Monday 23 October 2017

Murphy's lore

Margaret O'Sullivan on the sometimes scathing poetry collection from the veteran newsreader

Margaret O'Sullivan

Most radio listeners will know Michael Murphy as the dependable RTÉ newsreader with impressive gravity and impeccable pronunciation. In 2009, he became a public figure of sorts, a spokesperson for gay rights (he was quoted in the Seanad by Senator Katherine Zappone) as well as a spokesperson for prostate health, after he published his memoir, At Five In The Afternoon, a brutally honest account of his own experience of prostate cancer.

The book, and more importantly the interviews that followed, were that rare thing – an Irishman talking openly about prostate cancer. Most Irish men would rather – and very often do – die than talk about it.

Murphy connected with listeners as he spoke about no longer having 'lead in his pencil' and hopefully inspired a lot of men to go to their doctors too. He also spoke about the importance of his civil partnership with his partner Terry, and about his work as a psychoanalyst with a busy practice (who knew!).

And now there is more still as Murphy has brought his fearless frankness to bear on his debut collection of poems, The Republic of Love. This collection of 25 poems, written over the course of the past decade, touches on Murphy's illness again, but also returns to his sexuality, in pieces that make up some of the strongest poems in this collection.

Murphy expresses a visceral anger towards the church, not only the Catholic Church but all churches, in a poem called 'The People of the Book', which begins with the lines: "The People of the Book/ Condemn me for being/ A person who loves/ Those of my own sex."

Here he tackles religious doctrines for their attitudes, saying: "The Nazis decided I'm 'unter-mensch'/ A subhuman person/ To be burned in the ovens at Buchenwald/ The German Pope/ Following on in that tradition/ Decreed that as a human being / I'm 'intrinsically disordered . . ."

The language gets stronger still when he attacks the faithful for their cowardice: "The People of the Book/ See nothing wrong with that prejudice/ They consider themselves nice people/ 'If it were up to them . . . ' But it's not/ God is the despot here."

Strong language and all the more powerful for it.

In 'Celibate Men In Dresses', Murphy uses the clergy's mode of dress to ridicule its stance on women and homosexuality. "Celibate men in dresses/ Are neither real men/ Nor inferior substitutes for real women/ Real men and women feel the breath of God's own spirit/ On their naked skin as they make love."

There is also a scathing reference to child abuse in this poem: "No kissing of the ring/ There is no sleight of hand that can cover over the crime/ Of upholding an institution of mitred prelates/ At the expense of innocent children abused."

In spite of the justifiable anger that Murphy feels, the book opens gently, with the chapter heading 'Flowers'; it includes poems entitled 'Daffodils' and 'Poppies,' flowers that have already been well-covered by titans like Wordsworth and Plath but Murphy manages to move the reader's thoughts from those poems and into his own.

Murphy's kamikaze honesty is here in spades, the same kind of honesty that upset his family when he wrote in his memoir about his father having beaten him as a child. A selection of poems cover his job in radio. In 'Here Is The News', he takes an announcer to task for her incorrect pronunciation of the word 'news'. The poem is too long and ends up feeling mean-spirited and intolerant, particularly when set side by side with his poem 'Radio Four', an ode to the BBC channel's pronunciation and content.

Another poem 'Eau De' gives an account of an "early morning fart" in the studio that had an "odour of old wet dog with intimate notes of decaying dead rat", which the sports reporter Pauric Lodge then has the misfortune to arrive into. Michael Murphy is human after all.

'Dignified Silence' details our preference as a race to say nothing, to maintain our 'dignified silence' whether it be over illness, abuse or our sexuality. 'On Contemplation' contains some enchanting internal rhyming.

But overall, Murphy cannot seem to make his more prosaic poems come to life and move them into the realm of the profound.

Murphy says he has written poetry since childhood and there is certainly a confidence here; but for the most part, these poems end up feeling more like very well composed diary entries or contemplative philosophical musings than poems.

The book closes, fittingly, with 'Epithalamion: A Poem For Terry' (although I can't help but wonder how the RTÉ announcer skewered in 'This Is The News' would fare pronouncing that word).

This is the poem Murphy wrote for his partner Terry and read at their civil partnership ceremony in 2011. It is beautiful in its expression of love for a partner, but beyond that, like the rest of this collection, there is little greater meaning to be found other than that which is overtly expressed.

Which makes these poems enjoyable, yes, relevant, sure, but essential? No.

My overriding impression was that these poems could have benefited from further revision but as a collection that brings together the contemporary experiences, both ordinary and extraordinary, of an Irish life, they do an important job of reflecting ourselves, as we are, at this point in time.

Irish Independent

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