Nancy Murphy / Writer

writings and performances by Nancy Murphy

Know My Tree

Know My Tree

A tree is a prayer without words, without reason, without apology. Yet
not without sound,        I hear

a low whirr when I am close to a willow,         I see the medicine of its
knowledge dance under dark

purple bark.      I trace the lines of its hands to the ends of the limbs I
want to climb,      watch

how leaves confetti in the breeze,        an explosion of spring greens and

yellows against an afternoon indigo sky.          I want
to       rest,        hang from my tail,

sleep and eat
like an animal.
I want to know
my animal. I want
to know my god.
I want to know
my       tree.

I need to be
washed in a rain
of forest, cleansed
of my faults,
my failings,
my falsities.
All the moments
I could have
done better.

We are all
standing under
some tree,
of life,           of death,
of transformation.
How thankless
I’ve been! I wish
to save a tree
to save myself
to save
the world.
I don’t know
where to start
so I will just
start with this
tree      under a black
sky       believing in the sun.

Telephone, April 2021


Field of View

-after “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth

I am a stretched canvas. My mother’s
yearning background color. Dress dusty
pink the color of my first ballet slippers,
hair putting up a fight. Thin black belt around
my nickel of a waist, it takes me years
to become a body. Walking even longer.
The field is everything to me. The way sunlight
wakes up the colours, the way the hint
of a road slices space into before
and after, the way home keeps moving
away. Collapsing onto the grass,
oblivious to how it can stain you,
mark you as a child. When do we start
seeing the world as wider than we can
hold? I paint myself away from the edges
of the picture, on another coast, different
weather. I paint the story of my mother
and what she wanted. I remember when
she gazed on me, and when she gazed not
on me. I carry hollowness into the rain.

The Ekphrastic Review, July 2020


How to Drive Off a Cliff

As you climb the mountainside hugging

the unguarded road, you imagine the worst.

You push on because there is an empty beach

between two rocks calling from the other

side and you want to be alone. You want to feel

honeyed sun on the top of your head as you

watch waves tap out messages on the sand.

You want to break the code. As the car

accelerates, your hands search the stitching

along the wheel, you notice the soft spots,

recall all the miles this body has taken you.

The wine colored mountains your eyes

are following on the horizon recede as you miss

the last turn and start the somersault down.

Nearby sheep graze, one locks eyes with you,

silently asks if there is something you need,

you both know it is too late. You nod

back in gratitude to the animal and let go like

you have just arranged that last pillow before

sleep. In your mouth, a familiar bittersweet,

not unlike that last sip from your morning tea cup,

a mix of milk and leaves and debris at the bottom.

Sheila-Na-Gig, Volume 3.3, Spring 2019


Father (Mother)

My father’s hearing is starting to go;

he chooses to miss things, refuses an aid,

doesn’t hear the 2 a.m. phone

call. I am the one who tells him

five hours later, Lee passed in the night.

I am the one who absorbs his shock

and sob. I thought he was prepared

but bad news is like that. She is the second

wife he has survived, the first my mother

twenty-five years ago. When I arrive

at his door that day, we make our usual

resemblance of an embrace,  his eighty-eight

year old frame bent into a C, keeping

his heart from me. We sit side by side on the sofa,

the vintage flowered wallpaper suddenly

alive as if communing with Lee’s wild

 garden outside the front window, the roses

bloom that week. I rub his bony back like

he is my child.  The only other time I saw

him cry, at LAX arrivals,

my daughter three weeks old, my mother

two weeks gone. Me seeing him, him seeing

mine, all that living and dying, all that

unreasonable pain.

I missed my mother’s funeral, too soon

after birth to fly. My father tells me he is the same sad

now as then and I feel betrayed. My parents

married forty-one years, isn’t time how you

measure grief? He writes a eulogy

for Lee, then falters, I agree

to stand in for him. He depends on me

that way.  I take him to doctor appointments,

repeat orders. He does what he likes, ignores

the rule about salt, declines a daily walk.

We know he won’t live forever, but jesus

he has to try. He returns home, lives with my

brother in the old house. Everyone else

helps.  Some days I feel like seaweed

come loose from the ocean floor, unmoored, 

drifting away until you can’t see me.

I am no longer the mother.

No one is the mother now.

Stoneboat Literary Journal, Spring 2019



Irish rain chases us around January, climbs

into our bodies seeking warmth. 

Instead of romantic evenings,

we split packs of cough drops, turn

away in the dark; the space between us

thickens with my disappointment, gives me

reason to hold back.

We push forward on this road trip,

Connemara maroon hills bleed

into bright green fields, blue-black

north Atlantic waves. Wildflowers

find footing in forgotten soil.

There is resistance in this land,

survival, a refusal to surrender.

We stop in an ancient village, hold

hands, share a pot of tea. He pours

the milk in, then the tea. He makes mine

first every time. It’s unfair how he does that.

The silence between us softens,

almost like


Glassworks, Fall 2019

Hear the author’s reading of “Anniversary,” recorded for Glassworks: Fall 2019.


Year of the Snake

some nights when they sleep

he enters the room

comes between them in the bed

there is space enough,

he slides into the warm sheets

slithers over to her side

wraps around her and gently

presses her skin squeezes

the life from her,

threatens her with disaster.

she thinks this is sexy

she has no idea.

the snake stays the night wanting

her dreams, she opens her eyes

early morning   feels around

for something vaguely


the way night stories can be,

but he is gone pulled back

to his own bed

his own woman

her thick honey hair and soft hips

waiting, wanting to bear

children, he has

made his choices, he has

spoken his vows.

let’s meet for coffee he says,

that cafe in the hills she says

but they never do.

she rolls onto her side

now listens for the alarm,

when it sings she reaches

her entire body across

the mountain of her man,

she stays there as he

awakens encircles her

she holds on to him

for dear life.

Altadena Poetry Review: Anthology 2017 


Summers of College


In summers of college I carried

trays of food or two coffee cups

in one hand or four platters

up my arm. A short polyester tan

colored uniform melted

to my newly bloomed body as I pinballed

around the packed Pennsylvania diner

from table to minestrone soup

to rice pudding, and finally

to the narrow opening of counter

where the club sandwich platters

appeared with young Greek

cooks holding on to one end only

releasing when I made eye

contact, wolves hungry for American

girls. Those days I blushed easily

but no one noticed, the kitchen

was always steaming, the heat

made us all a little uncivilized.


Sitting at the counter Eddie watched

me as I poured his coffee, called me

college girl, tried to tease a smile.

His truck driver compact body, black

curly hair and warm browns

for eyes, a slight chip on a front

tooth. He knew it

was a summer thing, picking me

up in his car the size of Montana

taking me nowhere and everywhere.

The slide into heat and sweetness like

the slowest quicksand. He knew

there is a time and there is a place

for some things and they don’t

go beyond that, as if surrounded

by barbed wire, electrified. He knew

he would not be visiting me

in the fall at the liberal

arts college in upstate NY.

I sensed he was right but argued

anyway, like a child that just has

to ask. But anything

less seemed cruel.


Altadena Poetry Review: Anthology 2018






airport saturday night 7:45 pm


like a hospital waiting room, airport departure wings are full of

small talk and long silences and what sits underneath.  I see

parents sitting on either side of me at the gate

philadelphia, back when you could do that kind of thing

i always protested

they always insisted.


now I follow my honey blonde college girl around

bradley international terminal, clinging to the

seconds before she succumbs to security,

asking questions that don’t matter with urgency

do you have something to read?

she raises her hand slightly to stop me, blinks affirmatively.


we’ve already said as much as could be said

considering. she is the age when I started to

know myself. I remember so well I think

she is me, when she lets me into her worries

I remember too well: we share the same nervous system,

I feel her burdens like they are my own

mostly I am relieved she trusts me again,

I am redeemed after the silent years, the secret

years, the scary years.


north gate now, I let her release me first from

our embrace, our parting words stumble out jaggedly


then I watch as she moves forward into the jaws

of the larger world,  she doesn’t turn back

until the last second, knows I wait for this

final crumb–the one who leaves has all the power–

she raises her hand birdlike and smiles without teeth, but her eyes dance

when I play my part as the pursuing suitor waving with all of me,

I watch the hem of her trench coat follow her around the corner.


Altadena Poetry Review: Anthology 2017





A Midtown Street, Thursday 2:30 pm


Today I passed the middle of my life exactly.

It’s my call: we all pick our time of death.

It struck me undeniably like the way some

know the death of a loved one or that

they have cancer. I am Janus

looking forward and backward, sad for

what I leave, yet pulled ahead to what is

possible. Some things just can’t be transferred.


How to mark this midpoint, to linger

and savor or rush through so as not

to get caught up in the fabrics

in the doorway between then and now.


If your only fault is that I may never write

a poem about you, well, that may be

surmountable. You may have other things

I need. I need help crossing this street,

I fear carnage. Do this one thing and I

will stay in your bed all night even when

I want to roam at three a.m., find my keys

and cry in the car, missing the one before

the one who changed me irreversibly

who bound me to him with secrets.

I know it will fade, everything fades

and everything is permanent. Everything.


Eclipse, A Literary Journal, Volume Fourteen, Fall 2003





Baby Love

The large coach bus pulls into Framingham station and I’m excited. I lived in this town from ages 1 to 4 and I’ve never been back. But I remember it vividly, the layout of our house, the picture window to the left of the front door where my mother combed my hair while my friend waited outside. I remember the kitchen fire, the little bus to preschool, the fall in the sandbox, which was quickly followed by my mother pouring something from a blue bottle into my eyes as I lie screaming on a table.


But this trip is not to see my extended family in the Boston area or my hometown but rather to visit my boyfriend Brian’s daughter and her husband and their two little girls, the youngest one being only 8 weeks old. They live in a town about 15 minutes away. We exit the Boston Logan airport bus, walk out to the pick up circle and find Jessica there with the new baby on board. The baby is adorable and I jump into the back seat to sit next to her, her big eyes watching me as I start speaking ‘baby’. You know, “hello, well hello sweetie, aren’t you the cutest little button, aren’t you, aren’t you? Yes you are!”


I forgot how much I love baby talk! I know it’s annoying to listen to, but babies really like it.  She perks up and opens her eyes wide and starts moving her little rosebud mouth as if she is holding up her side of things. She is positively cooing, I even see a little smile start. I feel like a superhero. Back at the house now, I offer to hold her. I actually don’t know what I’m doing, it’s been 25 years since mine was a baby, but our plan to visit was accompanied by an offer to help out and do whatever they need so I can’t show any insecurity. The handoffs are a bit tricky, but then some things come back, support the head, rock back and forth, baby talk, oh and singing. The great thing about singing is that you don’t have to be good, you don’t have to know the words, in fact, you don’t even have to sing a real song, you can even just hum. Row row row your boat, merrily merrily…


I try to remember holding my own daughter when she was this small and it’s hard to picture it. I know what she looked like but I can’t see myself there again, I seem like another person. What comes through in my bones though is this memory of attachment and devotion, and responsibility. And fear. I ask Jessica when we are out walking, “Are you sure she can breathe in that carrier? Maybe check again.” And I hear myself asking other silly questions like, “she just drank one ounce from the bottle, should I try to burp her now or wait til she finishes all of it? Or half of it?” When she starts fussing and then crying, I panic that I have lost my magic touch with her, she feels my stress! I must relax, I must lower my heart rate, she’ll feel that. Yes, there we go. Baby meditation.


I see myself now as the worried parent that I often was, and how hard that must have been on my daughter. I never had that second child where you could start to ease up. I have often thought that I would enjoy grandchildren one day because I would be more relaxed this second go around. But holding this vulnerable little being now only reminds me how dangerous the world is. Maybe it won’t be so easy when it’s my own daughter’s baby I’m holding.


This visit is like a trial run for being a real grandmother. I’m only a pretend grandmother here. We are not blood. And Brian and I are not married so they want the children to call us Grandpa and Nancy. It’s strange to have a boyfriend called grandpa, which makes me wonder anew, at what age does calling someone your boyfriend sound a little ridiculous? I think it’s now, it’s when that someone can also be called grandpa. So from now on he is just Brian.


I’m not ready to be a grandmother. I think my daughter is still a few years away from having children so I’m safe for now. It feels like another level of old. I’ve already hit 60, this is the next step. I know someone can be a grandmother at 40 but it’s still generally associated with being old. As Brian says, his grandchildren are pushing us off the planet to make room for themselves. Our days here are numbered. Well that’s comforting.


During the week we are visiting, I fall in love with this new baby. And Jessica and I bond over that. As we give her a bath one day, we laugh together at her funny expressions of surprise and wonder as we take turns washing and rinsing her tiny body. Later Jessica shows me pictures she has taken of the baby, who is in the room, on her phone until her husband says, “Ok, I think you’re going a little overboard now!”


“No, not at all,” I say. I am genuinely enthralled, and I also want to support her. She should be overboard about her baby. And that’s something I imagine a mother would always share with a daughter, being crazy about the baby.  But I’m not a substitute mother for Jessica. Her own mother came out for the first couple of weeks to help.


My mother was planning to come out for the first weeks to help me too, she was so excited for her first grandchild and I was so in need of her help. But she had some complications from a chronic health condition in the months leading up to the birth of my daughter and then unexpectedly died a week after she was born.  My early baby days were a bittersweet mix of devastating grief and deep love and joy.


Before we leave Boston, we drive down the street my father remembers as the one we lived on in Framingham.  He doesn’t remember the number and nothing looks familiar of course. It’s been almost 60 years! But I feel happy to be here like some part of my mother is still here on this street, a piece of her life. I remember her telling me once that her mother didn’t come out here to visit much and she felt a little abandoned. My grandmother was a loving woman who just had too many children, 11 in total, and my mother was the quintessential middle child. I was the oldest of five children born in six years. It sounds like utter chaos, which is what I remember a lot of growing up, but she said those baby years were the happiest years of her life.


I was the same way, despite my grief, despite my worries. I had waited a long time to have a child, I didn’t even want one until I was into my 30s. I had to fight my husband for it, then my biology and then later lost my marriage but I was wildly happy in motherhood.  I used to say, ‘I love to complain.’ Meaning I loved all of it.


When I think of sharing this new baby time with my own daughter one day, I know I won’t really care about being labeled grandmother.  But I wonder if it may awaken new feelings of loss. I won’t truly know what I missed until I experience it. Yet by giving my daughter what I didn’t receive from my mother, I am closing this broken circle. And the new life is what pulls us along as it sparks new love in us.  There is always a way to heal.