Alameda Bookshelf: Poet Beth Murray

Alameda Bookshelf: Poet Beth Murray

Kristen Hanlon

Photo courtesy of Beth Murray.

Beth Murray has lived and worked on the island of Alameda for most of the last decade. As a certified classical homeopath, she has practiced at Back to Life Wellness Center on Webster Street for several years and has also maintained a practice in Marin County. Long active in the Bay Area poetry community, her chapbooks include Hope Eternity Seen on the Hip of a Rabbit (a+bend press) and The Night’s Night (Noemi Press).

Of her book The Island (Second Story Books) poet Laynie Browne has written: "As a poetic healer, Murray is adept at the Doolittle-esque notion of conversing with animals and elements. She notes ‘the path a bee walks to nectar’ and ‘the sun is a fish you cannot catch.’ No safe passage is offered here. Instead we are given a promise of fluid attentiveness and directed toward a multilingual collective intelligence – as we traverse a tumultuous passage."

Murray recently moved to Mariposa County, but will continue to practice homeopathy part-time in Alameda.

Your book-length poem The Island is a deeply personal, meditative work that explores your experience of living in Alameda. The work is suffused with pain and longing. There’s a startling line that appears roughly halfway through the book (“I am on an Island and her name is grief”) that puts things in rather stark terms. Could you elaborate on the conditions of writing The Island and how you decided on the form for the book?
When I wrote The Island I was responding to a number of shocks: the death of my brother and the death of a very dear friend, my divorce after the loss of two pregnancies, and the loss of several animals. During this time I was walking at the shoreline in West Alameda and swimming in the bay.

In The Island there is a being named Presence who lives in the water. I carried one of the pregnancies for five months when he was diagnosed with anencephaly. Presence is something like a container for my longing for this missing spirit.

the seal who twice has winked as I round the corner
fishing but winking
he knows Presence
and winks when my thoughts are right
appears to tell me,        this moment, this thought, yes
they will take
they will take place
thoughts bleed into water
Presence hears me coming
keeps his distance
tracks me like a fish

As I was writing I was also hearing about the torture taking place at Guantanamo Bay. I was imagining how one could endure such an experience, how one would keep her thoughts private, and sensing an overlap between this imagination and my own experience of focusing on internal light in dark times.

Every day I would drive through the Webster Tube. I found the experience of the tunnel from Oakland to Alameda very much like descending into the Earth when entering shamanic or trance experience. The light that I imagined in the torture room after solitary confinement began to overlap with the light I found within my own body, or the light at the end of the tunnel.

The book came to me relatively quickly. Whole sections were written in one sitting. There is a certain incantatory quality to it, and this is exactly how it initially came. Intense grief has a way of focusing a person on her soul’s solution, and I think the writing reflects this focus.

you go very quiet
your teeth are their teeth are the teeth of everyone in the room
you build it and you make it so
you make any other thought not so
you come out of the room
you forget the tunnel
you make only the light
in the dark of the tunnel you make only the light
no longer preparing you only envision
what you are envisioning is not theirs or yours
what you are envisioning belongs only to the light
any thought is a string you
feel above the night

Multiple voices are a recurring element in my writing. As I walked around Alameda I heard voices from crows and pelicans and sycamores and the water. These voices show up in the work:

hold my own thoughts
hold the strongest
not disclose
to the friends telling me to imagine
promise of a better time
if only I give my thoughts

              universe: you can recognize them
              tendrils: how?

      universe: they think thoughts are property

my thoughts in inmost track of light
I will not let them
I will hold
will not disclose

      go through the tunnel

but in waiting
in gnashing my teeth and waiting
I was not told that

everybody wants my thoughts,
whether I unfold –

              tendrils: you can’t stop us
              universe: only by making you more

scared echoes

      universe: give

what you see around the light
where a flame and a flame
and the former flame
you want to close your eyes
hang a cloth around
the friends telling you to imagine

      universe: I am what you are most uncomfortable about

In this section I was thinking about the experience of wanting to be alone in order to go deeply into the grief, and how grief can teach us that we are never alone, we are all connected – this thinking overlays here with imagination of the torture victim who has the will power to not disclose information, and the voice of the Universe who brings our shadow into the light so that we can see it.

You practice homeopathy for both people and animals. Do you find homeopathy and poetry symbiotic? How has your practice of homeopathy informed your writing, and vice-versa?
In classical homeopathy, you speak with a person and find out everything about his/her physical and emotional life. Then you find one substance, or homeopathic remedy, that has the potential to cure all of these symptoms by echoing that person’s central experience, which in turn stimulates healing on all levels. Some people practice homeopathy exclusively by reading texts that describe all the symptoms for each remedy, and then matching them to the person, but I have always relied on the substances speaking to me. Lately, I am finding that the Earth can speak directly to the patient and the homeopathic remedy may not even be necessary. It is this experience of hearing the voices of the earth and all of her inhabitants that I try to convey in my writing.

For a long time I have liked the practicality of homeopathy, in that, if you understand what the patient is saying, and you find a substance that says the same thing, the patient will experience healing. In my early years as I poet I was sometimes discouraged when people didn’t “get” my work, and I liked that in homeopathy, healing could occur whether or not the person understood the message of the substance they were taking. But now, I find that the poetic work does speak to people, and I don’t need to worry about them “getting it,” and that healing in homeopathy takes place when people understand their own voices, and they may not need the substance, so there is a shift that is occurring for me. But as you can see, there is serious overlap in my experience of both realms!

You've been keeping a blog, Healing My Cancer, in which you describe and track your recovery from breast cancer via a combination of eastern and western medicine. Has the healing process also informed the poetry you are writing now?
Absolutely! I’m just finishing another book-length poem, which right now is called Cancer Angel. In this book, the tumors are one of the voices in the poem, which very much speaks to the path of my recovery, as I discovered that once I was able to hear what the tumors were saying and why they had formed, they didn’t really need to exist anymore. Just like writing The Island led me out of the grief process, writing Cancer Angel has led me out of advanced breast cancer. During the intensive phase of really listening to the tumors and crafting a path for both healing and working with all the fear that comes up as a result of cancer, I actually didn’t write that much. I meditated with a very specific focus and walked with my dogs and found deep compassion for myself after a lifetime of prioritizing and feeling responsible for the well being of others. Once the imminent threat of the cancer had passed, a flood of writing came through me. I found so much light and happiness in the process of turning my old habits around, and I think this came through in the writing. And yes, I did write a blog during the recovery process, because I wanted people in a similar position to be aware of options that exist outside of the machine of Western oncology.

Currently you are in the process of relocating to the Sierra foothills. What will you miss about living in the Bay Area, and what are you looking forward to in your new environment?
I’m moving to Midpines, Calif. to live with my partner. There is a whole lot that I will miss about the Bay Area, and, I think it’s a good time for me to move. I will miss all of my friends and clients here, my aikido dojo, the vibrant writing community, and the many talented healers and teachers who have accompanied me on this path. I am looking forward to a slower pace of life, to having a garden and keeping goats. I certainly won’t miss Bay Area traffic! I’m looking forward to listening to the Earth and learning from the plants there. And of course, I’m looking forward to living with my partner.


Submitted by John (not verified) on Thu, Oct 31, 2013

Great interview. It really makes me want to get a hold of this book!

Submitted by Kristen (not verified) on Sun, Nov 2, 2014

Sadly, Beth lost her battle with cancer last month. Her poems and person will be missed.