by timothy murphy
north dakota state, 192 pages, $24.95
Not a knee is padded in Timothy Murphy’s new collection. This is no minor point, considering that knee remains for the length of the volume perpetually bent and on the floor. Like the poet himself, these poems—religious verses selected from the whole course of a career—are pure, lean sinew. Who but Murphy could accomplish such hard contact with the earth, yet be so undeniably not of it?
Dana Gioia writes in his brief preface to the collection that Devotions revives the genre of seemingly forgotten Christian devotional verse—and he is indisputably right, as when he goes on to add that Murphy has brought it back to life “with variety and amplitude.”
Murphy excels at short poems. I have mentioned the knee, metaphorically. Now here it is, literally, in a seven-line poem, titled, “Scaring the Parish”:
Am I too tattered to pray?
I have scuffed the tips of my shoes
and they are beyond polishing.
I have frayed my blue jeans’ knees
and they are beyond patching.
And Lord, my disarray?
It comes of so much kneeling.
This is Frost, sifted and sanctified. The terse verse manages to concentrate the devices of imagery, symbolism, invocation, doctrinal allusion, and feeling into fewer syllables with less sentimentality than Frost displayed petitioning the Creator for simple pleasures in spring.
The poem’s title combines assonance, self-awareness, social conscience, humor, and humility. The parallelism of “beyond polishing,” and “beyond patching” echoes traditional psalmic construction (parallelism being a major characteristic of biblical Hebrew poetry) and leaves unforgettable musical impressions by virtue of plosive alliteration and end rhyme in “polishing” and “patching.” In scant, intense syllables, Murphy transforms his physical state into the spiritual inefficacy of self-righteousness. Isaiah is here, with his “filthy rags.”
It is a minor poem, with all the major parts. The poem is inspiring—it begins in doubt, but concludes in faith. Murphy described himself as one-hundred-percent optimist, another way of saying he had Christian hope. In the last days of his life, he joked with his former priest, “I have had a glorious past three years of . . . smoking and prayer.” It is this unique sense of humor that he works into the poem.
Mature poets often drop into a groove, penning the same poem over and over again, but Murphy lost none of his versatility. These poems differ from one another in every way, from typographical formatting to subject matter; from the conditional, unreal past to present tense; the narrative to the philosophical; from couplets to sonnets; dimeter, trimeter, and other.
Among Murphy’s most outstanding poems is “Agapē.” In it, St. John Paul II, on the very night he died, visits Murphy to take his confession. Murphy harangues John Paul II with complaints against the entire Church, but he ends with admiration. “Through all I said you suffered silently,” Murphy writes, turning the expected on its ear. He concludes the poem—flawless iambic pentameter—with: “Te Dominus amat was all you said.”
The poem attains the sublime, using mundane, precise physical description to distance the walloping emotional torment that otherwise would be too much to bear. The poem is autobiographical. Murphy himself noted,
Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, and that night he visited me in a dream. This dream recurred three times. The last time was April 15, 2007—the night Pope Benedict XVI accosted American bishops over the matter of clerical sexual abuse—when this poem came to me in its entirety. I rose and immediately typed it. In every instance the dream was identical, and John Paul’s words were the same. Te Dominus amat is Latin for “God loves you.”
In his youth, Murphy admired the poetry of John Berryman. (The morning after Berryman threw himself from Minnesota’s Washington Avenue Bridge, a twenty-year-old Murphy walked across it, gazing down into the Mississippi River, looking for some sign of the self-destroyed poet.) Decades later, one can still feel a tremor of Berryman’s influence on Murphy in certain phrases and sentiments. Here, for example, is one quote from Murphy’s “i.m. Paul Stevens” that is similar to Berryman’s “Ease in their passing my beloved friends” from “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”:
I’ve two main types of prayer—
for the sick I ask God to spare
and those for my pagan friends
who meet their untimely ends.
After passing through this collection, the reader will find it completely believable that Murphy astonished his doctors by reciting honorary odes to them in his darkest hour, praising their care with overwhelming gratitude, faith, and hope.
Much focus has been given—and will continue to be given—to the passions of Murphy’s life such as his hunting, his sailing, his beloved dogs, and his intense relationship with his partner, Alan Sullivan. But this collection offers the reader something novel. Devotions provides a purified and concentrated look into Murphy’s theological, sociological, and historical passions, broadening our understanding of the plainsman-hunter to include a vision of the brilliant scholar—with “wild and wind-swept” fiery red hair. (Murphy would inject into a moment of casual, intimate banter a comment like, “Balthasar was John Paul II’s favorite modern theologian and was Benedict’s thesis adviser at Regensburg. The MOST important theologian of our lifetimes. He resolved the Origen heresy, that is apokatastasis for everyone but ME, the sinner. Read ‘A Brief Essay on Hell,’ magnificent.”) This collection offers the reader “Disenchantment Bay,” the last poem of Murphy’s edited by Sullivan (at the Berkshires estate of the late legend Richard Wilbur, a close friend and champion of Murphy’s work).
The dog poems, the sailing poems, the priest poems, the psalm translations, the poems of the hunt, and the petitions for individuals are all good or great, and remarkably varied—but this poet’s “dream mode” is my favorite. In “Dream Poem,” he admits grudging admiration for those who preserve their belief in the fine print of doctrine:
Yet I admit my grudging admiration
for people who preserve their way, who all
believe God’s word was spoken by St. Paul.
They are too few ever to form a nation.
In “Heaven on Earth,” he admires the scriptural minutiae retained by a “challenged” family member:
Here’s a deep dream our Lady sent last night:
my cousin’s called an idiot savant,
eidetic memory. He cannot write
or read, yet he remembers word for word
each scrap of scripture he has ever heard
at Daily Masses. Satan couldn’t daunt
his innocence with Hell’s seductive powers,
Christ so much in and with him all his days
that every path he strolls is strewn with flowers.
However absentmindedly he strays,
he’s Jeremiah’s “sacrifice of praise.”
Waking in smiles, refreshed, I know that this
glimpse of serene and inward-gazing bliss
is meant to turn my steps from an abyss.
And I am persuaded. The Virgin Mary is not only Murphy’s muse, but also a benefactress of the most innovative verbal combinations. He slips phrasing like the potentially pedantic “eidetic memory” and the edgy, suspect “idiot savant” into passages that should by most mortal means turn unpoetic and disastrously apocryphal. But you buy it because Murphy owns it. The Mother of God was apparently in rare form that night.
Jennifer Reeser is the author of An Alabaster Flask.
Photo courtesy of Timothy Murphy's estate.