Memory and imagination in Richard Murphy.
POEMS: 1952-2012. Dublin, THE LILLIPUT PRESS, 2013. DISTRIBUTED IN THE U.S. BY DUFOUR EDITIONS. $32.00.
RICHARD MURPHY was born in 1927 at Milford, near Kilmaine, County Mayo, and spent his childhood in Ceylon, where his father was the last British mayor of Colombo. In his eighties and after some time in Ireland, Murphy now lives in the nation of Sri Lanka. The poet may reside far from the west of Ireland he treasures, but, on the evidence of this rich collection of sixty years' writing, he is not far from it in his memory or imagination. These accomplished poems still find much inspiration in Irish places, stories, and people as well as the Asian island he inhabits.
At one time, Richard Murphy made his living from the sea, and he has written in a well-known early poem about his piloting "The Last Galway Hooker." Throughout his career, his deep knowledge of the sea's reach and power, as well as the habits of its creatures, are engraved on his work. A remarkable narrative poem from the period of his mid-1970s collection High Island is "Seals at High Island," and in it the poet presents first the copulation of two seals and then the battle of two bulls for dominance, an aspect of "nature red in tooth and claw" that juxtaposes the life force depicted in the poem yielding to the enraged desire to wound and kill: "Swayed by the thrust and backfall of the tide, / A dappled grey bull and a brindled cow / Copulate in the green water of a cove." Lest the poet assume that anything other than instinct and natural sex drives underpin their actions, he writes, "But I must remember / How far their feelings are from mine marooned. / If there are tears at this holy ceremony / Theirs are caused by brine and mine by breeze." In this manner, he cautions himself against romanticizing their sexual union, and the idea of strangeness and distance between man and beast leads him into the bloody warfare that concludes the poem:
The cow ripples ashore to feed her calf; While an old rival, eyeing the deed with hate, Swims to attack the tired triumphant god. They rear their heads above the boiling surf, Their terrible jaws open, jetting blood.
Not only do these seals readily "copulate in the foam," as Yeats has phrased it in "Byzantium," but their act of union is immediately displaced by the two bulls' jaws "jetting blood," reinforcing the grim tone of the first line of the poem, which states unequivocally that "the calamity of seals begins with jaws." In this poem, Murphy shows us how first life and then "terrible" death are served by the emblematic seals, how " "the tired triumphant god" yields to "blood."
Richard Murphy is primarily a formal poet, and much of his best work appears in the sonnets that dominate the verse of The Price of Stone (Faber, 1985), which in this collection is preceded by a section of sonnets and other poetic forms called "Care and Poems of 1974-1984." Exploring the riches of the sonnet form and using end rhymes sparingly is a feat few poets attempt successfully. In a prime example of craftsmanship, Murphy composes "Niches" as a sonnet which is mostly unrhymed but sonnet-like in its lineation, a mixture of enjambed and end-stopped lines, and it also possesses the skeleton of an octave-sestet structure. What further impresses the reader about this poem are the exact diction, alliterative sonorities, and the narrative movement of this lyric to love's lost possibilities, which begins, "Lovers I've lost are sleeping in the house I've left / To live alone in a cave with two glass entrances." Here the initial mixture of liquids and sibilants renders these lines memorable sonically and thematically. The poet continues in lines eight through fourteen:
While two calm ums of white Cycladic clay Stand silently still in niches I drew last summer In the random warm granite of my chimney breast. A woman threw them lovingly, glazed them in tears, Fired them one sleepless night, and put them here to stay For ever. Now she's dismantled her wheel and gone. Niched above my head I'll keep her bone-ash jars.
The woman made the pots, and they stay, but she has "dismantled her wheel and gone." In line ten, the anthropomorphic description of "the random warm granite of my chimney breast" allows us to see the sexual passion that once drew them together, but now she has departed, so that her "bone-ash" jars remain above his head, like souvenirs of her and like presiding household gods or spirits. The near-rhyme between "glazed them in tears" and "I'll keep her bone-ash jars" puts the contrast between her presence, even in tears, and her absence, which feels deathly, in sharp contrast. Gerald Dawe has remarked that Murphy's love poems, which are most often written in sonnets and tercets, are as fine as Robert Graves's love poems and this is accurate, fitting praise. "Niches" will have to stand as the chief example here, but I will also mention "Suntrap," Birth Place," "Roof-Tree," Cottage for Sale," "Displaced Person," and "Natural Son," all from the fifty-sonnet sequence The Price of Stone. Another English poet, who worked in rhyme and used unexpected, often witty turns of thought, comes to my mind when reading Murphy's love poems, and that poet is Thom Gunn.
I conclude with a tribute poem to Murphy's contemporary, Thomas Kinsella. The poem is titled "Visiting Hour (for Thomas Kinsella in 1980)," and it begins as a lament: "How can I comfort you? What can I say? / You seem so far away, though near me now, / Sedated in that iron bed / Behind a curtain I'm afraid to draw: / With languished head / Propped on a pillow, mute and weak." In the second stanza, as if in answer to his questions, the speaker recalls a happier day spent fishing together when "We drifted west of Cleggan Bay / In the slack of tide, a fish on every hook ..." In the last stanza, by turning away from this image of the plentiful catch in the past, he develops the trope of the muted poet, weakened and distanced from his sources of inspiration. Murphy concludes with affecting lines about the high cost of the poet's work:
At least your poetry will stay unblurred. Stuck with needles in this ward, No peasant shoulders to support your feet, You lie and fret. Work incomplete. Tubes in your throat. And this is you, Who put flesh into words that can't renew The life you lavished making them ring true.
The last lines offer both poets the consolation that "your poetry will stay unblurred" by calamity, such as being "Stuck with needles" and having "Tubes in your throat," and it concludes with a couplet written in iambic pentameter with minor variations. The couplet speaks of the poet's endeavor to make words "ring true," and what it may someday cost him who gladly "lavished" life and "put flesh into words" that nevertheless "can't renew" his bodily life. Although in this case, Kinsella was spared, Murphy pays tribute to him by measuring the extremity of the poet's sacrifices to make a lasting contribution to art. In this collection spanning sixty years of his poetry, Murphy reveals the breadth and depth of his poetic gifts, and invites those who have not encountered his work or who have not fully savored it to rewarding discoveries.