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Val Nolan reviews Gerry Murphy's latest collection


Val Nolan

Val Nolan teaches contemporary literature and creative writing at NUI Galway. He regularly contributes criticism to publications including Poetry Ireland Review, The Sunday Business Post, PN Review and The John McGahern Yearbook. A poet and a fiction writer, he has been published in Southword, The Stinging Fly, Poetry Scotland, Crannóg and Revival. He was most recently invited to read on the emerging writer's panel at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. NUIG awarded him the 2008/09 Oliver St. John Gogarty Scholarship and he is also the recipient of a Clarion Foundation Scholarship to study short fiction at University of California, San Diego.






Gerry Murphy's My Flirtation with International Socialism reviewed in Southword Journal OnlineMy Flirtation with International Socialism

Gerry Murphy

(Dedalus Press, 2010)

ISBN: 978 1 906614294

€11.99 paperback


Buy from Dedalus




Gerry Murphy’s My Flirtation with International Socialism opens in, of all places, the Eighth Circle of Hell: "This Charvet shirt / is lead-lined and sizzles against my skin. / And so heavy it creaks like a disused conscience". It seems like an easy dig at the establishment, especially when one remembers that the Eighth Circle is entered by riding a monstrous personification of fraud itself, but nothing in Murphy’s work is ever so straightforward. The reader is right down there with the speaker of the poem, lost amongst the counterfeiters, hypocrites, seducers, and simonists of the Malebolge. There’s only one place left to go from here, downward again to the Ninth Circle, the home of traitors, and Murphy is taking you with him.

A political poet, a romantic, and an innovative, irreverent writer with an eye for serious subjects, this twisted notion of the afterlife haunts Murphy’s sixth collection. It is as though he is saying modern Ireland is little better than a Dante-esque gradation of crime and punishment, not Hell, exactly, but maybe Purgatory or Limbo. Such a relentless concentration on local themes serves as a rejoinder to accusations of irrelevancy (or at the least misplaced focus) which attended some of Murphy’s earlier work, particularly A Cartoon History of the Spanish Civil War which was cited by the Poetry Ireland Review as overlooking the ‘hopelessness in this country, urban poverty, joblessness and the like’.

One cannot say the same of this collection, the product of a crass, venal Ireland where even the weight of the breeze is quantified and measured, its worth calculated by "digital displays"; an Ireland where a "permanent bureaucracy" of "crooked monks" (not expected "to be intellectuals or indeed poets") are engaged in the "tedious work" of robbing the state. And what do any of us do about it? Next to nothing, Murphy says. A poem in memory of the "pagan" Gregory O’Donoghue succulently captures the poet’s disillusionment in both himself and his fellows, with Murphy concluding that "we let you down / colluding in the standard Catholic guff / without a yelp of protest".

As such, it comes as a surprise that the centrepiece of International Socialism is a sequence titled ‘A Random History of the Desmond Rebellion’. Yet the Rebellion is conceived not, as more “serious” writers might depict it, as the heroic last stand of the native Gaelic order, but instead as representative of the vaudeville act of Irish history as a whole: part comedy, part tragedy, and run through with moustache-twirling English villains and Quixotic moments of Munster lunacy. In ‘Uneasy Lies the Head’, the Desmond leadership is quite literally decapitated and:


The head was sent

to the Earl of Ormond in Kilkenny

and thence to London.

Elizabeth is said to have spent

an entire morning in quiet contemplation

of the grisly trophy

before having it spiked on London Bridge.


On the other hand, socio-economical and historical reflections like ‘Desmond Rebellion’ sit rather awkwardly alongside Murphy’s poems of heightened erotic intensity, the inescapable conundrum of love and desire which he lays bare in beautiful pieces such as ‘Three Rooms’ and ‘Septet at the End of Time’.

At the same time, there are too many poems "after" the work of others. Murphy’s love of Classical literature has always been a feature of his writing, but here he has added to that with poets after Yeats, Coleridge, Goethe, Mao, Montague, Carson, and over twenty others. While there is real depth, feeling, and a lifetime of reading underpinning Murphy’s reworking of these writers, that constant presence, the italicised line After… which hangs beneath the title of so many pieces is distracting. It dilutes the reader’s focus on the originality of Murphy’s verse; because there are, despite the range of reference here, very few poets like him.




©2010 Val Nolan




Author Links


Nolan's review of Pat Boran's memoir The Invisible Prison Scenes from an Irish Childhood

Nolan's review of Colm Tóibín's The Empty Family

Nolan on Patrick McCabe's The Stray Sod Country





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