Saturday, December 6, 2014



Life in the Ordovician: Selected Poems by Robert Murphy
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2007)

The poems in Robert Murphy’s Life in the Ordovician is a Selected spanning over 25 years.  As a body of work, they reveal a poet deserving much praise for a life well writ. 

Selecteds and Collecteds are among my favorite poetry reads for what they reveal about the poet’s trajectory.  The strength in Murphy’s poetry, for me, comes from what the poet extrapolates from what he observes and/or experiences.  It seems to be an innate strength as it is strongly present in the first as much as the last poem of the collection which is structured in reverse chronological order.  Here’s the first poem written, thus last in the book:

“Energy is the only Life, and is of the Body…
Energy is Eternal Delight.”
WM Blake

This berry, still warm from the sun,
picked from the prickly cane of itself,
(I did not ask, but took it
as an offering of pleasure for myself.)
is the color of darkest wine.
The slight fur of it, the dimpled skin
rolls in a slow circle on my tongue.
And then because it is ripe,
which is the berry’s delight,
there follows that sudden spread,
the shock of bitter sweetness.
The whelm, then overwhelm of taste.

Such whimsy may surprise,
if not divine a truth.
May confirm, if not consume
a point of view. Consider
how the galaxies rushing out and out
fill the darker void with a lighted space.
And how the berry pleasure picked
taste may give rise again to shape,
may even shape the words to fill a page.
A berry such as this one
crushed on the tongue of some god.

I ask, why not?
The seeds of sweetness we call stars
ripen in the utmost dark
                                                yield up
sweeter thought.

The poem reveals other strengths besides what I’m focusing on—the clarity of imagery and metaphor, the music, the appeal to physical senses…  But what I love is the leap from berry to galaxy, creating a resulting logic in the notion of “stars / ripen in the utmost dark / yield up / sweeter thought.”  Lovely.

And this poet, has honed this particular talent at the leap over the next 25 years to result in “Life in the Ordovician,” the first poem in the book, the most recently-written in the collection, the title poem, and a most resplendent start to the entire collection.  The poem’s persona, in Murphy’s hands, is not a gardener but a gardener-philosopher.  The poem further benefits from the layer of resonance suggested by the framing reference of “Ordovician” which an Author’s Note describes as follows:

ORDOVICIAN: of, relating to, or designating the geological period from approximately 500 million to 440 million years ago, when marine invertebrate animals were abundant.

The poem begins with a reflection of the poet’s keen and philosophical eye:

What vision brought him
While brooming last year’s leaves
Off the trod
Limestone of his garden’s path:
The crazy-quilt of its lithograph
A Chinese scroll
That patterns chaos with its forms—

and ends with an absolutely magnificent last line—here’s the ending of the poem:

…the dust he clears
And through the clearing sees
The path over which the broom whispers:
The stray of its binding mortars, the shifting
Chronologies of its broken shores—
Atlantean shale’s shattered spindrift ruins
Proleptic with the sacred truths.
Beneath his feet the toppled
Ashlars of its crazy-quilt.
The pre-marmoreals of its salt intaglios—
The varietal weathers of its aquatins,
Escalloped bone-alphabets
Still in the making of its runes.
And he now on his knees,
His hands in the sensitive splay
Of a blind man’s fingers,
Taking its pulse,
Listening for his own heart’s beat
In those may dead oceans,
His one good ear pressed to the floor of the world.

I repeat: “His one good ear pressed to the floor of the world.”—that is muy magnifico.  And the above excerpt also shows why many wise poets often turn to various disciplines and topics if only to enhance their vocabulary.  Surely one sees here the impact of Murphy’s study of the Ordovician.

Between first and last poems are 68 other poems, all as judiciously crafted as the opening and ending.  As an example, I thought to raise an example of a form at which I myself totally and absolutely suck: the episodic poem.  I, for one, am a prolific poet and yet have rarely succeeded in writing to occasion, such that I long ceased attempting it long ago—to the dismay of certain relatives and friends who might have ended up interested in my poetry were I talented in this form.  But I digress … so, Robert Murphy: so capable is this poet he can even turn the occasion of a son turning thirteen into a long, moving poem beginning with the line “Before God” and whose length retains the reader’s interest owing to its strong musicality.  The poem is wide-ranging, at one point bearing a stanza like

Our patient, backward counting
come to naught.
The patient body, a carbon smudge.
Those minus signs of kohl, or ash
making shapely urns under Kali’s eyes:
atoms neatly and forever rearranged
under heaven’s wheel.
Could be
that looked-for star-burst
of love,
or God’s last Hiroshima of rage
gentled with the kiss that brother Judas gave.

—which is to say, the occasion of a boy turning 13 is also an occasion for ever acknowledging the larger world and its history, the specific personal occasion not hampering the personal becoming universal (so to speak) and back again.  The poet-father brings it back home to end the long poem with

Tonight, child,
your head,
despite the flap and feather in his own,
in the crook of that father’s arm,
as we read together a tale,
if not Shaharazad,
as timeless.
And, as luck would have it,
no real shadow
hounds your face.

Patience darling
and no fear.
Too soon you’ll beard that razor
and its brush.
We are thirteen
once, and only once.
You. And I. And all.
But one
of the numbers
numberless along the way.
So for the moment,
happy, stay.

Oooomph.  Throughout, the poet rewards the reader with poems that, as he writes in “The Body Does Not Judge. The Mind’s Province.”:

Pleasure. There must be reason in it,
not just a hedge against a body’s despair.

Search for Robert Murphy’s poems, including through this book—you will be grateful as I am for its gifts.  Recommended.


Eileen Tabios reveals something about herself in ARDUITY'S interview about what's hard about her poetry.  Her just-released poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Amazon Hall of Famer reviewer Grady Harp.  Due out in 2015 will be her second "Collected Poems" project; while her first THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, her forthcoming INVEN(S)TORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form.  More information at 

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