The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952-2012, by Richard Murphy
Reviewed by Michael Longley
The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952-2012
Pulse of the rock
You throb till daybreak on your cryptic nest
A song older than fossils,
Ephemeral as thrift.
It ends with a gasp.
“Cryptic” is so daring there, and the last line in every sense breathtaking, simple and yet in no way straightforward. Murphy’s celebrations of the western seaboard pulse with psalm-like intensity: Seals at High Island, for instance, exudes a vivid sexuality: “When the great bull withdraws his rod, it glows / Like a carnelian candle set in jade.” Song for a Corncrake ends with these heartbreaking lines:
Quicken your tune, O improvise, before
The combine and the digger come,
This poet also relishes turning on a sixpence. Several epigrammatic poems bejewel this collection. Double Negative is a gnomic love poem for his friend Tony White:
You were standing on the quay
Wondering who was the stranger on the mailboat
While I was on the mailboat
Wondering who was the stranger on the quay.
These four lines compress swirling emotions and remind us that miniature is not the same as minor. This quatrain fills the page.
The Price of Stone is for me Murphy’s least winning collection. Its dogged anthropomorphism is sustained over a suite of 50 sonnets in which various buildings associated with the poet’s life soliloquise – from Nelson’s Pillar to Letterfrack industrial school, from a waterkeeper’s bothy to Newgrange and a beehive cell. There’s something too predetermined here, a lack of surprise, too few “gasps”.
I much prefer the psychic desolation of the amorous, sometimes homoerotic poems in High Island (especially the exquisitely tender Sunup and The Glass Dump Road, which faces into the darkness of child abuse); the compassionate portraits of poverty and dispossession; the concentrated energy of the animal psalms; the delicate syncopations of Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie, a fugue-like masterpiece that brilliantly conceals its artfulness.
Murphy provides a preface that reverberates helpfully throughout this collection. There are several prose appendices explaining the provenance of some of the major poems and, at the end, a perceptive appreciation by Bernard O’Donoghue of Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie. This critical apparatus bears further witness to Murphy’s lifelong devotion to his craft. He is indeed one of our supreme makers.
Oscillating from beginning to end and from page to page between narrative and lyric, public and private, love poem and elegy, The Pleasure Ground is a hugely significant achievement. Now well into his ninth decade, Richard Murphy continues to be a poet of great fortitude and resource, one of the finest of our time.
Michael Longley’s most recent collection, A Hundred Doors, won the Irish Times New Poetry Award in 2012. He has edited Robert Graves’s Selected Poems, which Faber and Faber will publish later this year