By George Murray

An aphorism is a condensed bit of wisdom or insight that aspires to the burr-like mental stickiness and staying power of poetry and proverb. Poet George Murray brings together 409 such nuggets in Glimpse, sometimes to great effect but too often with uneven results.

The form is the problem, since it sets the bar so high. In writing that is this pared-down we expect nothing but zingers, pure gold, pensées that will have the sudden impact of Zen koans. There is simply no excuse for the odd dud, as we would forgive an occasional bad line in a long poem. This emphasis on pruning and discrimination is heightened by the subtitle, which tells us that these are “selected” aphorisms. Selected from what? Just how many aphorisms has Murray written? An introduction setting out his approach and goals would have helped.

The aphorisms, usually only a sentence in length, appear five to a page. They are numbered, but otherwise there doesn’t seem to be any method to their arrangement. The typical form they take is that of a definition: “X is . . .” The X is usually an abstract noun like beauty or truth, allowing for an imaginative gloss that can go in almost any direction. It all sounds like this: 129: Death is a relinquishing of the prerogative to object. 130: Time is a tea through which your life’s water is only run once. 131: Embarrassment is regret in its youth.

Lightning does strike. Murray is capable of lines that tease the reader out of thought, like “Lies are not the opposite of truth; ideas are.” And there are also arresting moments that scratch at imagistic expressiveness: “To the wind, an open window is a drain,” “Mist is a rain that can’t agree with itself.”

But then there are the throwaways, the glib, banal, and cutesy singles that should not have made the cut. Aphorisms often strike us with the force of truth, or at least an arresting aptness, but they shouldn’t come as obvious as “The first choice is not the choice, but the choice to choose,” or “Sleep is the rough draft of death.” And for some reason vulgarity brings out the worst in Murray: “DNA rhymes with T and A,” “On the highway of life each tongue is an on-ramp, each asshole an exit,” “Those who cannot hear Nature’s call end up pissed.” Brevity, yes. Wit? That’s stretching things.

In other words, as with most poetry collections, there are at least as many misses as hits. Given the nature of the exercise, however, one might have expected a better ratio, strained through a more discerning process of selection.

Review first published August 13, 2010.


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