The Pleasure Ground
Seals at High Island
The calamity of seals begins with jaws.
Born in caverns that reverberate
With endless malice of the sea’s tongue
Clacking on shingle, they learn to bark back
In fear and sadness and celebration.
The ocean’s mouth opens forty feet wide
And closes on a morsel of their rock.
Swayed by the thrust and backfall of the tide,
A dappled grey bull and a brindled cow
Copulate in the green water of a cove.
I watch from a cliff-top, trying not to move.
Sometimes they sink and merge into black shoals;
Then rise for air, his muzzle on her neck,
Their winged feet intertwined as a ﬁshtail.
She opens her ﬁerce mouth like a scarlet ﬂower
Full of white seeds; she holds it open long
At the sunburst in the music of their loving;
And cries a little. But I must remember
How far their feelings are from mine marooned.
If there are tears at this holy ceremony
Theirs are caused by brine and mine by breeze.
When the great bull withdraws his rod, it glows
Like a carnelian candle set in jade.
The cow ripples ashore to feed her calf;
While an old rival, eyeing the deed with hate,
Swims to attack the tired triumphant god.
They rear their heads above the boiling surf,
Their terrible jaws open, jetting blood.
At nightfall they haul out, and mourn the drowned,
Playing to the sea sadly their last quartet,
An improvised requiem that ravishes
Reason, while ripping scale up like a net:
Brings pity trembling down the rocky spine
Of headlands, till the bitter ocean’s tongue
Swells in their cove, and smothers their sweet song.
(for Tony White)
You were standing on the quay
Wondering who was the stranger on the mailboat
While I was on the mailboat
Wondering who was the stranger on the quay
Before the spectacled professor snipped
The cord, I heard your birth-cry ﬂood the ward,
And lowered your mother’s tortured head, and wept.
The house you’d left would need to be restored.
No worse pain could be borne, to bear the joy
Of seeing you come in a slow dive from the womb,
Pushed from your ﬂuid home, pronounced ‘a boy’.
You’ll never ﬁnd so well equipped a room.
No house we build could hope to satisfy
Every small need, now that you’ve made this move
To share our loneliness, much as we try
Our vocal skill to wall you round with love.
This day you crave so little, we so much
For you to live, who need our merest touch.
'Richard Murphy's verse is classical in a way that demonstrates what the classical strengths really are. It combines a high music with simplicity, force and directness in dealing with the world of action. He has the gift of epic objectivity: behind his poems we feel not the assertion of his personality, but the actuality of events, the facts and sufferings of history… I don’t know of any other contemporary poet who has so redeemed the classical manner. Every line is unique and wrought, somehow organic, yet the whole thing is simple. The plainest statements have an almost plastic life and solidarity. And the final effect is of a formal beautifully sustained music of essentials. This kind of poetry, which is nowadays so terribly difficult to write, reminds us that poems too must take their final test of health in the world of action.' – Ted Hughes.
‘One of the truly great things about Richard Murphy’s Collected Poems is just how alive the book is to the west of Ireland: its history and people, the landscape, customs and folkways of making a living (as Murphy did) from the sea. But it is not as pastoral that these poems really live; the western islands and the terrain become austere emblematic presences, dramatising an intense struggle for personal and cultural identity. Traversing this geography of the mind, Murphy auspiciously reinvented in The Battle of Aughrim(1968) an historical frieze of war and conflict in the late 17th century spliced through with images drawn, almost cinematically, from 20th-century Ireland… Richard Murphy is an intriguingly available poet and, like those of Robert Graves, his poems have all the bright music of great love songs.’ – Gerald Dawe, Irish Times.
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