Slow Burn

by Erin Murphy


The day my brother nearly burns down the house, I am sitting on the living room floor.

Correction: it’s not a house but an apartment, my father’s first since the divorce.

I am playing with Lincoln Logs on the burnt-orange shag carpet, building and rebuilding a perfect house with a green roof.

Correction: I’m not playing; I’m killing time until we’re returned to our real home with our real toys and our real parent.

My father is taking a nap in the apartment’s only bedroom.

Correction: It’s not a nap but his usual stupor, a label for which we won’t have for years.

I see the fire out of the corner of my eye.

Correction: What I see first is the shadow puppet of a fire performing on the kitchen wall; mesmerized, I watch for the better part of a minute before investigating its cause.

When I crane my neck around the corner, I see my two-year-old brother waving a brown paper bag that he has dipped in the lit burner of the gas stove. Pretty, he exclaims. Pretty! Pretty!

Correction: He can’t pronounce pretty. He says pity.

I knock the burning bag from my brother’s hand and scream for our father, who bolts from the bedroom and douses the flames.

Correction: Our father doesn’t respond until I shake him awake; he extinguishes the fire with a pot of cold, two-day-old coffee.

My brother’s exclamations soften to a whisper: Pity. Pity. Pity.

No correction necessary.



Erin Murphy’s creative nonfiction essays and poems have appeared in such journals as Brevity (recent Pushcart nomination), The Georgia Review, Marginalia, as well as in several anthologies, including the forthcoming edition of Models for Writers (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press). Ms Murphy is the author of four books of poetry, the most recent of which, Word Problems, will be published by Word Press in June 2011. With Todd Davis, Ms Murphy co-edited an anthology of poems and essays, Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (State University of New York Press, 2010).

Find out more about Erin Murphy at her website:

9 Responses to “Slow Burn”

  1. Barry Grass Says:

    Lovely piece. The form pays off. I most love the beginning three sets of statements/corrections. They so vividly yet succinctly capture the feeling of visitation weekend with a divorced, addict father. I was nodding along, knowingly.

  2. […] and I are pleased to publish the latest Junk author’s work by Erin Murphy. When “Slow Burn” showed up in our inbox, all I wrote to Tim was, “Wow.” Fortunately, I gained enough […]

  3. Andrea Kehoe Says:

    I second the “wow.” This essay is moving and beautifully crafted.

  4. And wow, again. This is beautiful, moving, perfectly wrought. I want to keep it somehow.

  5. Terry Barrick Says:

    Compelling story and format. Erin, this was great. It made me sad. I remember painful awkward periods of my childhood. How did we ever make it?

  6. L. MARK LUSSKY Says:

    “When Does the Poetry Start?”

    If it hasn’t got meter and it hasn’t got rhyme
    And no alliteration and no feet that march in time,
    If there isn’t any assonance, as any schoolchild knows,
    You cannot call it poetry because you’re spouting prose.

    Though your paragraphs are staggered and your thoughts are really deep
    And your self-revelations are the kind that make flesh creep,
    If the rhythm isn’t with them then no matter how it goes
    Your literary effort isn’t poetry; it’s prose.

    Call them cantos or say stanzas; say your verse is blank or free.
    If the words don’t dance in tempo then it isn’t poetry
    And your contrary pretensions are a counterfeiter’s pose:
    It’s prose! It’s prose! It’s prose! It’s prose! It’s prose! It’s prose! It’s prose!

    Apostrophe, metonymy, hyperbole and simile,
    Cacophony, analogy and metaphor, to some degree,
    Each have their place in poetry as practiced by the pros.
    But if there isn’t meter then it’s prose, it’s prose, it’s prose!

  7. […] My favorite piece that Junk published is “Slow Burn” by Erin Murphy. It stands out to me for a couple of reasons: Murphy does a wonderful job of using white space […]

  8. […] My favorite piece that Junk published is “Slow Burn” by Erin Murphy. It stands out to me for a couple of reasons: Murphy does a wonderful job of using white space […]

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