Still Life with Timex by Elisabeth Murawski

by Walter Cummins

Poets have written about the death of children, the saddest and most intimate of griefs, from Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son—”Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy”—to collections like that of Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel A Poem. Unlike Jonson’s boy who was only seven, or Hirsch’s college-age son who overdosed at a party, Elisabeth Murawski’s Alexander Michael Evans was a grown man of forty-five who had led a troubled life, and his dying was not a sudden event but the conclusion of many months of prolonged misery, not from a terminal illness, but the consequence of an accident that literally crushed his skull, fractured many bones, and robbed him of awareness. Before the actual trauma of her son’s death, Murawski endured months of anxiety over an uncertain recovery from such severe injuries. Would Alex walk? Would he talk? Would he regain a sense of self?

All these uncertainties underlie the poems in Still Life with Timex, concerns known to me because the poet and I are friends of many years, and because I received frequent reports of what both she and Alex were enduring, feeling the pain in her messages. Coming to the poems with this knowledge may compromise my reading, making it impossible for the poems to speak independently as they would to a reader unfamiliar with the circumstances.  Instead, my judgment as a reviewer must take a very different perspective, asking how well the poet has conveyed the essence of what she and Alex endured, asking if these poems capture the emotional and physical agonies I already knew about. In short, does the collection turn pain into poetry?

The collection certainly impressed readers at the Texas Review Press, which picked it as 2020 Winner of the Robert Phillips Chapbook Prize, and previously individual poems had been chosen by editors of many literary magazines, several nominated and selected for prizes. I agree that beyond the strength each poem possesses in the pages of a magazine, their cumulative gathering achieves a powerful emotional totality.

From the first poem to the last, the collection embeds a story starting with Alex’s birth, through his addiction and homelessness, the car that crashed into him while he was just sitting at a bus stop, his helpless flailing in a rehab facility, his death, his burial, and his mother’s grieving.

Even the beginning poems offer premonitions of dread:

… I live in fear

of the dropping shoe: the knock, the call,

the sting at the finish line. 

Alert, very still, I hear something

snap in the forest.

As in all her many poems, hundreds of them in magazines and her books, Murawski demonstrates a special skill for concision, short lines that come alive with a word like “sting” or “snap” or a surprising detail:

… Stitched

and stapled, body maimed,

he’s quiet and dark as a cave

a bat could feel at home in.

… The young

priest come to visit the nursing home

keeps his distance, cowers like a rabbit

in his collar …

The waters I walk beside

are not still.

The images stun with their quick impact, as in the lines that begin “Gaithersburg Bus Stop Accident,” the poem about the unexpected maiming that robbed Alex of his consciousness and, eventually, his life:

Like a Biblical whirlwind the car

flies into the shelter, flattening steel,

the man waiting for the bus.

And the conclusion of the final poem, “Know, Heart”:

Muffled in silk, cocooned,

the heart cannot see

the houses have lights on,

can only reach back

like a blind person

to the way things were.

The collection’s opening poem, “On His Own,” returns to the poet-mother’s recollection of holding her newborn son and realizing her inability “to charm the temperature / of the unknown.”  In all the poems that follow Alex is on his own as he confronts that unknown, alone at a bus stop as the car bears down, “… writhing like a fish caught  /  in a net, eyes wide with shock, no way out,” squeezing a hand in terror, far from any maternal comfort at the moment of death—“I was sleeping when he died.”