Ralph Murre’s poetry sequence, Psalms (Little Eagle Press, 2008), has a solemn title but the work is playful and irreverent. The accompanying pen and ink drawings, also by Murre, add immeasurably to the experience, grounding the poems in intricate worldly detail and darkening webs of cross-hatching.
The collection comprises fifteen psalms, eleven lines each, most of the psalms beginning with a variation on “I may go back…” and ending with “If I’m singing at all.” Memory is the theme. Restless memories that reach for transcendence but spiral instead toward resignation and regret.
Murre’s psalms reflect Kerouac’s and Salinger’s America where sadness and ecstasy are inseparable:
I may go back and build an ark, down by the lake,
in the city park where we barked so long ago, you & I;
build it to save mating pairs of military-industrialists,
realists and realtors, nihilists and meat-cutters […] [Psalm II]
The exuberance of Murre’s run-on catalogs and infectious wordplay keeps his psalms from sinking into despair. Like this wonderful blast from a farmland childhood: “Saturday bath and Sunday hath-nots and shalt- / nots, cow shit and old math and raspberries, dairies and cheese, / more weeds than corn, a real damned horn-of-plenty […]” (Psalm XIII).
He’s especially good at capturing the spark and manic rhythm of urban life:
[…] pickled herring, pickled beets, picking up the beat
of trash-can slam, picking up jobs of poor-I-am and
picking up women in good-night dreams, bad-night bars,
rusted cars in South-Side parking-lot wake-ups, staggering
to fourth-floor walk-ups, singing blue of our break-ups,
if we’re singing at all. [Psalm VIII]
When mania crashes, however, the outlook is terrifying:
The affable, laughable you and I climbing to a sky
of scaffolds on unapproved ladders, flattery
getting us everywhere we ought to avoid,
the void looming—booming sub-woofer void,
passing in the night frightful bass-line of void,
angels flying south in missing-man formations […] [Psalm VII]
Murre’s psalms seem in the end to consider whether celebration is possible at all. The limitations of optimism. The struggle to keep afloat, to manage our moods. But above all, Ralph Murre’s Psalms offers us the salvation of poetry and art as reason enough for staying the course.