The poet, Merliene M. Murphy “made her transition”—as poet Meri Nana-Ana Danquah put it in the e mail she sent me—on Friday, February 2nd.
I had previously heard from Meri that Merilene woke up on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago to discover that she had lost her vision. At Cedars Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills they found cancer in one of her lungs and it had already spread elsewhere.
Merilene was not only a unique voice in poetry, she was a unique influence, and initiator, in the poetry world.
We first met when I was running a weekly poetry reading series in L. A. with poet, and multi-talented, Eve Brandstein. We did the series every week for over eight years and meant to produce a yearly journal out of it, a riff on the Paris Review we called The Hollywood Review. Unfortunately, Merilene is not in the first and only one we published.
But she became a major presence in these readings. Already older than most of the poets we helped discover, Merilene was not only a plain speaking, tough, but generous-spirited personality, she was also a bridge between several schools of thought and approach to the poem, not only in L. A. but in the poetry world in general.
She discovered her voice with us, and took it to much higher and broader levels of expertise and audience through her creation of what she called “telepoetics”—using video and phone hook ups and the internet—and whatever means of communication she could—to create access to poetry in all kinds of far flung locations, so that each may share and communicate and exchange poetry and poetics as widely as possible.
She was an innovator with both language and its transmission. And an entrepreneur, while all the time maintaining her own unique voice in her own unique poems. She is one of only hundreds I can think of who should have gotten one of those so-called MacArthur “Genius” awards, instead of the usually more well-connected or well-positioned, or in rare cases other well-deserving folks, who seem to get them.
Merilene and I had a good time playing on the connotations of her Irish last name. She was a woman our world would call “black” or “African-American” but like most described by that term, she had a lot more ancestry than just what that would denote, as those of us called “white” or “European-American” have from other continents and so-called “races” as well.
The fact is, we’re all a mix and descend from the same original source, and are just variations and shades of “color”—from those rare few whose skin actually does appear to be “white” and the equally few whose skin does appear to the eye to be “black”—most of us being somewhere in between on a scale ranging from pink to deep brown.
Meilene’s passing reminds me of a resolution I made to myself decades ago when the D.C. poet Ed Cox died after years of not being in touch with him, that I would try and make my amends to those I owed amends to for any pain I had caused them, while they were still alive. That I would express my gratitude to those who had helped me or just been kind to me throughout the course of my life, or who had given me an example to model my own work or behavior on, or who had inspired me, or consoled me, or just given me some pleasure through their words or art or creative endeavors.
I should have praised Merilene publicly before, beyond the words I used when introducing her at readings or told her in our private conversations. I should have acknowledged her contribution to poetry before this, but let her passing reinforce my resolve to do that with those still living as much as I possibly can before I too make “the transition.”
Let me leave you with a few lines from an incredible poetry-performance piece Merliene called DARCHITECTURE:
“where light comes i come love/yes feigning my absences is a cheap cosmic trick/i am here aware anywhere/a room a tomb a womb a djun djun//i am here with you/my other self/necessary & not needy/familiar with a thousand darchitectures/a thousand taos/a thousand holdings at point zero to be/& knowing”