There were lawyers and ex-prisoners, health professionals and tenured professors, out-of-work actors and highly-strung trade union officials, as well as a good scattering of the best poets; all admirers of this extraordinary juggler of conflicts.
Indisputably the doyen of the post-Galvin Cork generations, Murphy is a thrilling and provocative master of poetic monologue and social commentary. His habit is to be elliptical in politics, to insert a political jibe or universal truth as adroitly as an assassin’s knife. The victim, the reader, is usually falling while the poet has left the building:
We can never determine the exact position of Memphis,
Or confidently declare the definite momentum of Mullinavat.
What appears to be a throwaway line in a Murphy poem may prove to be, on second reading, his most important insight. Readers have always responded to this aspect of Murphy’s poetic; a subtle camouflage, a muffling of the sounds of the intellectual machinery behind the poetry, a front-loading of the poem’s stagecraft and wardrobe. Every poem invites the reader onstage, but only to be humiliated. This is the challenge implicit in his work.
Murphy, who was born either in Alexandria or Cork, in 1952, served in the barren Kibbutz and subsequently squatted at UCC, disrupting, as much as possible, the formation of a unified view of Munster poetry, and preventing most of us from attending Seán Lucy’s lectures.
For him, as a youth certainly, a university was only one other form of highly-subsidised theatre. He wandered between the props (many of them breathing) of the English department at Brighton Villas in the company of the greats, John Montague and Lucy. That he chose swimming and professional water-safety over any intellectual pursuit is a tribute to his integrity. Not that the academic world doesn’t have its own integrity, but it’s not the poet’s oxygen.
In My Flirtation with International Socialism, his sixth collection, he maintains the cluster of themes that have dominated all his books: politics, the design and wardrobe features of international revolution, love and the impossibility of holding on to it, as well as a passion for the Classical world and a feeling of all human life in transit, or in perpetual translation. His own translations of the Polish poet, Katarzyna Borun-Jagodzinska, appeared in 2005 from Southword Editions, and it remains one of the star volumes of that Capital of Culture series from the Munster Literature Centre. Now, in this new book, he is still translating:
Need I say more?
We behaved like human beings together.
However, he’s not the sort of person to whom you would say:
One may be sure that there’s as much Murphy as Cicero in this. There are translations here, or versions inspired by Cavafy, Mao, Goethe, Brecht, Lorca and Taguchi. Linked to the impulse of translation is that other crucial Murphy impulse — the habit of connectedness, of keeping in touch with others. Long before Dan Boyle tweeted, Gerry Murphy had a league of followers; the poems here are a continuing evidence of this. In this one book there are 21 dedicated to friends and followers, from Seamus Heaney to über-cook, Kay Harte. Combined with the 31 lyrics written “after” other writers and the poems in memory of friends such as the poets, Gregory O’Donoghue and Michael Davitt, the collection adds up to a highly modernist conversation, a definition of art as both discourse and recovered conversation. The poet is not alone because words cannot exist alone; meaning, for Murphy, is both on-going and negotiable:
and I mean everything, both before and after
the Big Bang or should I say the Great Expansion
,or perhaps even the Sudden Collapse
of the Steady State universe,
and since you are an integral part of this process
at any given moment since time kicked-in,
if only at a fundamental particle level,
From the very beginning, from A Small Fat Boy Walking Backwards, in 1985, Murphy’s most successful oeuvre has been forged in the fires of love. The poem above illustrates just how creative he can be, how universal, in his approach to love lost or freshly rediscovered. His beautiful re-working of Cavafy, here, is a mark of his humane sensitivity:
with the broken lamp-stand/
and the flickering bulb,/
His poem Septet at the End of Time is simply magnificent:
burning the red light into the small hours,
your face forming and re-forming
There are other love poems, almost as intense and brilliant. It is when trapped by love that the poet is most likely to stumble among the props of modernism, to reveal the complete self, human, vulnerable, subject to the curse of biography. This is a wonderful new collection, telling us what we already knew, that he is very strange and very good; that he is, as his fellow Cork poet, Robert Welch, once remarked “the joker of his own tristesse.”