Poems That Breathe

Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
Joan Murray, late 1930s–early 1940s

The only poem by Joan Murray (1917–1942) published during her short life appeared in the April 1941 issue of Decision: A Review of Free Culture, an impressive monthly periodical founded that year by Klaus Mann, son of Thomas Mann. Contributors to Decision, which folded after only twelve issues, included Jean Cocteau, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Moore, W. Somerset Maugham, William Carlos Williams, E.M. Forster, and Thomas Mann, as well as another recent immigrant to America, W.H. Auden, who helped out with the editing too. Auden (who was, incidentally, Klaus’s brother-in-law, having married Erika Mann in 1935 to facilitate her escape from Nazi Germany) was invited to compile for the April issue a selection of unpublished poems. In the event, however, he opted to devote all of his allotted pages to printing a work by a twenty-four-year-old student enrolled in his “Poetry and Culture” class at the New School.

This “remarkable piece,” as Auden described Joan Murray’s “Orpheus: Three Eclogues” in a headnote, reimagines Orpheus’s descent to the Underworld in quest of Eurydice, and culminates in the dreadful moment when he looks back at his beloved on the threshold of the land of the living. This story has appealed to poets from Ovid to Rilke, and it clearly had a particular charge for Murray, who from her early teens was aware of the possibility that she might die young. Her “Three Eclogues” give speeches to Orpheus, his mother Calliope, Eurydice, Charon, and the Shades that dramatize with startling freshness and eloquence the mysteries of life and death that the story broaches. Eurydice’s slow recovery of her physical being, for instance, is conveyed by Murray with exquisite precision and excitement:

Orpheus I shall tell you that I am. I shape! I shape!
Here is the well-placed head, the delicate trace of vein;
Through wrists and breasts whence these tattered drapes escape,
I put my hand upon my heart and feel its action once again.

The mention of her heart in the last line is particularly resonant, for it was a damaged heart valve caused by an early bout of rheumatic fever that led to Murray’s death, the year after this poem was published.

No explanation is given for Orpheus’s glance back as their journey nears its end:

I am turning, Eurydice, turning…
It is the wonder of a sleeping child that turns upon its sleep:
A doubt without discerning,
A shy hand stretched along the edgeless wall where fearful shadows weep.

The fatal turn proceeds as hypnotically and irresistibly as the inexplicable onset of a deadly disease, and Murray’s surprising use of the metaphor of the turning of a sleeping child typifies the fusion of the random and the inevitable that characterizes much of her finest work. Most moving of all, however, is the almost…

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