A review of Alcestis in the Underworld by Nina Murray

Reviewed by Roy Scheele

Alcestis in the Underworld
by Nina Murray
Circling Rivers
$14.99, May 20, Hardcover : 80 pages, ISBN-13 : 978-1939530127

This collection of poems takes its title from the Greek myth of Alcestis and King Admetus. There are several versions of the story: in Euripides’ account, Alcestis offers up her own life in order to save that of Admetus and, through Heracles’ intercession with Death, is brought back to life again and restored to the court of Admetus. In the process Alcestis becomes for the Greeks an emblem of steadfast love. Murray, however, does not try to establish a perfect correspondence between these poems and the myth’s incidents and details; instead, the poems move freely back and forth between two planes of existence, the personal and the mythological, as they recall Murray’s youth in Ukraine and her subsequent career in the U.S. diplomatic service, particularly her time in Russia. The myth itself functions in the poems more like a reticulated canopy, casting an occasional net of shadows over the scenes taking place below.

Murray’s method here is essentially dramatic. This is apparent from the outset, as there are subsection headings entitled “memory theater” scattered throughout the book. The first of these serves as a kind of frontispiece and consists of six one-paragraph prose poems, each assigned a roman numeral: “orthodoxy,” “domesticity,” “divination,” “competence,” “verdure,” and “conveyance.” The first poem in Section One, “Alcestis at the feast,” is roman numeral seven in this sequence. I take “memory theater” as extending from Stanislavski’s “affective memory” back to Aristotle’s concept of mimesis as a chief component of the dramatic poet’s stagecraft. Read in this way, Murray’s own experience may be seen to sometimes coincide with, but mostly differ from, the key points of Alcestis’s mythos.

These parallel planes of existence occur throughout the book’s three sections. The first deals powerfully with memories of the poet’s own childhood but also includes poems set in Moscow and St. Petersburg from her days in the diplomatic service; the latter are far more immediate and dramatic than is the norm for such pieces. There is a certain irreverent quality to Murray’s treatment of some of these subjects, as when she notices the minor vandalism left by skateboarders on the Lenin memorial, its “pedestal/edges ground down/chipped where the boards/slipped” (“collection needs”). In “things on leashes” Murray waits with a little girl at a bus stop (the girl serving perhaps as an alter ego of Murray’s younger self) and reads the girl’s mind: “we contemplate/the things we cannot have/hers is a dog, I think.” These strong concluding lines supplant the rhyming couplet traditionally used, in the sonnet especially, to sum and cinch the poem’s meaning. Murray’s endings are consistently strong, as in “the Sapsan express,” a piece about the Moscow to St. Petersburg bullet train, where the final image perfectly captures the train’s speed: “a blur: a feather twirls/in the locomotive’s wake.”

Section Two begins with the oracular quatrain “Alcestis in the underworld.” The memory theater piece is the remarkable “sometimes I dream of my father’s garden,’ and there are poems on the atrocity and surreality of modern warfare, on espionage (“the ghosts of spies”), and ekphrastic pieces on works by John Johnson, Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky, and Leon Bakst. The images in this section are often dark and depict a variety of victims. In “ash wednesday” the corpse of a World War I casualty appears to the poet in a dream, and in him she recognizes a new kind of suffering, says of him “the Messiah has been reimagined.” The man has not been resurrected but “recovered,” his body risen up from the hell of trench warfare.

The third section opens with an epigraph from Seamus Heaney: “And after the common journey, what?” The poems that follow suggest an answer, beginning with “reduced circumstances,” moving through “Alcestis returns,” “inventory: labelled boxes,” “how to fail at gardening,” “race day” (about a man who collapses in the poet’s presence at a race track and with whom she has a moving conversation in which she learns that the man suffered his attack on his way to place a bet), “the forest of things,” and “each spring in Moscow,” in which Murray returns to the placid urban landscapes of Section One. This section, by turns celebratory and foreboding, ends with the quiet reflection of “jet lag,” as the poet recalls:

a secret rain
that tapped
a minute ago
in my dream
on a different
now so distant

Here is the poet holding to the parallel planes of existence she began with. It is an amazing journey there and back, providing us, like Alcestis, with a new lease on life.

About the reviewer: Roy Scheele retired from Doane University in 2018, where he served as the university’s Poet in Residence for 28 years and where he is currently professor of English emeritus. His own poetry has been widely published in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and numerous other university journals and little magazines. He has also published interviews and profiles on Miroslav Holub, Gwendolyn Brooks, W.D. Snodgrass, Susan Starr Richards, W.R. Moses, David Ray and others in The New England Review, The Verse Book of Interviews, Poets & Writers and elsewhere, as well criticism on the work of Robert Frost, Edward Thomas, William Carlos Williams, W.R. Moses, and others in such journals as Papers on Language & Literature, Northeast, and The South Carolina Review. In 2014 he was one of three finalists for Nebraska state poet.