Dancing on the Edge

Dancing on the Edge

by Joan Murray

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In her haunting fourth collection, National Poetry Series winner Joan Murray takes the challenge of performing poetry's original and still necessary tasks in the uncertain landscape of a new millennium.

Widely praised for the exceptional humanity and technical virtuosity of her earlier collections, Murray now explores the daily struggles of life and death in the natural world, the hidden pleasures and ironies of life in small-town America, the vulnerable underside of artistic communities, and the myriad complexities that pervade our dreams and relationships in this new century. With wit, generosity, and unflinching honesty, Murray gives us poems that mourn and praise, illuminate and challenge.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807068717
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 04/19/2002
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Joan Murray is a National Poetry Series Winner, Poet-in-Residence at the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany, author of three prize-winning books of poetry: Queen of the Mist, Looking for the Parade, and The Same Water, editor of Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times, and general editor of the forthcoming Best of Pushcart Poetry.

Read an Excerpt


By Joan Murray


Copyright © 2002 Joan Murray.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807068713



Because Lena's not yet three,
she doesn't know the reason for this place.
"I like this little house. And this little house,"
she says as she loops around them
—the play-size "houses" of the dead.
Here in Key West, as in New Orleans,
where the land and sea are nearly level,
some are set just above the surface,
and Lena leans on their "big stone beds."

But since Lena's not yet three,
she doesn't know what any of it means:
she doesn't know where the earth rolls away to
every night while she's asleep—
or who rolls with it—some above it, some below.
And because she doesn't know,
she moves in waves of joy
like the spirit on the surface of the waters
—before it ever thought of light.

She squeezes between two "beds"
that are stretched out side by side—
one's bigger than the other-
and pats them, left then right,
and reunites what slipped apart a hundred years ago:
a mother—and her child of a day.
We learn this from their surnames and the dates
—but Lena doesn't read,
and there's no reason to explain.

We watch her bolt through the gate
where the men of the Maine
sail on in shipshape rows
as she splashes among their stones.
"God Was Good to Me," one epitaph proclaims,
but Lena has no knowledge of God.
Or his goodness. Or the opposite implied
by what's said on every side
in the silent houses of the dead.

When we say it's time to go, she runs ahead again,
drops down before an upright stone,
and moves her finger across its surface.
She runs to another, repeats her motions—
as she reads its lines out loud:
The name. The date. And the other.
—And though she's still too young to read,
she reads them anyhow:
"I love you. I love you. I love you."
—But how could she know?—How could she know
what would trump all the mansions of gold?


A family says goodbye to a boy soon to be deported to a death camp.
—New York Times Travel Section photo caption (9/3/2000)

It's chicken wire—the kind you see everywhere—and it probably
is tall. Although, with the top cropped off, it's hard to tell.
The only pole visible was, till recently, a sapling tree—
it's gangly—and still a little knobby—as if someone didn't try
or couldn't spare the time to do it right. Besides,
there are no chickens on either side.

At first it seems we're outside—behind the boy, sitting cross-legged
with his elbows on his knees. His pants are short, and the pale
flesh of his thigh (seen here in black and white) is as bright
as the six-point star on his shoulder blade. Though we can't
guess the expression on his face, he looks relaxed
as he sits and waits between two clumps of weeds.

The ones on the other side are easier to see: the two who might be
his sisters—girls with thick black hair, each resting on an elbow
with her legs stretched on the ground. The one on the left
looks away into the distance; the other, closer,
with her cheek pressed on her shoulder, looks down
where nothing is—and meets its gaze.

The fourth—an adolescent like the rest—sits slumped against the pole
and hunches over. With the same short hair and identical cap,
he is staring past the mirror that's his brother. His sober
eyes hang on the fence that stands in his line of sight,
saying, narrow your shoulders, try to hide,
but in only a little time,
you'll be inside.

The fifth, at the right, clearly older than the others—kneels low
and feels the fence against her face. Though she looks serene
as she whispers her goodbyes, her hands betray her—
she must be his mother—wringing her yet wet fingers
in the apron she'd have hung up in the kitchen
if the boxcars weren't filling at the siding.

She has so much to tell him, and the fence is so obliging,
though it's full of air—hardly even there—its arms keep intertwining-
making diamond shapes around their eyes like a secret leaded window,
and she's reminding him through the panes to say his prayers,
to answer promptly whatever he's asked, and pass a message
to his father, who's gone ahead. Oh yes, he'll remember—
he'll remember the fence and everything she said—
he'll remember all his life.


We've been wondering what that duck's
been doing by the pond all month—
ambling by our apartment windows
in her quirky isolation—even though it's nearly
winter, and she must have known
the snow was coming and the other ducks had gone.
I'd guessed she must be defective—
it could happen in a million different ways:
just one snag in one strand of DNA
and she could be missing
whichever part of whichever lobe
says to a duck: Get going.

Last month, when ice was forming near
the shore, I'd sometimes see her in the center—
where our stolen pumpkin was still floating—
but now it's December,
and it's anchored to the surface,
where it blazes like something meant to warn us.
And there's that duck parading on the ice,
and three boys (two with bikes)
throwing stones in her direction.
She walks around them casually—
which makes me think she probably can't fly.
In any case, I've got to save her from those boys.

I grab my coat. And a loaf of whole wheat bread.
I'll try to coax them to feed her. Instead of
kill her. But the boys reject my offer.
They say they'd rather throw their stones:
We're not hurting anyone. And to prove it,
the biggest boy hurls one down—the size of
a football—it doesn't go through
but makes a huge concussion—
still, the duck doesn't move.
But from the reeds—just below where they've been standing,
a duckling skitters across the ice
to the reeds on the opposite side.

So now we know what she's been up to.
And what's gone wrong here.
And at once, something comes upon the boys—
now they want to feed her. But the small nervous one
(the one without a bike) grabs the bag
from my hand and runs around the pond,
trying to find the duckling. But he can't.
When he scuffles back, dragging the bag of bread,
the three of them go at it—tearing it up
till they've torn the whole loaf, and she's asking
for more, and the boys are asking me what to do.
I tell them, I don't know. It's late, it's cold—I'm going in.

As I sip my coffee at the window, I watch the boys
arguing about the duck. Their voices drift up—
getting mixed up with the news on my radio.
It's all about a NASA crew who'll fix the Hubble telescope
so the universe will look as clear as we'd like it to.
They've been planning their mission for a year—
they've got a hundred and fifty tools—
two of everything they'll need. And if they succeed,
we'll know how old the universe is,
and how our galaxy began. And we'll understand
the nature of black holes. And someone's
bound to tell us what to do.

For now, the boys keep trying their old maneuvers:
counting to three, then lobbing their stones—
they're trying to break the ice—for her
while she stands on shore beside them,
looking as if she's hired them. I'm sure they're the ones
who stole our pumpkin for the fun of it,
but now the fun's gone out of them—
now they know the guilty secret of the universe—
right outside their apartment windows.
They don't even cheer when a stone goes through.
Though they've got a hole, it's much too small
for a duck to float around in—and they know.

I watch the biggest boy crawl down beside the hole,
and pound his heels against its sides to make it wider.
When he can't stand the icy water any longer,
he pulls off his shoes and socks and pedals home—
where someone's bound to yell at him.
Then the middle one starts his turn—
easing his bike down the steep incline.
But the weight of the bike and the gravity of the world
want to drag him into the hole. He strains his whole
small self against them, inching his way—
till he can thump its front wheel on the ice. But it bounces up—
the ice won't break. No matter how many times he tries.

I can see he's in tears as he looks up at my window—
before I start to wave, he shoots me a look of hate.
It's nearly dark, when the small one finally
drops the bag and follows the middle one home.
Yet it's easier to see that duck—now that she's slid
into the hole—where she's floating around
as the boys had wanted her to. I glance around the surface
of the pond, hoping to see her duckling. But I don't.
Should I wish it spring? Or maybe death?
Neither of which will come quick enough.
My empty bag is skittering on the ice—
the wind's inside, telling it what to do.

Excerpted from DANCING ON THE EDGE by Joan Murray. Copyright © 2002 by Joan Murray. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

Billy Collins

In Dancing on the Edge, Joan Murray has dropped the dramatic mask and sets out to record and evaluate her own everyday experiences in poems which are graced with an intensity of observation and a deep affection for the life around her. This is a lively, winning collection.

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