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Callista Buchen on Carrie Murphy

Pretty Tilt by Carrie Murphy

Keyhole Press, 2012. 52 pages.


Carrie Murphy’s debut collection, Pretty Tilt, captures a generation coming of age in the late 90s and early 2000s. The girls of the text wrestle with desire, social expectations, and the paradoxical confusion and empowerment of female teenagehood, all against a backdrop of 7-11s, ska bands, IM, and North Face zip-ups. Here, Murphy reminds us of what it means to live in the liminal, to be neither child nor grown up, but to live in the social, emotional, and physical intensity of becoming, and the intensity of the culture that shapes this process, what Pretty Tilt calls “you & your new.” 


“Yes, my slip is showing,” writes Murphy in “And She Cooks,” and indeed, the collection is something of a reveal, with the physicality and sexuality of growing up, especially growing up female, at the forefront. The overwhelming experiences of the teenage body are always central.  In “Christmas Tree Skirt,” the speaker is “so hot I’m / rubbing up against cold / surfaces: anything I can find, / refrigerators, tabletops, the outsides // of cars.” In poems like “Tequila?,” she explains,  “I’m not thinking about how I didn’t / brush my teeth as I bend over / the elusive pink dolphin of his penis.” Murphy also shows complicated layers of desire and selfhood, as in “Troglodyte,” where the speaker explains, “I want to take inappropriate pictures of myself wearing a mask.”


Poems like “Just the Tip,” one of the strongest in the collection, explore the complex relationship between knowing and unknowing, between needing advice and getting it wrong or getting it right—and not able to tell (or care about) the difference. For the girls of Pretty Tilt, part of teenagehood becomes learning what to believe, and like so much of what it means to grow up, this plays out on the body. From the second half of “Just the Tip”:


If you pee after sex, 

you won’t get pregnant.

Smart girls go home

& bad girls go to bed.

Nice guys finish last

but really, they just

finish. Just the tip &

you’re bowlegged on the

way to the bathroom.

Everyone knows

that. Everyone



The sexual potential to become a mother is something with which the girls of Pretty Tilt must also wrestle, with the impending transformation into the maternal a kind of threat (but also wish). “Tuesdays & Thursdays” describes the girl’s proficiency at childcare, how she “ is the best fake mother / anyone has ever seen.” Likewise, “The Idea of Accretion,” through the lens of the babysitter, explores the tension inherent in temporary caregiving and a potential turn toward the maternal. As she puts it, “When the baby I’m watching signs milk & starts / to tug my shirt down, / I feel awkward & also tingle.” The threat of pregnancy is one of many contradictions of teenagehood, as in “when you’re clenching your thighs & teeth, hoping you’re not; / but not if you’re really not.” Later, the speaker describes this as “the sudden impossibility of a possibility,” which perfectly explains in a concise, rounded, and felt way what it means to be a teenage girl, like so much of the collection.


The girls of Pretty Tilt are reckless, intense, and confused, but they feel and grasp and aren’t afraid to try, or maybe they just try anyway. A series of prose poems spread out through the collection, “Riding In Cars With Boys” is particularly captivating, as is the way the collection addresses the world and world-making of the teenage girl, and the rules one comes to understand (and perhaps create). For instance, in “For Samantha in the Mirror,” Murphy explores, “The problem of going to vacuum out your car & realizing / you’re in a miniskirt so you can’t bend over.” The poem also addresses “the problematic situation of taking / birth control for years & the unknown of the later-or the maybe-baby // the pregnancy scare & the non-pregnancy scare.” Finally the poem ends with “the way you watch // yourself in the mirror in the morning & / think your face reflects the whole sky.” And what Murphy creates in Pretty Tilt is a sense of that sky for us.


The future is coming, says the girl of “Hidden Track:” “We’re going / to be big one day. We’re going to be huge.” Pretty Tilt is how they (and we) figure out how to get there, how to bring the self from one epoch to another, and the ferocious, twisting, ecstatic journey she takes.


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