Poems 1952-2012, by Richard Murphy, Lilliput Press, €15, ISBN 978-1843514060
Book-ended by “The Pleasure Ground” as a prose introduction and by an appendix of over thirty pages of notes and readings, Poems 1952-2012 has the distinct look of being a complete collection of all the poems which the 86-year-old Richard Murphy wishes to keep in print. This is a shaped and deliberated volume with clearly established timelines established in six parts and dates identifying how, where and when Murphy’s poems first emerged.
“So, on the 25th August 1952,” we learn in a reprinted extract from Murphy’s memoir The Kick: A Life among Writers (originally published in 2002 and now reissued by Lilliput Press as an e-book) “my brother and I set out, with our nine-year-old nephew, John Caulfield, and my employer’s daughter, Alison, a talented sculptor, as passengers, from the quay of Rosroe near the mouth of the Big Hillary harbour. We were planning to go to Clare Island, a place renowned for legends. We never got there. Contrary winds brought us instead to an island I had never heard of, called Inishbofin. A week later, alone in the pre-famine Coast Guard cottage on the quay at Rosroe, I wrote the first draft of a poem about our rough passage and change of course that led to a change in my life.
This change in direction, at the whim of natural sea conditions, would not only lead to Murphy’s lasting identification with the Atlantic coast and the westerly islands but also produce two key enduring emblems of his writing life – the sea journey and the house on land:
…after some fortuitous redirections including marriage and divorce, through Crete, Brittany, Wicklow, London, and back to Inishbofin in 1959, the poem I had drafted at Rosroe, revised and revised, emerged in 1963 as the final version of “Sailing to an Island”.
The poem’s “journey” in other words, from inception in September 1952 to its completion, took over a decade to write and conclude. It was finally published by Faber and Faber as the title poem of the volume Sailing to an Island in 1963, which included early work by Murphy such as The Archaeology of Love (1955) and The Last Galway Hooker (1961), both of which had been published “in limited editions” by the enterprising Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press. It was from these earliest publications that the poet, then in his late twenties and early thirties, established his reputation alongside Thomas Kinsella and John Montague as one of the leading poets of the rising generation – post-Yeats, certainly, but also post-Kavanagh (who died in 1967) and, in curious ways, already post-national.
Murphy would explore in his long epic-like meditation The Battle of Aughrim (1968) the cultural fate and political liabilities of his Anglo-Irish upbringing in a divided society. “I had written,” he remarked, “enough externally about boats and the sea in Sailing to an Island. Now I wanted to look inward at the divisions and devastations in myself as well as in Ireland: the conflicts, legends, rituals, myths and histories arising from possession of the land – why we still had borders and bigotries.” But there is an equalising and powerful sense of the world beyond these concerns ‑ a world that he uncovered in his own roots in the west of Ireland as well as through the colonial taproot which links such a (by now, disappeared) world with the global British imperial system; the context for his fine portrait of his father, “The God Who Eats Corn” (1963). It is the dramatisation of that imperial experience in many poems set in his childhood in Ceylon (as it then was) and his life returning to Sri Lanka with which this wonderfully adept and coherent volume concludes.
These re-creations mean in effect that “Ireland” is never viewed as a “Celticised” myth-kitty but is an integrated site in which history plays out its conflictual role with effects upon families – named consistently through his writing – while their homes and localities are not merely backdrops to the poet’s personal life and conundrums but with a life of their own. For these lives and landscapes have an objective reality which Murphy depicts almost like a visual artist, studying the way people live in their own surroundings, their folkways and customs, not as an outsider, but more as an observer who once belonged in the various places where he has (albeit temporarily) lived his own life.
The poems fit in in the almost anonymous way of the folk tradition, particularly poems inflected by the west of Ireland. Murphy’s subdued voice sounds in keeping with a classically reserved narrative:
Slate I picked from a nettle-bed
Had history, my neighbour said.
To quarry it, men had to row
Five miles, twelve centuries ago.
The “slate” of the poem’s here and now links back to another time, the seed bed of Murphy’s present out of which contradiction and contrast find their own equilibrium; their tone and controlling diction; in effect, their authority.
Yet there is too an ironical and haunted aura that moves across these poems in spite of their clarity and well-made spruce definition. The doubting illusion of mastering the sea finds another level in the irreconcilability of loss. Murphy’s poems are keenly aware of decline and decay. The only form of resisting such condition is through building and construction. The fifty sonnets which make up The Price of Stone (1985) literally form themselves into an architecture of love and imagined survival that withstands the inevitable ravages of time, the fall from prestige (and grace) into eccentricity or the quixotic sense of self-regard. If Philip Larkin’s “girl on the poster” in “Sunny Prestatyn” is transfigured grotesquely into a mocking cartoon-figure because “She was too good for this life”, the follies, chimneys, porticoes, pillars, tenements, schoolhouses, barns, quaysides – you name it –in The Price of Stone convey a sturdy grammarian resilience of their own making. What survives of and from them all is a kind of loving. And it is of love’s complications that so many of Murphy’s finest poems speak where the sensual, uncertain, at times violent and/or repressed look of self-protection is released by the poet’s attention on the physical detail. In “Jurors” it’s the murdered woman’s assailant, “his boots to be analysed / And a few ribs they found of her chestnut hair”; in “Ball’s Cove”, a love test turns into another (likely) killing rather than “A sad accident”:
… a lobster fisherman said:
She pushed him off,
I can prove it. I was near the cove
Hauling pots, and I heard her laugh’.
For love is, like everything else in Murphy’s writing, a double negative:
Alone I love
To think of us together:
Together I think
I’d love to be alone.
Men and women, young and old, settled in their lives or fugitive from a way of life, the dramatis personae of Poems 1952-2012 includes their names ‑ the great and the good, the historic, the theatrical, the unknown; family, friends and lovers; the hinted at, the eavesdropped, the provident, the inconsolable and the uncontactable. From Tony White on a quayside to Wittgenstein and Roethke trying to heal, the unreplaceable deficits of a childhood recollected in love are all shadowed by a sense of fleeting transient life:
Bunches of primroses I used to pick
Before breakfast, hunting along a limestone lane,
To put at her bedside before she woke
And all my childhood’s broken promises
The perfect pitch of “Mary Ure” as she “walks by Lough Mask in a blue silk gown / So thin the cloudy wind is biting to the bone / But … talks as lightly as if the sun shone” is troubled by other poems such as the disturbing “The Glass Dump Road”, the sexual turbulence of “Seals at High Island” (one of Murphy’s greatest poems), the beauty of “Niches” and the recurring figure of vagrants and outsiders and those who bring Murphy’s mind back to his beginning as in the final poem in this splendid book, “Last Word”:
Years pass into dust
With drills, hammers and saws
Remodelling an old house
Whose walls of silence
Keep a granite hold on my loss.
Poems 1952-2012 can be read as a continuous musical score with the keynotes as sounded here the dominant themes. “Years” that “pass”, the desire and necessity of “remodelling” and the “old house” such a constant in the imaginative terrain of the Anglo-Irish; those “walls of silence” which are prefigured in “The Pleasure Ground” of the self and the “granite” – a favourite Murphy word – that seems both changeless and unspecific, holding intact the egocentricity of “my loss”. But the loss that Murphy’s poems recount is not self-restricted or site-specific. They bear the hallmarks of an imperishable love of language and the poetic craft of enunciating what is seen and what remains under the surface of an imagined life:
Winkling through dictionaries for bait.
Poetry feeds on the refuse of time
Against whose current it swims.
If history has remaindered the political and ideological eminence of Anglo-Ireland, the artistic prestige associated with several of its diverse offspring has become an essential part of modern Irish writing’s critical reputation worldwide. It is a curious tale to relate that the notions which he inherited from his father – of rule and order, “his [father’s] pride in the British colonial service” and “what he perceived as criticism of its injustices by one of his sons [Richard Murphy] who owed his good education to that service” – that these notions should produce their own formal eloquence in Richard Murphy’s poems. Poetry turns into a controlled zone, neatly laid out with natural resources taken from the pleasure ground of both home and abroad and built to outlast the tides of fashion and fad.
Gerald Dawe’s Selected Poems was published by The Gallery Press (2012). The Stoic Man: Poetry Memoirs is due for publication by Lagan Press in 2014.