Richie McCaffery reviews Mouth of Shadows by Tim Murphy (SurVision Books, 2022)
The final line of the closing poem to this, Tim Murphy’s first full collection, urges the reader to “Wake your sleeping dream” and this is precisely what so many of the poems in this book do. In fact, a goodly number are explicitly oneiric, taking place in some hypnic realm between sleeping and waking, imagination and reality, fable and fact. Poetry becomes an act of coming out from the shadows and illuminating something, no matter how fleeting.
These are novel poems where history and the present collide in fruitful ways, such as in ‘Barricades of Pain’ where two poems by Oscar Wilde are subjected to the beatnik (or Bowie-esque) technique of the ‘cut-up’; elsewhere we encounter another popular beatnik trick: automatic writing. There are intertextual and ekphrastic poems, the poet demonstrating his range and eclecticism, but it is also the register and language of the work that is striking. The repeated mentions and treatments of André Breton remind me of Dada, and later, surrealism, though the timbre of these poems is more closely related to the British cousin of surrealism, the unfairly maligned ‘New Apocalypse’ movement which flourished briefly in the late 1930s to mid-1940s:
Murderous parrots eat souls
because of some old mummy’s
bake a wine empire
in a wood oven.
(from ‘Sultry Hooves’).
This, the notes tell us, is a cut-up from W. B. Yeats’ ‘On a Picture of a Black Centaur by Edmund Dulac’ and it has a decidedly New Apocalypse music to it. One famous early practitioner of this school, the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, gave a copy of his debut collection (Far Cry) to a friend who read it and handed it back saying “Very good Norman, but when are you going to publish the answers?” MacCaig in later years disowned the movement and called his engagement with it part of his ‘long haul to lucidity’. In some of these poems I feel that the haul is still ongoing but it is a very worthwhile one nonetheless. In poetry in English it is always easy to fall into a lyric rut but Murphy avoids this. Even if at times the poetry might be cryptic, baroque or mysterious, it is never unoriginal and always manages to dodge the cliches:
Who is hiding the past well
and who is not?
A woman is ranking her children;
she does not answer.
A hint? An epilogue?
Has a taste been overheard?
(from ‘Collage Scent’)
The allusive quality of these poems cannot be overstated – Murphy pays attention to many arts, from the visual and verbal to the musical and this gives the poetry a grounding and heritage that prevents it from becoming overly cerebral or abstract
The synaesthetic nature of the taste that can be heard underscores the psychotropic power of a number of these poems, opening the ‘Doors of Perception’, this poet journeys to “where equilibrium / loses its way” (from ‘Apple Graves’):
Flea market élan
takes its chance:
dead secrets are saved
from a fever ravine.
In the mirror
an El Greco face is pulled –
it feels like Ecstatic Surrender.
The allusive quality of these poems cannot be overstated – Murphy pays attention to many arts, from the visual and verbal to the musical and this gives the poetry a grounding and heritage that prevents it from becoming overly cerebral or abstract. It could be argued that these poems adopt a stylised pose or that the author hides behind the confected language but we are often given glimpses about the suffering artist behind and in between the lines. There are hints of broken down relationships and a feeling of dislocation (Murphy is an expat Irish poet living in Spain). There are touching moments when the poet seems to drop their guard and we begin to hear a more relatable, if injured, music:
my life remembers an old hope
a slaughtered story
in the dark of a departure lounge
all I expect is what I can carry
just an image of something sweet
that teases and turns
like a fog image in a mist
all I hear is the music
the rising tide of notes
worse to close the door
the door that is not a door
worse to live dead
than to possess nothing
you chose not to listen
is this a dagger
(from ‘Minotaur in Green’)
This comes from Murphy’s long poem ‘Minotaur in Green’, a swingeing farewell to Murphy’s native “sententious”, “vicious” Ireland, reified in the poem as a green Minotaur. The poem is a surreal jeremiad of all of Ireland’s failings according to the poet, pushing him to seek a more habitable life in Spain.
It is the paradox of a mouth to be a dark, cave-like space but to also be the conduit of viva voce poetry, song, illumination and explanation, all of which is captured in this impressive first collection
What ultimately makes Murphy’s first collection compelling is that it dramatizes the dilemma of the artist between concealment and disclosure, between artfulness and artifice – Seamus Heaney (whose poems ‘Blackberry-Picking’ and ‘The Grauballe Man’ are cut-up here) famously reminded us: “whatever you say, you say nothing”. Tim Murphy, of course, says much here in both direct and oblique ways. In Mouth of Shadows the shadows that haunt us all are memorably vocalised. It is the paradox of a mouth to be a dark, cave-like space but to also be the conduit of viva voce poetry, song, illumination and explanation, all of which is captured in this impressive first collection.
Richie McCaffery lives in Warkworth, Northumberland. He’s the author of four poetry pamphlets – Spinning Plates (HappenStance, 2012), Ballast Flint (Cromarty Arts Trust, 2013), First Hare (Mariscat, 2020) and Coping Stones (Fras Publications, 2021) – and two full collections, both from Nine Arches Press – Cairn (2014) and Passport (2018). He’s also the editor of Finishing the Picture: Collected Poems of Ian Abbot (Kennedy and Boyd, 2015), The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure (Brae Editions, 2018) and Sydney Goodsir Smith: Essays on his life and work (Brill, 2020). His book-length study of Scottish poetry and World War Two is forthcoming from Brill.