Friday, October 22, 2010

Review: Jim Murdoch’s This Is Not About What You Think

I’ve mentioned in previous posts my fascination with the intersection of literary creation with nonduality philosophy. In my reading, I’ve been exploring how principles of unity are depicted in storytelling in various genres. I set an intention to write some book reviews along those lines, but haven’t yet brought my chaotic notes into order. At the same time, I’ve found myself focusing on poetry more than usual, so right now I’m surprising myself by launching my upcoming series of review/essays with today’s post: a look through the nonduality lens at a book of poems called This Is Not About What You Think (Fandango Virtual, 2010), by Scottish author Jim Murdoch.

First, let me set some boundaries and goals. Neither this book nor any others I’ll be featuring fall into the “spiritual” category. These will not be books full of transcendent verse, guidance toward enlightenment, or new age reworkings of ancient scripture. Such publications are certainly valuable, but they are not the subject of my investigation, which is focused on prose and poetry created for reasons of art and entertainment, not self-help. Also, this thing I’m calling “nonduality” may take many forms, not always explicitly about cosmic unity. My loose interpretations may brush up against quantum paradox, the slipperiness of “I”, mysticism from all traditions, the ambiguity of language, and more.

Jim Murdoch has been writing poetry for over thirty years. He’s working on his fifth novel, and has published two. He’s an active blogger. I became aware of him through the POD People blog, where both his novels were praised, then I became even more interested in his work when I read his mixed review of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, where he made this simple statement: "I like books that make me think." I found it significant that he did not say, "I like books that keep me up all night turning pages." The latter seems to be the prevailing quality standard today, but not for me.

In This Is Not About What You Think, Murdoch uses the title to jump right into the philosophical realms that turn me on. His title is both paradox and wordplay. “This” may refer to... everything. The world. He’s making the point that nothing is as it seems; that your reality and mine are separate because each of us is a center of a different perceived universe. Reality is perception, which is another way of saying that the objective existence we assume for the dazzling multiplicity of things labeled “reality” simply doesn’t exist.

At the same time, the title’s “This” refers to the book itself, its content, so the phrase can mean both “These poems are not about what you the reader decide they’re about,” and “These poems are not about your thoughts” (which is to say, they are about Jim’s thoughts, not the reader’s). Each of which suggest its opposite: that indeed, the poems, once in the hands of a reader, must be primarily about whatever the reader brings to them, since the writer’s part of the dialogue is finished. He can say no more.

This shimmering mirage of multiple meanings, along with the cover image of a Rorschach-style mirrored inkblot (suggesting to me a female body, so what does that mean?), speak to me of the big conundrum: This thing that some of us try to capture with the word “nonduality”--a realization of the ultimate indivisibility of All--can never be captured with a word because the job of words is to separate one thing from another. So, contrary to conventional wisdom, when we make statements that seem elusive and duplicitous--that seem to carry their own negations--we approach as close to truth as language will ever allow. Questions, not answers, are true.

My approach to the content of the book follows the same tack: the poems that resonate with an ambiguity that suggests multi-dimensionality, that undermines assumed reality, are the ones that shine for me. The title poem opens with this stanza:
Every name and place has been changed,
what we did and why -- all changed,
the dates and times, how we really felt,
the reasons we wouldn’t stay away,
everything slightly altered, twisted,...

The accuracy of memory and story is called into question, and after asking whether it all should make sense, the poem ends,
...It’s a pretty good question.
I just don’t have any pretty good answers left
so this will have to do for now.

This rather perfectly captures the marvelous actuality of life in a universe so vast and mysterious that the wisest approach is surrender: it doesn’t make sense, I can’t explain it, this will have to do for now. It’s another way of saying: what is, is. Whatever happens, happens inevitably. This is a profound undercutting of our cherished belief in free will, the human need to feel that the decisions we make actually change the world. But we can’t really know, because what is, is. No deity need be implied; just a simple universal law. With that acceptance, a great burden is lifted. Murdoch confirms the philosophy with this couplet that closes the poem “Shadowplay”:
No, I don’t believe in destiny
but I do in inevitability.

The poem “Background Silence” works on two levels. Its context in the book tells us that it’s a poem about death, set in a hospital. With that reading, it delivers a bleak chill.

Background Silence

The silence was always there
behind the
sounds of monitors and pumps

just as

emptiness was always there
behind the
well wishes and smiles and lies

just as

the blankness was always there
behind the
words on every card you read


there is always something to
block our view
of the nothingness that is


But I prefer to see past, or through, the death poem here to another poem that lies underneath. Silence... emptiness... blankness... nothingness... these are words that for many readers may be frightening or dispiriting, devoid of life, and perhaps that was Murdoch’s intent. But another segment of readers, myself included, find those words liberating, spacious, more life- than death-oriented. After all, without a ground there is no figure. Without a dark sky, we see no stars. For me this poem, while observing death, simultaneously expresses the truth that, in this realm of duality, of so many “things,” our view of the vastness beyond is too often blocked. Perhaps it is by looking at a loved one’s death that most of us catch a glimpse of the unified field in which all life and death play out.

How poetry should be interpreted is an ongoing debate, and I confess that my particular view risks a protest from the poet. For the reader’s sake, I don’t want to mis-characterize this book. The collection as a whole is without a doubt more an exploration of psychology than of philosophy. Murdoch shows a skill for economically capturing family and relationship truths that are much bigger than a few words on a page, like a charcoal sketch captures a gesture. Here’s a portrait of one person that deftly reverberates into other lives:

Making Do

My mother made do almost every day of her life.

There wasn’t much to the dish. To tell you the truth,
Mum could make do
with almost nothing at all.

She’d put on the pot and just let it simmer for hours.

And all of my life so far I’ve tried to do the same
but I find mine
always leaves a bitter taste.

I wish I knew what her secret ingredient was.

Often he ends with a sculpted line that opens like a trap door into old heartache or poignant self-examination that most readers will identify with, made even richer when it’s delivered in a tone that can be interpreted either as tongue-in-cheek or not. I appreciated the generosity in these poems, the willingness to disclose emotional vulnerability, to reveal the tender heart of a child--coupled with the wry perspective of middle age.

One final note: Murdoch closes his poem “Is a Red Wheelbarrow Ever Empty?” with:
I did hear the sounds
of silence
and I think one hand clapping

and a tree fall in
the forest
but I don’t have the words to

explain them.

I’d say in response: Jim, nobody has those words. The sweat and heart evident in your crafted lines, plus the white space around them: that combo does the job. Words are clumsy at best. With this book, you’ve done as well as anyone can with such tools to both dig deep and fly high.


Get the book here:


  1. Fascinating review of what (within my perception) appears to be (but might not be) a fascinating book.

    Everywhere I look, I am stung by the fact that I'm always looking within. This is hard to discuss, and when we try, our symbolism comes down to this: nothing means anything and anything means nothing.

    Perhaps, then, the poet tells it like it is, whatever it is, insofar as he perceives what he believes he is describing.


  2. Yes, Malcolm, I think I hear you agreeing that words just don't cut it and we end up with: --?-- . Hmmm.

    But I'd say Jim is telling it like it is. For him. And what else is there? Mostly, the poems seem to come from the heart more than the head, balanced by a thoughtful economy of expression. Aphoristic mini-stories, often.

  3. Thanks for this, Brent. I had always imagined that my poetry collection would be called ‘Reader, Please Supply Meaning’ which is the title of another poem. It’s something I believe quite strongly in, not that a poet contributes no meaning it’s simply that the readers determines the final meaning, like mixing a cocktail. I arranged the poems in this book in a sequence which would suggest a life story but the fact is the poems were not written in that sequence as I indicate in the appendix. They’re like the optical illusion on the cover. Your mind insists on trying to make something out of it, to read into it.

    What is interesting about the placement of the title poem outside the body of the collection – part one starts on the next page – is that people will assume that I’m talking about the poems contained therein whereas the poem is actually referring to itself. At the time I wrote the poem I was writing about an experience I thought I would never forget even heavily encoded. As it happens I don’t remember what the poem was about and so the only meaning it can ever have, even for me now, is one the reader decides upon; the ‘truth’ of the poem has been lost.

    In the poem ‘Background Silence’ I’m basically echoing Beckett’s ‘stain upon the silence’: "Nothing matters but the writing. There has been nothing else worthwhile ... a stain upon the silence." What the poems is describing is a moment of silence between the two great silences. That sounds a bit pompous but every now and then, usually when someone else is facing death, we stand still for a second and think about our own lives. Behind ever poem is a blank page, nothingness and the first thing we writers want to is deface it with words. I compare it in another poem to what kids want to do with a sheet of virgin snow.

    ‘Making Do’ is a pun and the pun is mightier than the word. It was several years after my mother’s death that I wrote that poem but it sums her up nicely, the epitome of resilience. And you’re right, I do have a fondness for a good punch line, one that kick’s my reader’s feet from under him. That was the first thing I learned from Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Mr. Bleaney’ which leaves the reader hanging with a simple, “I don’t know,” at the end. He doesn’t provide the neat moral. He asks a profound question about human worth and then lets us answer it. A truth is worth nothing unless you’ve worked it out for yourself.

    And as regards ‘Is a Red Wheelbarrow Ever Empty?’ you’re right. That’s why I keep writing and will keep writing. It’s a Sisyphean task and if I had any sense I’d give it up and learn how to paint landscapes.

    Thanks for a great review, Brent.

  4. Jim, thanks for your comment. I like "the silence between the two great silences." And I share your take on this Sisyphean task.

    Glad you were pleased with the review.