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Poet Patricia Murphy writes that she was 17 when her mother set herself on fire.
It was the summer of 1998, Murphy says, when her mother pulled her car to the side of the road, doused herself in gasoline and lit a match. She was saved by an off-duty police officer who spotted her and pulled her from the car. Doctors had to perform skin grafts on nearly a quarter of her body.
Soul-shaking moments such as this are peppered throughout Murphy’s first collection, “Hemming Flames.” Murphy, a principal lecturer in Arizona State University’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, will read selections from her newly published book at 7 p.m. Thursday at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.
“It’s a book about a suburban family and traces the arc of an implosion,” said Murphy, founding editor of Superstition Review, ASU’s online literary magazine. “Our family life went way beyond dysfunction. It was an implosion.”
The collection marks a culmination of 20 years of work for Murphy, who is writing publicly about her family. Her handling of the subject matter stood out, said Pulitzer winner Stephen Dunn.
“Here was someone whose artfulness transcended what otherwise could merely be confessional,” he said. “I never felt the motive behind it was therapeutic. Patricia Murphy is a maker of poems.”
Dunn selected “Hemming Flames” as the winner of the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award, presented by Utah State University Press, which published the book this summer. Dunn, in a statement, called the book “wonderfully disturbing” and said the title comes from the collection’s final two lines, “Yesterday I invented fire / today I’m hemming flames.”
Murphy said the work draws heavily on her turbulent youth and that it includes stories about her mother, describing her as a suicidal diagnosed schizophrenic who refused medication because she “loved the feeling of being manic.”
There were countless bizarre episodes, Murphy said, explaining that her mother had been hospitalized in more than 30 psychiatric wards and institutions in six countries.
In one instance, Murphy said, her mother made an impulsive trip to Russia, where she renounced her U.S. citizenship and attempted to emigrate as a communist. Her mother ended up spending a year and a half in a mental hospital where she was underfed and abused, Murphy said, adding that six of her mother’s teeth had been pulled and that she left the institution weighing just 95 pounds.
“Reading the work, you understand immediately that writing these poems required enormous bravery and deep emotional anguish,” said Maureen Roen, editorial and communications coordinator for the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. Murphy “really put it out there for all to see.”
Arizona’s inaugural poet laureate Alberto Rios called the work “searing reports from the far side of the human dimension.”
Patricia Murphy said her mother’s later years were lucid and drama-free. She moved to Las Vegas, took her medicine and maintained a job.
Before her mother died, Murphy said, “we had a conversation, and I felt like she really listened when I told her what it was like for the rest of us. And she said to me, ‘I did the best that I could.’”
“I think about that a lot,” Murphy said. “It took everything she had to say it.”