Texas A&M University Press, 2020 Winner of the Robert Phillips Chapbook Prize
Still Life with Timex submerges the reader into the mind of a grieving mother, whose distant son has fallen into a coma and inevitably passes. Elisabeth Murawski approaches this subject intensely, rarely straying from the intimate perspective of the mother. She focuses on how grief numbs a person and turns their world into something radically foreign. She pairs raw emotional despair with formal structure and forlorn imagery. One cannot read these poems without feeling the colossal weight driving down on the speaker’s shoulders; the weight pressing down on this mother that prevents her from moving forward.
One of my favorite poems from this chapbook is “This Bitter Earth.” The language is simple yet incredibly effective. In couplets, she bluntly begins “Mornings, I press the tab / on the digital clock. / The screen lights up. / Black numerals display / on a sky-blue ground. / To look, roulette” (21). Her actions are cyclical, the same each day, and she feels as if in some sort of limbo. “Like a damselfly / lighting on a rock, / I fold in on myself. / Why not linger/ in a meadow,/ a stick on sun-warmed stone?” Murawski’s speaker is looking for some form of stillness from the sharp world around her. I like that she does not write a speaker who understands everything around her, or as if the answers are clear on how to move forward. Rather, she writes a speaker overwhelmed, and sometimes frozen in true contemplative anguish.
Images are flooded with intimacy and surrounded by the wandering thoughts of a tired mother, waiting but still holding on. Looking at the titular poem “At last I am mad enough / to part with the boots, / surly and yellow, the laces cut” (9). She can finally let go of something, but it is only her son’s dirty boots she found obnoxious. Her mind begins to drift away from the moment and into an image of someone finding the boots “like soldiers in battle / who steal from the dead” but says “Surely he will walk again. / I’ll buy him new.” It appears she is letting go, or perhaps the heavy punctuation reflects the speaker attempting to convince herself the statements are true. In one moment she compares her son to a dead soldier getting robbed on a battlefield, but then quickly turns around and says he’ll walk again. “Surely” mirrors the “surly” boots from six lines above. She brings the reader back to the moment of throwing the boots away, and then zooms in: “Unnerving, the way his watch / still runs, the crystal / whole despite the impact.” The poet primarily favors a chopped syntax, she clips thoughts into pieces that reflect the speaker’s mind.
I found myself reflecting on my own grief while reading this chapbook. A narrative came through this collection of snapshots, and the fluidity between the poems provided a powerful experience. I believe the reader should dictate how a book is read, whether to start at the beginning and read straight through, or to jump around, sampling different sections. However, I will suggest reading these poems in order. This was a dense read and required spending time with deep grief. Murawski reminds the reader that grief is long, it falls into the shadows of our days, and appears in moments we don’t expect it. We believe it is done when it does not sting, but out of nowhere it resurfaces and our bodies believe the trauma has happened again. Murawski says, “It is healing / to let the grief take over.” (27).