Volume 19 of the May Swenson Poetry Award Series, 2016
Throughout this haunting first collection, Patricia Colleen Murphy shows how familial mental illness, addiction, and grief can render even the most courageous person helpless. With depth of feeling, clarity of voice, and artful conflation of surrealist image and experience, she delivers vivid descriptions of soul-shaking events with objective narration, creating psychological portraits contained in sharp, bright language and image. With Plathian relentlessness, Hemming Flames explores the deepest reaches of family dysfunction through highly imaginative language and lines that carry even more emotional weight because they surprise and delight. In landscapes as varied as an Ohio back road, a Russian mental institution, a Korean national landmark, and the summit of Kilimanjaro, each poem sews a new stitch on the dark tapestry of a disturbed suburban family’s world.
The May Swenson Poetry Award is an annual competition named for May Swenson, one of America’s most provocative and vital writers. During her long career, Swenson was loved and praised by writers from virtually every school of American poetry. She left a legacy of fifty years of writing when she died in 1989. She is buried in her hometown of Logan, Utah.
'The curious title of Patricia Murphy's wonderfully disturbing Hemming Flames doesn’t become clear to us until the last poem in the book. . . . As if the act of writing itself is an attempt to hem what can’t easily be hemmed.'
—from the foreword by Stephen Dunn, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
‘These are searing reports from the far side of the human dimension, acts of pure familial survival—charged, compelling, complex. We read searching with the speaker for an answer to the singular question one poem poses, ‘Where are you, gravity?’ These are hard-felt, intimate, and genuine.’
— Alberto Ríos, poet laureate of Arizona
‘This book isn’t trying to make you feel better—a mother’s many suicide attempts, violence, extreme insecurity—this book is devastating. And it is exactly Murphy’s refusal of the blithe, and her refusal to move or look away from agony, that might make our world less of a disaster.’
—Sarah Vap, author of Viability
'[Hemming Flames] dazzles and sears as it charts the wracked history of a family plagued by mental illness and addiction. . . . In poem after poem, Patricia Colleen Murphy gives voice to a stabbing, a tingling, a dull ache, a numbness, a heat. She invents a new language for fire and this new language allows her to express anger and pain, desire and despair, regret and a wry hopefulness, despite it all. . . . Hemming Flames is not merely a necessary book for anyone who has experienced mental illness and addiction in their family, it is a necessary book for anyone who cares about poetry.'
'The poems are more than a rehashing of events and experiences, they almost become living things. Alive in the way that, well, fire is alive. More than anything else, Hemming Flames is honest. These poems are not easy ones to read. Murphy takes a battering ram to doors most poets are afraid to knock on. . . . This honesty, and the care and depth of Murphy’s poems, is what gives the book its healing powers. Hemming Flames will burn you, Murphy quite literally jumps into the fire, but it will also give you a remedy for the pain.'
'[A] resolute, deep-thinking, tribute to dark humor. . . . Hemming Flames is the case study of one family, twenty years in the making, with a tempered control of execution—a profundity of content which reads like the catechism of a woman awakened.'
—Hayden's Ferry Review
'With skill and empathy, Patricia Colleen Murphy takes her reader through decades of trauma, though we are never tempted to ask how the speaker came through it alive. These poems are evidence of how the close study and practice of art can transform the darkest places, the greatest shame, and the parent-shaped chasms that exist within us.'
'Throughout the collection, Murphy juxtaposes powerful images to form a composite picture of familial disaster. In these wrenching poems, Murphy is unafraid to look pain in the face and give it a name, a shape. But beware: there isn’t a lot of padding on her walls; you’ll come away bruised.'
'On the peripheries of almost constant domestic emergency and conflict, [Hemming Flames] lights up disaster and familial antipathy with humor and endurance. . . . Murphy writes and composes at the level of the line and demonstrates an acute awareness of the relationships present between her words, stanzas, and poems. The collection as a whole serves to slowly draw out a portrait of a family and a portrait of the individuals surviving within it.'
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