Abby E. Murray’s first poetry collection, Hail and Farewell, surpassed hundreds of manuscripts to win last year’s Perugia Press prize. The award, given for a woman poet’s first or second full-length book, recognizes work that is both accomplished and accessible; in this case, it also recognizes work that’s absolutely gripping. As an Army wife and as a writer, Murray’s life is enfolded with the military: she teaches writing to Army War College fellows; she edits Collateral, a literary journal focused on the impact of violent conflict beyond the field of battle; and she writes, with both honesty and deep empathy, about the fear, loneliness, and absurdity that military families face. She invites the reader into the agonizing uncertainty of a career that assumes killing and dying, “the standing water of . . . sorrow” in the moments of respite (“Ode to Norteño”), and the panic that suddenly splashes out of the dark well of trauma.
Hail and Farewell is a story told poetically by an increasingly likable narrator, each small, vivid piece adding its own unapologetically human element to the narrative. It’s a story and an education, tender and profane, about a woman who marries an Army Ranger and signs her name to a way of life. In the very first poem, “Five Days After the Wedding,” the newlyweds go to draft his living will. On one hand, she knows what it means to marry into the military; on the other hand, she can’t truly know. She experiences the anxiety of deployments (“Notification”), the attempted suicide of the other Army wife in her duplex (“The War Tramples Us”), and a bedside vigil with a soldier whose legs have been destroyed by an explosion (“Bones”). But she also struggles with the restlessness of being uprooted (“A Portable Wife”), the isolation of her own unemployment (“Between Jobs”), the devastation of miscarriages (“To the Lost Child”), and the discomfort of attending all the tacky festivities befitting an institution steeped in misogyny (“Ranger School Graduation,” “Happy Birthday, Army”).
The speaker of these poems is an outsider—a pacifist who can’t be pacified by America’s consumerist fantasy and its ready-made new beginnings (“Sitting in a Simulated Living Space at the Seattle Ikea”), who cringes at being “bribed with jewelry to behave” (“Jewelry”), who can’t buy into the mandatory oversimplification of complex situations (“How to Be Married After Iraq”). But she is also an insider, who knows the challenges of this life too well to waste much energy sitting in judgement. Even as she implies the uselessness of the military’s “four easy steps” to minimize the stress of spousal absence (“How We Eat”), she creates her own terse lists for coping (“When He Receives Orders to Afghanistan and a Parking Ticket: How to Respond”):
Don’t say Fuck.
Don’t be a blue jay.
. . .
When he hands you the ticket,
its charges printed in dark red
script, let the checkbook fly
from your purse like a finch.
. . .
You are not a magpie,
you are not a crow.
Your voice is a long, sweet song.
Build a nest
on his shoulder and rest
your head there.
Although she knows that she is not an ideal (i.e., accepting) Army wife, more a junkyard dog at a Hail and Farewell party than one of the “nice girls,” she respects her husband for his engagement. In the title poem, she writes,
I am not embarrassed to explain how you said
. . . I love the Iraqis, and you meant it.
You love the translators who unknot your English
then weave it into fabric village elders can use,
love the small girl with her hand on a donkey’s ear . . .”
By contrast, she is embarrassed by her inner harpy, the “voice like a blister” that feeds her resistance to the ceremonies that attempt to dignify war (“I Am Struck by Guilt”):
Pride makes her spit.
Small medals make her
want to roll in fire
and I am all she has.
Murray strikes a similar balance as she struggles with childlessness in her “Poem for Pregnant Women Who Hold their Stomachs in Pictures.” It begins with a line that returns as a refrain: “I assume you know.” Offhand and conciliatory or loaded and accusatory, the words ultimately plead for understanding and offer it in return:
I assume you know
we also look at stars,
those of us who bear
the peace of a moonless night
into each evening
. . .
I assume you know
we’ve noticed you,
. . .
we believe you have
a world’s worth of climates
to carry more or less alone
Although Murray was raised among sisters by a single mother, in a house where “only girls had the grit to transform themselves” (“Poem for Boys”), later in the collection she extends her empathy to her late father, a loner and leaver. She reaches out to him in verse with a believably awkward earnestness, planting a reeking Walla Walla sweet onion at his grave (“How to Visit a Grave Properly”) and remembering how in her childhood, she wanted to make him feel welcome at holidays, even though she knew he wasn’t. She tried to make his oddness and his absence somehow special, imagining him as if he were a being that didn’t even belong on land (“Stollen”):
He brought Stollen, the heavy bread nobody liked,
its tough crust hidden in sugar.
I taught myself carefully: eat this bread.
And I ate because my father was a blue whale
and Stollen was strange the way krill are strange.
One would think there’s nothing amusing about a failed father dying alone in his bathroom, but Murray brings a gentle playfulness even to these poems, the kind of intentional spark of lightheartedness by which human beings survive adversity. Throughout the collection, amidst the collective stress of war and the particular grief of each individual loss, Murray’s winning voice holds us close with genuine warmth and unshowy wit. Our culture is rife with gimmicks, and although Murray doesn’t want them, she makes the most of them in her half-smiling way. As she counts off days, she wades through calendars of made-up holidays, made for “[forgetting] what we know”; meanwhile, she notes, “The world observes my sex / on the same day America / celebrates the pancake, / and who doesn’t love a good pancake?” (“International Women’s Day”). I wouldn’t have thought I could love a poem entitled, “Gwen Stefani Knows How to Get Everything I Want,” but I do. I love the quirky, poppy, tongue-in-cheek promise that a celebrity could hand us the key to our dreams, even if those dreams were as mundane as self-writing grant proposals, refinancing, rain.
The poems in Hail and Farewell have the character of natural speech, and they read aloud beautifully. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to isolate representative lines because Murray’s best ones work their magic in context. They’re breathtaking in their simplicity because they’re perfect in their place. Murray addresses a complicated world not with complicated language, but with plain sensitivity: to her husband, haunted by a family of rats he drowned while deployed (“Calling Rats”); to her child, who can’t yet speak to her own feelings (“My Daughter Practices Saying Hi”); to herself, feeling left behind and useless (“Phantom Limb”); to the immigrant with the cleft palate at the DMV (“What is Named, What is Unnamed”); to her dog dying of cancer (“Poem for My Dog”); and to all women longing for children, for whom she writes a new set of Beatitudes (“Prayer on National Childfree Day”). Murray sees how pain takes us from ourselves, and she knows the yearning toward an artificial blankness, a life with no layers. But she also speaks to real life—discolored, unresolved, and not to be wished away—with love.