Bulletproof by Matthew Murrey
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
Matthew Murrey, whose poems I have read for many years, is a really sweet guy. That he has written a book with this cover, this title, and these poems surprises me. And also makes perfect sense. We live in a world full of violence. It teaches us to love life. The book contains this basic tension—in poems that hit hard and in poems full of tenderness and empathy. In “Fireflies,” the speaker is watching his sons whack away at fireflies with tennis rackets, remembering his own violence against dragonflies.
But now I hate killing anything,
even cockroaches. I hate
fishing—the way the worm twists
and lashes when I stick the tip
of the hook up and into
its gooey, boneless body;
the way the fish stares in silence
as I tear the barb out of its mouth.
I’d rather let every living thing
live. I’d rather be like the fireflies:
all light and desire, turning and flashing
I give you that hunk of poem (without some surprise special effects at the end) as gritty comfort in advance for the other ones that give us the dreadful news of the world: the loss of the space shuttle, the Las Vegas shooting on October 1, 2017, the daily danger of living in a country with too many guns readily available, the need to pick which finger to offer up for a kidnapper to chop off and send to your relatives as proof of life.
The first three poems in the book are relentless. “.38 Special” is about target practice, the shooter getting better little by little, until:
Now it is real that I could turn
and kill someone, or
put the barrel in my mouth
and tumble into that black hole.
I’m holding death’s hand
as killers and suicides have done
and—I hate to tell you—
its weight feels good
like a sack of coins, a bag of blood,
a book of history, a pound of meat.
That’s honesty for you, and a sentiment shared by many in our country right now. The second poem, “Bulletproof Vest,” is about the need to wear such a vest just to live and work in our country, as the speaker’s father had to do “to work in a bar in a bad neighborhood,” where, by the way, “cashing paychecks / was how most of the money was made.” You feel worry and pity and fear for all in these first two poems. And then there’s this:
Shoot the Sky
First black socks,
then navy blue pants,
then a white button-down shirt…
suddenly, outside my window,
from the backyard
came the loud crack of gunshot.
I ran though the house
to the kitchen where my sisters
were staring out the back door.
There on the back steps my mother stood
strong and calm as bronze,
still pointing my father’s revolver
at the targeted yellow sky.
Then he came up behind us,
pushing his way through
with his startled and sleepy face.
She just slowly turned and said,
“I don’t know, Honey—
I just felt like shooting the gun.”
Now we’re in it, aren’t we, real America, its background of violence, even the mom caught up in it all. And it’s the same America I grew up in. Like the children in “Mosquitos,” I ran behind what we called “the fog truck” through a yellow fog of pesticide. I saw the same news on TV. Like the dad in “Shoot the Cat,” my mom performed a mercy killing for a cat she’d run over accidentally, but where he does it with a gun, she did it with her car, me still in it. Mathew Murrey and I both have poems about coyotes and slugs. I connect with him in so many ways. Down to my fatigue and frustration with “thoughts and prayers” in the face of today’s ongoing gun violence—
Thoughts and prayers are going
to do about as much good
as T-shirts or windbreakers would,
but a bowed head seems fitting—
I could do that.
and my feelings of helplessness in response:
Go ahead; I won’t mock you,
even if your first words are
“Dear Heavenly Father” or
you finish “in Jesus’ name.”
What do I got that’s better—
my bitter thoughts, heavy
and grim as a box full of bullets?
Both of us can go to a vigil in a church or a rally in the streets, but Matthew Murrey knows the weight of a box of bullets.
We published “Child Sobbing in a Library” here at Escape Into Life, a poem remarkable for its perfect blend of empathy and personal nostalgia. We don’t want a child to have to be crying in a library, but this is a full, rich woe from loss that gets at the very meaning of childhood and innocence, and the poem’s empathetic speaker wants it to go on and on, to remind him what it was to be a child.
In “First Song,” likewise, he wants the early bird’s song in the dark to remind him what it is to be a poet. Many of the poems in Bulletproof help to “bulletproof” us from despair, in a way, by noticing the small joys and beauties offered up in the same violent days. Sometimes you’ve got to wear that tough jacket to get to work and back again in one piece, but it’s devastating that the metaphor has become real, with kids these days expected to wear bulletproof backpacks to school. The poem “The Music” equates marksmanship with the precision of music, almost a comfort because it helps me understand better what it takes to shoot a gun.
I’m glad for the glory of the poem “Watermelon” in this book, a celebration of his wife’s choice, despite all the chores still to do, to slice up a watermelon and eat it, quietly relishing “the reddest sweetest pieces.” Oh, but this one, too, is relentless, and we can never forget how the sweetness seems irrevocably bound to the violence:
Juice drips from your fingertips,
bleeds down your chin. Wife,
you sit there like a calm god
sampling a sacrifice—calf’s loin
or lamb’s shank—like Love
victorious, savoring the sweet
red meat of the heart.
Matthew Murrey at EIL
(with “Child Sobbing at the Library” from Bulletproof )
Book Cover Design by Daniel Krawiec