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.
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Praise and Prizes
“In this playful and haunting debut, Murray turns his gaze toward the ordinariness and expansiveness of human life…The observational and sympathetic power of these searching poems makes them hard to forget.”
“With these fantastical scenes, streams-of-consciousness, and absurdist associations, these poems encourage readers to process the complexity of emotion, experience, and the human condition. [Black Observatory showcases] Murray’s ability to seamlessly move into worlds where readers may find themselves unable to unravel the real from the imagined.”
“Just as myths work to explain why things work the way they do, Murray’s numinous work shows us that poems offer us the same power: a path to follow that becomes a cosmological roadmap for any to investigate the mysteries of human traditions, cultural traits, and religious or supernatural beliefs. Black Observatory is a tremendous reflection of the world and of us, in all our complexity.”
“Its very strangeness, its eccentric lenses on cis masculinity, and its simple, formal elegance called me to Black Observatory. Reading these poems is like embarking on a Twilight Zone episode where Franz Kafka bumps into Salvador Dalí in a hardware store, and dark, absurdist adventures ensue; where ‘Crimes of the Future’ involve ‘Quitting a job everyone agrees you should keep’ and ‘Kissing a foreigner at a time of war.’ There’s sweetness here, too, and deep thought and feeling—this is a singular debut by a singular sensibility: no one else sounds like Murray.”
“A museum guard mistaken for a wax sculpture begins eating an apple. The ravaged voices of a dry cleaner and his wife rise through a vent in the floor. A dog tenses, barking at déjà vu. I’ve been reading Murray’s poems for years and have been waiting patiently for this debut collection. And it’s here, and it’s thrilling.”