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Clíona Ní Riordáin reviews Gerry Murphy's newest poetry collection.




Clíona Ní Ríordáin

Clíona Ní Ríordáin lives in Paris and teaches at the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle. She is editor of Four Irish Poets / Quatre Poetes Irlandais (Dedalus, 2011); and of Femmes d'Irlande en poésie 1973-2013 (Editions Caractères, Paris 2013). Jeune poésie d'Irlande, an anthology of Munster poets in translation co-edited by Clíona Ní Ríordáin and Paul Bensimon was published in 2015 by Editions Illador.







Gerry Murphy Muse


Gerry Murphy

(Dedalus Press, 2015)

ISBN: 978 1 910251 05 8

€11.50 paperback

Buy from Dedalus Press





The startled mannequin on the cover of Gerry Murphy’s new collection, Muse, is perhaps meant to evoke the “Wonder Woman” of the poem 'Luminous Blue Nighty' (p. 22). She may also suggest the eponymous poem 'Muse' (p. 11)—its closing lines, “ …as I turn to the dampened page/ and begin again”, are a reminder of the love poems which have been a feature of Murphy’s work since his first collection, A Small Fat Boy Walking Backwards, was published in 1985. 


Don’t be fooled though: the model in the blue dress is a red herring. Why? Because although quixotic love lyrics may figure in this collection, the muse Erato (that of love poetry) is far from being the only source of inspiration for Gerry Murphy. The clue is in the short epigraph, with its reference to distant galaxies “To set out in sleep/ for those distant galaxies/ behind the eyelids”—a hint that Murphy is also in thrall to Ourania, muse of celestial objects and astronomy. This is confirmed in other poems like 'What’s He Doing There?' (p. 56), or 'Astronomers' (p.62). On closer examination, we can see that all the muses, from history to music, from tragedy to the divine, have inspired this collection. Most of all though, Murphy is preoccupied with death and memory. Mnemosyne, mother of all the muses, hovers over the book, which loops back to Murphy’s own earlier poems: 'Self-Portrait on a Christmas Morning' (p. 71) mirroring 'Self-Portrait at 46' and 'Peace Process' (p. 65) with its "Brits Out" echoing the “Brits on the pavement” of an older poem.


 Muse is the work of a poet who has turned sixty and sees ghosts everywhere: playing soccer (p.37) near the boarded-up Inchigeela Dairy, at the foot of the stairs (p. 69). A poet who experiences spots of time, with visions of a younger self observed in the joyful actions of the present continuous, a succession of eleven verbs “hopping”, “constructing”, “cooking”, “repairing”…in a present that the older, rueful voyager knows is evanescent and fleeting. This is a poet who questions the value of the work of art, whose poem 'A Wet Evening in April' (p. 66) may be labelled after Kavanagh but the birds, who “sang in the wet trees”, are offered as an equivalent to Yeats’s golden bird, who sings to keep the drowsy emperor awake in the final stanza of 'Sailing to Byzantium'.


Despite the shadow of death and the preoccupation with mortality Muse is not a gloomy book. How could it be? Murphy’s zany humour and lightness of touch transform the serious subject matter. 'Cortège' (p. 74) has an ice-cream van “clipping along cheerfully/ behind the coffin”, while an interview with the Angel of Death (p. 36) will delight the “Novelist and Short Story Writer” whose vocation is viewed as “taking a turn at the bottom of the slush pile”. There is a strong religious vein with an appropriate Murphy-esque take on each episode—an eight-year old atheist who doubts the veracity of the Old Testament is identified in the stinging retort of the final two lines “Now imagine the father’s name/ is Joseph” (p. 31).


Typical of Gerry Murphy’s art is  'Why I Am A Poet' (p. 44). Three hypotheses are offered for his vocation, each whimsical: the verses on his father’s Sweet Afton cigarette packet, the porter-gulping Uncle Paddy “soaring/ on those kite-like tropes of Omar Khayyám” and the scribbled notes of the poet’s mother squirrelled “beneath the sofa cushion”… “verses from her own lost Rubáiyát”. Murphy seems to suggest his poetry is equally whimsical, scribbled light verse that can slip out of sight (elsewhere he refers to his “scattered strivings”) and the readers “giddy with poetry” (p. 45) may be hoodwinked by Murphy’s subterfuge. But as this poem shows, through the deft references to oriental verse (and there are many others in Muse which demonstrate Murphy’s familiarity with Persian poetry) woven so skilfully into a poem that is both high-spirited in tone and deadly-serious in technique, we are in the presence of a master craftsman who wears his learning lightly.


©2015 Clíona Ní Riordáin



Author Links


Clíona Ní Ríordáin at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

Jeune poésie d'Irlande

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(article by Ní Ríordáin)






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