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Heaven Overland

By: Jim Murphy
Reviewed by: Mary Kaiser
Kennesaw State University Press, 2009
$15, Paperback

In Heaven Overland’s opening poem, the seller of a broken-down Cadillac El Dorado claims its metal chassis functions as “a powerful antenna / to draw so much distant matter down to earth.” This image is the perfect introduction to Jim Murphy’s beautifully structured collection about Americans and the faulty, charged vehicles in which we travel.

Iconic figures ranging from the revered to the notorious, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Elvis Presley, inhabit these poems in settings from New York to the Sonoran desert, but their real destination is the past: a turn-of-the-century riverboat, a Hollywood street corner in the thirties, a Bakelite radio tuned in to early rock ’n’ roll.

Murphy comes to terms with American history in tough, contemporary, resonant language. His subjects, “trained in subtle warcraft,” survive through cunning and a careful guarding of secrets, so these poems attend to details of appearance and gesture, as if in an old photograph, for signs of how it felt to inhabit those lives.

A balance of precision and dynamic movement energizes even Murphy’s most cerebral poems, as in these lines from “River Minstrels, No Date Given”: “the boat’s prow cuts a seam, dividing / neutral air and water, while the great / wheel churns depth to surface and back / down.” The exactitude of “an F-4 Phantom, wheeling / into dawn’s high prism out of Cam Ranh Bay” or “Uniroyals rolling black / on black,” charges the poems with immediacy, while their underlying tone is reflective and melancholy, the record of wrong turns, stalls, and false starts on the highway to salvation.

The collection is haunted by the uncanny plausibility of dream, in narratives that record unlikely histories, such as the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar working as an elevator operator in Dayton, Ohio, or Keith Richards’ arrest in Texas for possession of a bowie knife.

Others portray possible but unrecorded histories—Elvis combing his pompadour before a concert, Sarah Vaughan singing in a Manhattan penthouse, John Gilbert ordering breakfast at a seedy Hollywood diner. And a few describe magical-realist fantasies, as in “Natalie and Dennis,” where Natalie Wood and Dennis Wilson, both drowning victims, rise out of a desert lake to take on a mythical afterlife. Altogether, Murphy’s vignettes of the last century portray memory as a fun-house mirror, reflecting, slanting, and distorting the experiences we can never fully reclaim.

In these poems we sense that the fuel that propelled the twentieth century, whether time, money, ideas, or youth, is running low, our vehicles stumbling, coughing, stalling out. However, Jim Murphy’s poetic voice is polished, tuned-up, road-worthy, and equipped with a state-of-the-art antenna for the lost rhythms of American life.  April 2009

Mary Kaiser teaches English at Jefferson State Community College’s Shelby campus.

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