Poetry by Rich Murphy
available on amazon.com
Richard Murphy’s The Body Politic, published by Prolific Press (2017), is a collection of eighty-five poems, a number of which have appeared elsewhere in print—including several here in Red Savina Review. Murphy wrote roughly half of these poems in the 1970s and ‘80s, but the more recent work, penned across the last fifteen years, focuses on contemporary events. Consequently, the emotional register here is one of urgency, outrage, and dismay.
Although Murphy opens his collection with “Arms,” a poem comprised of quotes, it is in the second poem, “Okie Dokie,” where Murphy’s Body comes alive: “The music guzzles time while/the wasted folk frisk and shakedown/dervishes, theft and might” (3). Word play and sound are central to Murphy’s complex collapsing of conflicting terms. While the “music guzzles time,” it is the “folk” who are “wasted.”
Similarly, dervishes spin and twirl spiritually, yet Murphy couples the dervish with something criminal — the “shakedown,” which works through “theft and might.” Make no mistake, Murphy is taking aim at 21st century America and what it means to be a citizen right now. “From one end of Hoki-Poki to the other,/the desire denied and pain delivered/didn’t pause for the Hopi” (3). The recent dance or game thousands have played in hopes of bringing the Dakota Pipeline to a halt did lead to a pause under President Obama, but then it started right back up under President Trump. That’s the right now of Native American injustice, but we know, as does the poet, the longer history. Murphy continues, “In states that have tapped one spigot/for greed and charity, each dancer/participates in the grab or starve” (3). Incidentally, Lansing, Michigan still lacks drinking water, months after the social media frenzy; the governor remains untouched while “The obese wallets stagger and drag/themselves to the banks along river/Thank You” (3). Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is one of these “obese wallets” buying Cabinet posts, and she is just one among many. “Show time” and “hollering” is apt in this unprecedented era of social media and digital technology.
The irony in Murphy’s poem is that the American people are to blame for this money/power grab bag, both the minority who voted Trump in and the 42% of Americans who opted out of the voting responsibility in favor of reality TV, web trolling, and the deadly apathy of contemporary existence. Remember those “wasted folk”? In this and throughout his poetry, Murphy asks his reader to think critically and to dance between pop culture and erudition, a move that some may find tiresome. It helps to read Murphy with web access, so as to track down the allusions that escape. It helps, too, to read him out loud, as he offers fantastic sounds and lyrical word play.
One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Subaltern Grief,” a poem that asks just what might satiate the grief of the have-nots. The opening “false consciousness chink” moves through the “full face ignored” to arrive and persist, or resist, in the “voice/stitched to a body, woven alone” (13). While the subaltern alludes to minorities oppressed through 20th century colonialism, Murphy posits the subaltern in the ironic American body, a body both gendered and raced depending entirely on the voice. The voice, moreover, “stitched” to the body, suggests a sort of Frankenstein. Frankenstein is something like, but less than, a zombie. Frankenstein, for example, desires to become one among many. Zombies want simply to eat as many as possible. Critically, the public is returned to the individual, or vice versa. In so doing, we have the restoration of the personal as political, a move the postmodern sought to unravel. The grief in this 21st century subaltern is the voice “woven alone.”
In response to America’s current President and the boost in sales of dystopic scifi, I am reminded of not only the increasingly marginalized literate, but also the ways by which anger and sarcasm can drive artistic inspiration. On his own poetry and writing process, Murphy shared this:
Supposedly, we have the most educated public that we have ever had (though most lack educated imaginations) and with the internet widely used allusions can be easily identified. So if one is literate in American English, one has opportunities to read many different kinds of texts. However, as long as our culture is thin, metaphor will dominate over simile. Simile required a depth in culture; think of it as the inside joke. If you are on the outside, you may be the butt of that joke. You certainly don’t understand it.
Reading Body Politic requires some effort precisely so as to not be left on the “outside.” An education today is being touted by the Tea Party few as “elite.” President Trump’s Cabinet is shaping up to be one of the wealthiest and least educated assembled. An America embroiled in a state of urgency, recklessness, and ineptitude is ripe for sarcasm and humor. Murphy does a terrific job prodding chuckles and gasps, as long as you know the brunt of the joke.
At times Murphy’s poetic political and social commentary becomes a semiotics of nostalgia. In “The Forty Year Journey on Essence,” the “homebody queens” give birth to children who die: “1 – 2- 3 – Bop!” (72). These are not my children, but those of the American past, those who fought for freedom across Europe, the Pacific, Vietnam, and now slowly, the Middle East and Asia (as the times inch forward from those thoughts and images to the present). Homes and lives are spread out even as the experience of the American family grows ever more fractured and shaky, “Within the huddling single family homes” (72). The home and the American Dream are alluded to in “huddling” and HUD, also known as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Huddling in homes and the search for such homes is the American Dream, and this moment reminds us of not just the recent manipulation and exploitation of the people through the house (and now the White House), but of the tradition of real estate red-lining and the creation of the suburbs post-World War II. That idea traverses three lines: “Within the huddling single family homes/everywhere high school or college days/are extracted from a sense of security” (72). Murphy muddles with time again as “high school or college days” are “extracted from a sense of security.” The “extraction” is both financial and nostalgic. In other words, all of the work that the families inside those homes are doing is being pulled out of those bodies to send the children not killed off to colleges growing ever-more expensive by the moment.
Within those same colleges, tenured professors are dying off and being replaced by freeway-flying adjuncts, at the expense of those same kids and their hard-working parents. “Security” is disappearing for the parents as they fear financial failure and the inability to provide for their children’s educational future. The kids, meanwhile, are growing more insecure as they take on student loans to be saddled permanently with a debt that will disallow them homes, while only the lucky few wind up with jobs.
Murphy closes the poem returning to the body that watches itself grow old: “Called to the latest fissure by her mirrored face,/she mines magazines for the gloss and tits/and bathes that body in memories” (72). The fractured body multiplies in the images imagined in the reflected memories. The flesh rears up out of the mind and heart, and is always already in conflict with the forty year journey of the title. Essence is included in the title and the essence of one’s being is a far cry from the fissured face or the “gloss and tits.” The experience of being across time is, in the latter years, a kind of bathing in memories. Growing old is outrageous and the outrage at its destruction is life, or, at best, poetry like this.
The Body Politic invites us into the play of reading, thinking, remembering, and writing. Murphy sees poetry not only as a critical mirror, but also a necessary respite from life:
Poetry and art have been designated as a “time out” from the practical life we lead, unlike reading a newspaper and now surfing the internet, which makes it unpopular except by those who write it or paint it or sculpt it, etc. I see my work as taking advantage of that designation. I want folks to contemplate and even play with, play to help with interpretation. (Murphy)
Murphy may not be for everyone, particularly in this age of unprecedented political outlandishness. Some today see the personal as political as the reason we’re in this mess. Others would rather not see, and seek leisure time to escape. There is a glimmer of hope in that second poem of the collection, “Okie Dokie”: “A plumber fine-tunes the instrument/for composition and show time,/and that’s worth a holler about” (3). A plumber’s instruments slip into toilets and pipes, spaces both dark and dirty, perhaps even the shady passages of the now-stained White House. These same instruments producing greater composition is obscenely satisfying: the perfect evacuatory drop and the satisfying flush.
Much of what the government is offering the nation is bullshit, and like Murphy, the people are growing restless. Part of what Murphy attempts here is a kind of contemporary sublimity: “I am trying to bring the postmodern sublime (the now, now, now) to my work using the gaps that are aporia that is also sometimes called the feminine sublime, the syntax, irony, and allusions” (Murphy). The process and that sublime experience, that depends solely upon you, the reader, but Murphy makes it available and it’s in the The Body Politic.
Reviewed by Brooke A. Carlson