turned dusty.
The day’s end breathes
this, another storm.
[…]
What was here is now gone.
This evening we inhale
the dry skin of the desert,
bed down in the belly of the storm.

We climb into the belly of a tumultuous storm as we walk with poet Patricia Colleen Murphy through Bully Love. The 2019 Press 53 Award-winning collection is Murphy’s second, after 2016’s Hemming Flames, winner of the 2017 Milt Kessler Award for poetry. Bully Love is another stunning admission of trauma and exploration of memory from the Arizona-based writer and teacher. Murphy plumbs the depths of her own personal tragedies, outlining the deaths of her parents, the abuse suffered at the hands of former lovers, but also her discovery of herself and her identity away from her past in Ohio and towards the state she now calls home.

It’s not easy to express how Bully Love makes you feel while reading it. In her previous collection, Hemming Flames, Murphy focuses on her brother and the way his obsessions negatively impacted her life. By contrast, in Bully Love we’re given more insight into her relationship with her mother: the frequent hospitalizations, the misunderstandings, the sparking madness.

Bully Love made me think about my own mother, my own family. About the secrets locked away, the lies put forth, the things we’ll never say but we’ll think once it’s too late. It made me examine my desire to write personal narrative non-fiction that exposes the ways I grew up, the abuses I experienced, and whether or not I wanted the world to see our flaws.

Before you died you called and said, I have wanted to say something.
I said, Okay.
You said, Sweetie, I did the best I could.
There are two ways to tell a story.
When I was fifteen you went mad and I saved you.
When I was fifteen you went mad and I never forgave you.

Murphy gives away her secrets and her heart in so few lines, translating her family into characters on every page. After Bully Love, could I ever be as honest about my family the way Murphy is? Should I risk it?

Place becomes as much a character for Murphy as her parents and lovers. She flits between Ohio of the past and Arizona of the present, painting detailed pictures for both states. You can almost smell the rows of corn as Murphy leaves Ohio, feel the dirt caking under your fingers when she climbs down into her first Arizona valley. The Ohio of Murphy’s past is stained a sepia tone, while Arizona comes to life on the page in color and sound.

Murphy doesn’t shy away from using scientific names and geographic locations readers outside of the American Southwest wouldn’t recognize. Several times while I was reading, I was compelled to pause and look things up. This is a testament to Murphy’s ability as a writer—you don’t need to be familiar with this specialized language to understand the poems, but you want to, just to be closer to the imagery Murphy has surrounded you with. It shows the innate passion for teaching that Murphy has, even when the lessons she’s trying to teach you aren’t necessarily academic. She makes you stop and engage with the scenery that surrounds you, the pieces of the Earth around you that you gloss over through everyday contact.

When you actually stop to look at the construction of Bully Love, it is clear that Murphy carefully crafted the chronology of the poems. She is a master weaver, sitting with each strand of time in her lap, braiding them together, over and under one another, twisting the way we perceive the events of her life. You can’t be sure what happens first, what happens last, when time is woven together so precisely. Reading Bully Love feels like trying to understand the philosophical approach on the ontological nature of time, Eternalism; the past, the present, and the future are all happening concurrently. There is no objective flow of time; all times happen simultaneously.

For me, the most prominent thread in the collection follows the deaths of Murphy’s parents and her partner’s parents, all chronicled in a quartet of poems, “Dying, Four Ways”:

“Ignore the cough and keep / smoking”

“Lose your husband of fifty years while you / go blind”

“Clutch your chest, trip over the laundry / basket, and land facedown so that the blood / pools into your face like a bruise so bad / the coroner demands a closed casket”

“Give those / who love you five days to say goodbye.”

Four deaths, written succinctly, no punches pulled, because each death is a blow to the dying and living both. You’re forced to confront the messy truth of death; we won’t all go out in our sleep in our own beds at home, surrounded by our loved ones. Often, we die in inconvenient ways, in painful ways, in drawn-out ways. We leave something behind that others have to deal with, have to dress up and bury or burn. Often, we don’t have the time to say goodbye.

It’s a shock to the mind to have to consider your own death, something we as humans push away desperately. It’s what separates us from the beasts, so they say, the concept of our own mortality.

In Bully Love, you never forget your mortality.

At the end of the quartet, Murphy recognizes that she and her partner are now both orphans—a word traditionally given to children, but a label most of us will one day wear. It’s a hard thing to realize that you will one day be an orphan. It makes you want to clutch at your parents’ hands tighter, stand next to them a little longer. All to stave off the inevitable.

Within these poems, we see the impact on a girl struggling to cope with a mother gone mad; as a woman, Murphy tries to understand how to be in a healthy relationship though the ones she witnessed growing up were skewed. We see red flags in places Murphy doesn’t, because she couldn’t at the time. Having to witness her mistreatment at the hands of men she should have known to run from is made worse by the realization she doesn’t know how to leave. How could she? You can only know what you’ve experienced, what you’ve already learned. To her, it’s all normal, until it suddenly isn’t any longer, and we’re left with broken relationships and dogs with cut ears. “We had been fighting and / he cut their ears to punish me.” This extreme violence shocks and horrifies her in a way his little trespasses haven’t before, and she finally realizes she has to get out.

This is the second chapter in Murphy’s life, and some insights are missing if you’ve not read her previous collection. Certain conclusions can only be formed if you’ve read both works. Like why, for instance, she didn’t run from unhealthy relationships, how she couldn’t have known any better when all she had to go on was the abuse she’d learned from her family. But that doesn’t mean Bully Love is any weaker for it. It’s a collection that has its own truths. It does, however, set the stage for Murphy’s upcoming memoir. You’ve read the preface of Murphy’s life in Hemming Flames and Bully Love. One can only assume her memoir will reveal that much more, and more deeply, than either collection can on its own.

Ultimately, Murphy’s journey through Bully Love feels inevitable. She starts as a young girl in Ohio and travels through childhood and adolescence to adulthood in Arizona. She loves and loses, mourns and contemplates, is hurt and hurts in turn. She makes herself vulnerable, bears her traumas for everyone to read and take in. There’s so much honesty in Bully Love, so much stark truth that can’t be avoided.

Upon finishing, you’re compelled to start again, journey back through the valleys and cliffs that populate Murphy’s poems. You know the destination of the journey, but you still want to retrace it, find the same footholds Murphy used during her own climb.

We’re left on this final note, a plea we all inevitably feel towards our own injuries:

Now I am stuck re-learning
that all pain is public. I want to listen
to it over the phone so it sounds skinny.
[…]
I don’t want to hate it as much as I do.

Murphy writes her every hurt onto the page until she’s bled all of it from her heart. We know her pain viscerally, and we begin to feel braver about sharing our own. And that sharing is healing, I think. A secret pain can only wound, but an exposed truth can let recovery begin. Bully Love is Patricia Murphy’s recovery, and we are lucky to witness it.

A. Poythress primarily writes surreal horror and fantasy focused on women and queer-identified people. They have an MFA in fiction from Columbia College and have been published at The Rumpus, Thresholds UK, The Lit Pub, Asymmetry Fiction, The New Southern Fugitives, and long listed for the 2019 Online Writing Tips Short Fiction Contest. You can find them at their website www.apoythress.com or twitter @ap_mess

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