The adjective is carefully chosen. When reading Murphy’s poems you won’t feel patronized or proselytized, and will almost assuredly find pleasure in their concision, precision and music. You’ll know the experience, rare in contemporary poetry, of a thoughtful person talking to you with the utmost care and clarity. He writes unapologetically devotional poems and a few that make you laugh out loud. You won’t find self-regarding obscurity or chopped-up prose passing for poetry, but you will learn things about the real world. Murphy shares his enthusiasms, among which are guns, dogs, birds, the weather, whiskey (formerly), John Donne and Anthony Hecht. Here is “Missouri Breaks”:
“I am a trespasser on treeless ground,
home to the sharptail and the furtive hun,
and here the tallest thing for miles around
is a small hunter shouldering his gun.
“A blooded dog quarters the feral rye,`
and my body’s long quarrel with my mind
is silenced by a landscape and a sky
legible as a Bible for the blind.”
Sharptails are grouse. Huns are Hungarian partridges. Both are game birds and Murphy, who is sixty years old, has hunted since childhood. He lives in North Dakota. Here is “Confessiones 10.27.38” (“—after St. Augustine”):
“Wrongly thinking that beauty lay without,
blindly I cast about.
How late did I begin
to realize your beauty lay within.
To one deprived of sight
you said Let there be light,
and to my deafened ear
you called, you cried! hoping that I might hear.
I thirsted, hungered, yearned.
You touched me, and I burned.
How late I came to you,
Beauty ever ancient, ever new.
How late I came to you.”
And here is “V.I.P. Lounge,” a praise song for some of Murphy’s poetic forebears:
“The most exclusive anteroom in Hades
caters to those who wrote well in their eighties:
classical poets, Pindar and Sophocles
exchanging shop talk with Simonides.
“Hardy and Frost, Francis and Hope are there.
Scovell, Virginia Hamilton Adair
And Janet Lewis, sharing a pot of tea,
Raise their cups, praising Mnemosyne.
“The Goddess turns Her back on the elect
To greet a new arrival, Anthony Hecht,
Who takes his place among the Greats in Hell.
Would I could live as long or write so well.”
On Thursday, the day after Murphy’s books arrived in the mail, I read this interview with Richard Rodriguez, author of the memoir Hunger of Memory (1982) and the essay collection Days of Obligation (1992), among other books. Despite the obvious differences, Rodriguez reminds me of Murphy. Both men are gay. Both are seriously Roman Catholic. Both revere tradition. Both might be called cultural outsiders who don’t cultivate “Outsider” status, who reject the poseur trappings of culturally sanctioned bohemia. Both have refused the claims of “identity politics” and write as individuals. Here is Rodriguez:
“The most ancient notions of writing propose that the writer is more passive than active. The writer waits until the graces (or grace) flows through him. The writer awaits inspiration. The writing which Monday was so sluggish is suddenly free on Tuesday. How to explain it? St. Thomas Aquinas says that writing is a kind of prayer, leaving oneself open, utterly vulnerable, to inspiration or God. That feels right to me.”