Reviewed by Beth McDermott
Breakfast in Fur
by Jessica Murray
ISBN-13L 978-0913123256, Sept 22, $16.42, 70 pp.
In a world no longer quiet with belief, Breakfast in Fur, Jessica Murray’s debut collection of poetry, refuses to entertain naïve assumptions by imparting a sense that what peace there was, has been obliterated. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain” (7). The poems in Breakfast in Fur—often in conversation with sculptors, photographers, and inventors—caution against the damage done by thoughtless representation while admitting that playing it safe is impossible. Believing in myths where choice isn’t conditioned by circumstances is a lot like being an object: not a living swarm, but a nest or pestilence likely to be knocked down.
Throughout the collection, “fur” is a metonym for animal nature and later carries the resonance of Object by Meret Oppenheim—a “fur covered saucer” (46), as Murray writes in the title poem, antidote to “the naked body on display in Duchamp’s Étant donnés” (45). “Object,” in this case, is both noun and verb. An artist can “Object, refuse” (14) as Murray writes in “A Ragged Time,” a multi-sectioned poem spanning personal, social, political, and aesthetic subjects while simultaneously critiquing our common response to what should be a horrifying image:
the compassion machine, like any god,
is a kind of wish fulfillment:
each time the world splinters, the machine
reproduces by division.
Profligate as cedar pollen, as ragweed
in a ragged time,
it disperses molecules on which
synthetic parasites enter the bloodstream. (10)
There’s something sinister that the artist must contend with by being up front about risk and lack of meaning. In “The State with the Prettiest Name: A Manifesto,” Murray’s speaker describes being found “tiresome, undisciplined” (23) by a friend of a friend who’s a sculptor. The next poem, “After Reading Sally Mann’s Memoir,” talks back to the sculptor, pushing against the machine that easily reproduces unoriginal responses. “All I’ve been thinking,” Murray writes, “how often we punish others / for what we can’t express we find / dangerous about their behavior” (25). Is it more dangerous not to have been trained, or to make of oneself an object available for use?
In a book without sections, “Hour Before Birdsong” stands out for playing with imperfection in an obvious way. A three-part poem, each section is followed by hand- (or electronic) drawn ninety-degree arrows that beckon the reader to go in and have an experience. But what type of experience should we expect from reading “The cardinal with his dripping oars” alongside “a gash of sticky viscera” (Murray 28-9)? For all the book’s moments of flight, the landscape of the sea populated by sociable male humpback whales is an alternative to the hawk circling its prey or “a dolphin in captivity” (Murray 1) sinking to the bottom of the tank. Art requires opposition—Hannah Wilke offers another example—and it’s in the title poem, “Breakfast in Fur,” that Murray most seriously considers the line between “what is forbidden” and “another person’s vulnerability” (43). “Anyone could be forgiven / for expecting the scene continues / beyond the aperture’s limitations” (45), Murray writes, calling to mind the faceless body in Duchamp’s installation. Additional bodies populate the book: some are in front of a camera, where the question of what we know about the subject or the photographer’s intentions makes us feel embarrassed we are unable to articulate the answer.
In “Curtain Call,” Murray places extreme emphasis on the slight shifts in species names to prioritize play in a poem about “games of gender, intrigue, deception” (39), the outcomes of which are ultimately unclear. However, the mistake that comes from being conditioned to make certain choices isn’t all that decipherable in a romantic setting. “Curtain Call” comes down harder on when a line should be drawn:
The only thing clear as the ice-cube
eddying in its velvety spirits
is something banal about cruelty
and gratuitousness. (Murray 40)
Such “cruelty / and gratuitousness” is so banal that it’s the reason “safety, my love, is a myth” (15). This haunting line from “A Ragged Time” can be read in different ways. Perhaps “my love” further explains “safety,” such that it’s all part of the formula for myth. Or “my love” is a form of address, a way to soften the blow about what the world is really like for the speaker’s child, “the body inside the body like a shell” (Murray 15).
This isn’t a book that makes decisions for the reader. Murray’s knowledge and reference to other forms of art, schools, and theories is broad enough that the reader can find their own stolen moments of either appreciation or critique. But there are consequences for not having an “intermediary structure” (Murray 51) as simple as a porch that potentially shelters a wild cat. “Always, something wants in, / out–” (15), Murray writes in “A Ragged Time,” mimicking the motion of the waves, the pattern of music, or the repeatability of an image we can’t control. In these poems that critique desensitization, greed, and the use of one person for another’s purposes, Murray manages to celebrate the perils of having an imagination. Breakfast in Fur invites philosophical and ethical questions, looking back from our still new century where “like a Nauman neon sign, the shorthand blinks” (Murray 29).
About the reviewer: Beth McDermott is the author of Figure 1 (Pine Row Press, 2022). Her reviews appear in American Book Review, RHINO Reviews, Kenyon Review Online, and The Bind.
First published at Heavy Feather Review.