Telescopes aim to observe the light of the cosmos, but Christopher Brean Murray turns his powerful lens toward the strange darkness of human existence in Black Observatory, selected by Dana Levin as winner of the Jake Adam York Prize.
With speakers set adrift in mysterious settings—a motel in the middle of a white-sand desert, a house haunted by the ghost of a dead writer, an abandoned settlement high in the mountains, a city that might give way to riotous forest—Black Observatory upends the world we think we know. Here, an accident with a squirrel proves the least bizarre moment of a day that is ordinary in outline only. The future is revealed in a list of odd crimes-to-be. And in a field of grasses, a narrator loses himself in a past and present “human conflagration / of desire and doubt,” the “path to a field of unraveling.”
Unraveling lies at the heart of these poems. Murray picks at the frayed edges of everyday life, spinning new threads and weaving an uncanny and at times unnerving tapestry in its place. He arranges and rearranges images until the mundane becomes distorted: a cloud “stretches and coils and becomes an intestine / embracing the anxious protagonist,” thoughts “leap from sagebrush / like jackrabbits into your high beams,” a hot black coffee tastes “like runoff from a glacier.” In the process, our world emerges in surprising, disquieting relief.
Simultaneously comic and tragic, playful and deeply serious, Black Observatory is a singular debut collection, a portrait of reality in penumbra.