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Steve Spence

"Zeppelin Vending Machine Manifesto" by John Murphy, pub. Salmon Poetry. 86pp. £12.00

John Murphy is another new name to me but one whose work I’m glad to have chanced upon. His poetry is challenging and at times disturbing but often worth the effort even if on occasion you remain somewhat mystified at the end of the process. These pieces combine wordplay with a hinting at previous literatures, aleatory interjections and powerfully projected sentences and snippets which force you to attempt an interpretation even when you’ve little idea what is going on. There’s an obvious clash here between some sort of narrative drive and a more playful focus on ‘the actual words’, an investigation into the complexity of language which can include jokes, apparent resonances and an involvement with the politics of technology  which borders on the sinister. Sinister, in fact, is a useful description when considering Murphy’s poetry, whether  via’ overt subject matter’, an underlying sense of unease (on the part of the reader) or a mixing of a sort of horror genre with something more nebulous and disturbing by the nature of its difficulty to engage with. Take this short poem by way of an example:


          The boy in the water, his jeans rolled
          up to his knees. The day almost over.

          Still green water. The mind fishing
          with a line of gut, the worm tied
          to the end without a hook. Images
          on still green water. Birds in cover.

          Surrounding reeds. Winds crackle. Rushes
          Red and white clover. A pinkeen hauled
          to air, gasping for water. Wet electric.
          of the body suddenly dry. Deft grip
          evading defences, spines like needles.

          One eye at a time, the humours shot clear.
          The hands mottled with ink, summer day,
          summer ended. The mind in the still green water.

A ‘pinkeen’ apparently can refer to a small fish, such as a minnow or stickleback or ‘an insignificant person’.   I guess it’s an Irish word.  So the setting is that of a childhood fishing trip, the sort of thing conjured up in a multitude of nostalgic stories where the child and fish in jam jar go home to tea after an afternoon’s exploration. Here though we glimpse ‘the horror’ of the fish’s experience as it’s yanked out of the water. And then there’s that ‘mind in the still green water’, almost repeated from the earlier ‘mind fishing / with a line of gut,…’ – which implies intelligence and intent and a certain controlling function which takes all the warmth out of the imagery. The minimalist description and shift between the material and the abstract is slightly chilling. I’ve re-read this piece several times and still find it puzzling and rich with potential extension.

‘Crapitalism’ is another short poem which is as bleak and direct as it’s possible to be and while having a joke at its heart (as implied in the title) is about as succinct an assault on our ‘current state of affairs’ as I think is achievable: ‘Unfriend your friends. / Take the money’.  Then we get as the final lines – ‘Someday someone will invent  / a food without an aftertaste of shit that’s made from shit. / Hungry millions will make their own / and pay for it.’ Dystopia in less than 14 lines! 

‘The Queen of Snow’ is pretty much a villanelle which is filled with resonance and reminds me  through its puzzling quality of both William Empson and W.S. Graham. Again it has a very ‘chilling’ feel (unsurprising, given the imagery) which manages to conjure up a vision of Narnia (childhood again) and also a very contemporary social commentary:

          When asked for shelter the yes-men say, No.
          Who will help us on our reckoning day?
          The one who knows is the Queen of Snow
          outside cold churches where no one goes.

The last line is terrifying and I’m still not sure why after having read it through a few times. Is it because even in a secular society such as ours the church has resonance as a place of sanctuary and now we are ‘outside cold churches where no one goes’.  Yet  ‘in cold churches’ the ‘priests never say’ and while I know the dangers of attempting to interpret poems in a ‘literal’ manner the desire to attempt an interpretation with these pieces by John Murphy is almost overwhelming. Elsewhere, in poems such as ‘Full Blown Argument’, for example, we have jokes and wordplay which resonate with snatches from recognisable song lyrics and imply a mode of delivery which if not exactly light-hearted are pleasurable to read due to a playful mix of language and association.

‘What it Meant’ is perhaps the most difficult of the poems here, partly because of its mix of nebulousness and its sheer desire to speak as clearly and honestly as possible about a chance emotional entanglement. Murphy challenges us with the problems involved in negotiating ‘difficulty’, both in terms of ‘the actual situation described’ and in an attempt to write about it openly and clearly and without self-delusion. It may all be ‘made up’ of course but the sense of hurt and betrayal and yet the need for extrication and avoidance is also beautifully exposed:

          I want an explanation!         Explain yourself!
          I couldn’t explain myself    couldn’t answer
          the questions she asked   what I wanted was
          the green neon of the hotel exit      but there was
          only my cowardice her sadness    what it meant
          and so we remained in the sorrow and dishevelment
          railway noise        an empty bottle           no way out
          (from ‘What it Meant’)

‘Contour’ is another short poem which you can puzzle over and enjoy the relation between the language and ‘what is being said’, with its mix of phenomenology and an awareness of the complexity of experience and perception captured in so few words. Yet once again, the ‘experience’ is expansive, as suggested in the final lines: ‘every day I live / in many worlds’.

This is a powerful collection of poetry and I found it quite challenging read. I’m glad I made the effort though.

Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019