John Murphy: Five Poems

Biographical Note              Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

The Nod
For Living Things Are Revived By Food, And Clocks,
…………By Lapse Of Time, Become Slower, Never Faster.

As If She Were Close
Threnody Of The Campion Flowers For Paul Celan
The Fish
– Note due to length of some of the lines in these poems, and the limits of html, there may be some forced line breaks on some devices/displays.

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The Nod

Tonight the lights of new bungalows dance in the level water of the lake, and shadows
………….from Jimmy the Hay’s
shack and your grandparents’ derelict house squat behind the wall of shoreline trees
………….where Mick Casserly’s boat
has collapsed in the bones of its timbers. For years now the fishing has been poor –
………….the brown trout almost gone,
driven out, your cousin says, by pike introduced by coarsemen with no patience for
………….fly-fishing and famine days
when every fly is the wrong fly and teasing rudd jump clear of the water, throwing sprays
………….of diamonds off their backs.

The lake water is ice cold,  the shock of it enough to stall the heart of a sick man, though
………….when I was younger
I often swam in it, catching crayfish in a clear jar for our children, or wading out to watch
………….voracious shrimp
feed among the reeds, and afterwards, drying off in minutes in the windless heat
………….of an August afternoon.
I’ll never swim again, never run as I once did at full tilt across an open field, unafraid
………….of the limits
of my endurance, and I’ll never again stand for profligate hours, mindless in the heaven
………….of the passing world around me.

What was that world? A dust-lit kitchen twenty five years ago with a range and a wooden
………….table on which
two pears touch, end to end, in a semblance of homely infinity; a bakelite telephone
………….encrusted with peat
motes from the range where each night your grandmother heats iron blocks and wraps
………….them in a blanket
to warm the bed we sleep in; a two-station TV to watch news and weather bulletins
………….twice a day;
and the only comfortable chairs in the house, each side of the range: one for your grandfather,
………….the other for guests.

A few months before he dies in his chair, Mick scrapes out his pipe and fills it – there is
………….little or no talk
while the women are abroad in the town. Outside the window the lake is frosted silver
………….by multitudes of small,
pointed waves; a crow on the roof coughs a raucous vowel. We settle down and for two hours
………….no car passes;
the only sound is our breathing and a popping noise when Mick draws on his pipe.
………….Are you shaving yet? is the sum of his talk.
I am twenty-six years old, a father myself, though to your grandfather I am still a child.
………….I am, I answer, the remainder unsaid.

A postoffice van glides by on the road, breaching the air as if its engine were dead;
………….the wireless,
turned low all morning, crackles a line from a sean-nós song; the fridge shivers in a vain
………….attempt to keep
week old milk from taint; tappets yammer in the back field where a tractor idles in neutral;
………….the clock in the hall
ticks and chirps like a broken banjo; steps on the gravel; voices at the door; coming and going,
………….a notion to go up
to the bedroom and look out at the lake field where the malt bull sleeps—  five full minutes pass
………….before he gives me the nod.

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 .

For Living Things Are Revived By Food, And Clocks,
…………By Lapse Of Time, Become Slower, Never Faster.

Let us savour our sprung minutes of verge and foliot,
…………stackfreed and hammered coil, all of unclustered
…………
time brass-burst
in mechanisms prone to damp, rust, dust, weakening
…………
because it is an inanimate thing subject to great stress.
…………
And where would we be
were  it not for Alexander’s war machines, sprung beams,
…………
starved women’s plaits, sinew skeins, the windlass gear
…………
that spared the Macedonian
arms at Tyre, miniaturised in the first fusees? Remembering,
…………
too, the clock smugglers: A great number of rascals
…………
and pedlars and juellers, who brought
divers merchandise unacustomed, all under the colour
…………
of the Trussery of the ambassadours.
…………
Nor should we forget Dallam’s organ clock,

gifted by Elizabeth to the Sultan for safe passage of
…………
the English fleet. Four times a day it played
…………
with majestic stiffness and jigged
its racks of dancing automata: In the tope of the orgon, being
…………
16 foute hie, did stande a holly bushe full of black
…………
birds and thrushis, which at the end
of the musick did singe and shake their wynges. Dallam
…………
kept his head and cranked out his repertoire of
…………
Elizabethan tunes: And suche thinge
as I coulde until the cloke strucke, and then boued my
…………
head as low as I coulde, and wente from him
…………
with my backe towardes him. Which brings us
to Parliament and the Astronomer Royal who welched on
…………
the untrained master carpenter, Harrison, denying him
…………
his deserved prize for three decades

spent perfecting his clock, a sea-going masterpiece with a
…………rate undreamt of by Leibniz, Newton, Halley,
…………
Huygens, or Hooke:   . . . If it so please
Almighty God, to continue my life and health a little longer,
…………
they the Professors (or Priests) shall not hinder
…………
me of my pleasure,
as from my last drawing, viz, of bringing my watch to a
…………
second in a fortnight . . . And so, as I do not now
…………
mind the money (as not having occasion
to do so, and withal as being weary of that) the Devil may
…………
take the priests . . .  We praise and glorify him,
…………
our patron saint of accuracy,
and with him Larcum Kendall, whose Harrison replicas
…………
navigated Cooke to Antarctica, and Bligh to Pitcairn
…………
and an infamous mutiny.

And lastly, before we rise, let us praise and remember
…………one John Arnold, inventor of a mode of
…………
escapement of such a nature that friction is utterly
excluded from it; and in consequence, the use of oil,
…………
that bane to equality of motion, is rendered wholly
…………
unnecessary: and whether the material be
a diamond, steel, brass, or piece of wood, is perfectly
…………
indifferent, as they are all equally proper for the
…………
purpose. And whatever our measured moments
may or may not be, let us say amen to the fact that we can
…………
dally here at liberty, contemplating scaled shadows
…………
and strontium clocks rated to one second in five
billion years, oblivious to the lash of time quirting through
…………
the pulsing bacilli of a bedside radio clock,
…………
without escapement, stackfreed, or fusee.   

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As If She Were Close

My mother is chasing me. All over the house.
No, this is not a nightmare. It happened,
thirty or so years ago. She is waving an
empty cigarette packet I’d neatly opened
to expose a writing surface. This is where
I wrote my first poem. A knot of gritty phrases
about a battle in Vietnam or Iwo Jima.
I can’t remember where, but I’d dropped it
or thrown it away and forgotten about it:
my spider pencil crawl of a treatment.
A Sunday afternooner, a black and whiter.
The kind my mother liked, as long as Garfield
or Cagney starred. But my poem has no stars.
Just a bloodless jungle of men killing each other
in childish, thrilling ways. She finally catches
me, arms crossed like a corpse under her bed.
John! It’s very good! You wrote a poem!

I’m seven or eight years old, and I know
whatever the thing I’ve done, it has a power
to frighten, a frightening power. One to shunt
aside until years after she’s dead. Where I find
myself in the departure lounge at Heathrow,
waiting to connect as my American bosses say.
My slim ticket ready in my hand, and hours
to kill before boarding. And it begins again.
A full thirty years since I nipped it in the bud.
As if she were close. I’m writing a poem about
my mother in the space on the back of the card.
Something very simple about us walking along
the quays on the long way home from the auction
she used to love. It’s straightforward, honest, plain.
But there’s a powerful feeling, too. Like my heart
is physically moving to the wrong side of my chest
where it should not be. And the bloody thing makes
me cry. God damn it, but I can’t stop writing it now.
I keep going on with it, on and on. What else can I do?

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Threnody Of The Campion Flowers For Paul Celan

Far-off threnody, you are a liquid command to a me,
listener inactively.
………….Your oar vestiges thread waters none
and no one walks for lack of faith,
and the near docks

plagued by clouds flash redly below the timber pilings.

Far-off threnody, you lament a he that cannot sing
without the him that makes him half a whole again,

the place of burial where none and no one finds a self,
the unfinishable image of death.

Threnody, your deep oar stroke pulls a lock of water,
opens a wave over the fish pulse where hope
lives in stone shallows.

In your hollow stands an almond where stands nothing
of oar vestiges and the marked songs of water,

of deepest water where low clouds cannot swim
or redly flash an ion sea.

The ion nothing stands where nothing is the king of almonds,
and the almoner summons a threnody

whose vestiges mark the fingerless waves

with the ring of death.

Far-off threnody, you refrain almonds to a king,

to one who walks upside down on clouds
tinged with dugouts of blood,

the sundered edges of grave pilings.

Came, came a song, you came as a threnody over deep waters
and your oar vestiges thread the living roots of souls

through eye-prayers of nothing and no one
and none.

Came as a threnody when the pilings sank in annihilations of light
as no salvation, sank softly under the threads of a brighter sun

and the incoming waves of the campion flowers
in verses of gorse-light.

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The Fish

I was gutting fish and my hands were gloved
in scales. I held them to the light
and primed a momentary rainbow
from the shadeless bulb.

One hand gripped the colours and the other
worked the knife with a skill that was never mine.
When the skin of light was peeled away,
a woman looked at me from the flags.

She opened her arms, and I was naked,
already in her. She caressed me and I saw
the raw hulk of myself in her seal eyes.
I loved her with a lust that was never mine.

Her face, not young, was the face
of a woman I had loved. She turned,
and her body washed over me like a wave.
Scales fell across my eyes and I saw

old selves retreat in the rising spume.
The flags were hard and cold beneath us,
and when she stood me up
I knew her with an understanding

that was never mine. She laid me across
the boards and brought her face close,
her pupils now silver, now manganese.
Her low voice was the voice of the sea.

She whispered incantations she said
she’d learned from Poseidon himself.
Bright handfuls of scales fell over my face.
I responded in tongues that were never mine.

When she was finished, I was scaled
and simplified. She dropped me to the floor,
opened me from belly to neck, and slipped inside.
I slept for years, dreaming of fish

I would feed on with a hunger
that was never mine, and the sea,
how I found it, how I parted the air
with silver hands and walked into it.

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