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Songs My Mother Never Taught Me

Murray Shugars’s collection of poems, Songs My Mother Never Taught Me, is clearly divided into three sections with distinct differences in approaches to the craft. The first section, which gives the book its title, is the strongest of the three, as Shugars creates a distinct world in this section. These poems are much more narrative than the other two sections and draw mostly on his childhood, though the speaker of the poems moves into adulthood in the poems about war.

Murray Shugars’s collection of poems, Songs My Mother Never Taught Me, is clearly divided into three sections with distinct differences in approaches to the craft. The first section, which gives the book its title, is the strongest of the three, as Shugars creates a distinct world in this section. These poems are much more narrative than the other two sections and draw mostly on his childhood, though the speaker of the poems moves into adulthood in the poems about war.

What gives these opening poems such power is the strong sense of place Shugars is able to create. While it is a place where people are clearly suffering, he is able to show us the beauty that is found even there. In “Plastic Milk Jugs,” for example, Shugars shows us a friend’s father: “Bobby’s dad, John, sways in the doorway. / He has his eyes closed and head bowed / like a deacon praying. He’s hugging / a muzzle-loading rifle. He lets out a snore.” The father seems a sympathetic character, as we are told about his injury and the painkillers he takes, which lead to this semi-sleep that he walks around in. By the end of the poem, though, John has shot Bobby’s dog instead of the plastic milk jugs of the title; in the distance, “The big saw at the mill is screaming / down the middle of a pine log. / Sawdust piles on the floor / faster than a boy can sweep,” showing how both Bobby and the speaker feel about their lives.

Shugars also does a good job showing these characters’ desires, especially the speaker’s growing desire for Holly Anne, a girl he later he realizes he did not care about as he once thought. In the first poem where she appears—named after her—she and the speaker are lying in the hayloft, probably having sex, though that is left to the reader to decide. Shugars describes the scene: “Wind through the open loft like a naked boy / Diving from the high banks of Crockery Creek.” The line break here emphasizes the scene we are currently seeing, giving us the impression the speaker is naked, though that is never described. The second line, though, connects to another poem later in the first section, also about Holly Anne. In “Rhapsody,” the speaker is older, now married, but remembering when he was fourteen when “She languished on a hill above / the desperate splashes I made / diving naked from the high banks.” These connections that run throughout the opening section provide a depth of character and place lacking in the rest of the collection.

The second section, “A Litany of Things Known,” moves to more imagistic, almost surrealistic poems. One of the best examples of this approach is “Self Portrait Holding the Camera at Arm’s Length,” a clear reference to Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” though Shugars updates the technology to a camera, with a mention of Frank Stanford, as well (there are others throughout the collection). Instead of the narrative poems of the first section, here we see lists of images piled one on another:

I wrote the forty-one verses of the universe on an acorn.
I have the manifest humility of the peacock.
I am the cat that trods to all the measures of the music,
the russian blue who left the mouse’s head
at the foot of your mother’s bedstead.
I the thieving squirrel of beech tree birdseed.
I the purple rook who steals
only the best handmade shoes.

This shift helps lead the reader into the final section, which is made up of one longer poem in five sections: “Searching For Duende.” In this poem, Shugars channels Ginsberg, while making numerous allusions, including several to The Odyssey, Neruda, Shakespeare, and García Lorca, among others. As in the previous section, we have a speaker who makes declarations about himself through one image after another in an attempt to evoke an emotion, not create a narrative to follow. Section V begins:

I am a furiously militant Odysseus lost between distant war
and home, hollow-eyed and hungry but still dancing,
a lunar paralytic on the splintered deck of my craft, the odor
of nocturnal ports in my hair. The sea repeats
the unrepeatable approach of the papal nuncio night.

In this closing poem, Shugars comes back to themes and ideas he has worked throughout the book. He talks about love and the pursuit of it, with the connections to The Odyssey, while also commenting on war and writing, two other themes that have come up throughout the work. While the last section is not as strong as the first, it still does an effective job of wrapping up the collection, though I am left wishing there were more of the earlier poems.

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