E-mail this site to a friend.
Throughout the nineteenth century, American writers from Ralph Waldo Emerson to the lowest literary hack called for a poet to rise from our native soil and create poetry equal to America's vast and varied landscape. With his second book,
Very Far North, North Dakota native Timothy Murphy has answered the call, securing the title of laureate for at least one part of this continent-straddling nation. What Virgil was to the Italian peninsula or Homer to the Greek Mediterranean, Murphy is to the swatch of plains stretching from the Upper Midwest to the Rockies like a grassy inland sea. Surprisingly, though, Murphy evokes the stark and pallid colors of this sprawling region not in the long, unruly cadences of a Whitman or Sandburg, but in lines as clipped and lapidary as a Roman epigrammatist's.
A venture capitalist and farmer, Murphy exhibits none of the naïve optimism of the literary boosters or self-proclaimed laureates of past centuries. Murphy's West is not the Golden West of American myth--of land rushes and yeoman farmers dreaming of empire--but of the deserted plains and shattered hopes left in the wake of Manifest Destiny, where "returning bison, / gathering like a storm, / darken the bare horizon / of a land unfit to farm."
A traditional poet in every sense of the word, Murphy possesses a classical temperament which comprehends tragedy and human suffering; he knows that "Care furrows the brow / and bows the straightest frame. // Thistles follow the plow, / and hail threshes the grain." Spare and unadorned as a Dakota prairie, Murphy's poems are generally short in line and length, metrically tight and artfully rhymed. They can evoke the solemn tones of a biblical psalm or the lucid brilliance of a Greek lyric. His verbal landscapes and portraits depict the lives and character of his local culture and region, yet look beyond them to primal elements and patterns that predate human history:
Our Bronco bucked on rocks as daybreak's glow
drove darkness down the range from summit snow.
We rode to where the switchback track was blocked;
and then we walked
into a world where strings were not yet strung
on tortoise shells, where Gilgamesh was young.
Haunted by rituals as old as human consciousness, Murphy's poems mingle observations about farming, hiking, hunting, loving and dying with allusions to Greek, Native American, and Norse myths. In writing of farming or hunting, he celebrates ancient virtues like hard work, good husbandry, and expert marksmanship. Concluding his book with a group of poems on Chinese and Japanese history and art, he appears to have found--amidst North Dakota's arid plains and buttes--the fabled Northwest Passage to the East. "The Sixth Dalai Lama," for instance, shows that aestheticism and decadence have their periods of ascendancy in the East as in the West, with the same dire consequences:
I picture him in purple silk
his perfumed locks voluptuously long.
Singing a favorite his latest song,
Tsangyang Gyatso, poet and libertine,
dismissed the cares of Buddhahood and State,
the tedium of rituals and texts.
Far from the palace and its scheming sects,
the brothel-keepers called him "Profligate"
and "Man of Many Loves." The girls believed
his Tantric mastery enhanced orgasms,
uniting Yin and Yang in cosmic spasms
whereby Transcendent Insight was achieved.
Neglecting to defend the Land of Snows,
he kowtowed for the Manchu Emperor
who lured him to confer at Gunga Nor
and left his corpse to edify the crows.
Nowhere is Murphy's allegiance to tradition more vividly seen than in his many poems about his literary and ancestral forbears. In "Red Like Him," Murphy salutes his Yale mentor, Robert Penn Warren, whose advice to return to his roots is memorably recorded in "Collateral":
"Go home, boy. Buy a farm.
Sink your toes in that rich soil
and grow yourself some roots."
No stranger to the toil
of those who raise their fruits,
he clasped my freckled arm
and dragged me down to earth.
I learned to measure worth
As the plough measures a furrow.
Calling on country banks,
I pledge, encumber, borrow
And tell a dead man, "Thanks."
Having taken the master's advice, Murphy must now "pledge, encumber, borrow" to survive on his native soil. In "Horses for My Father," Murphy pays moving tribute to the father who taught him to find his deepest relation to nature in stewardship. Here's section V. of that eleven part sequence. Entitled "Look Homeward, Rancher," its terse lines suggest how thin the line is between prosperity and ruin.
Riding to Beartooth Pass
he looks back at the plains,
ranges of grazed-out grass
thirsting for mountain rains--
a bankrupt watershed
where ledgers testify
that black ink runs red
after the stock ponds dry.
In "The Steward," Murphy combines this theme with another, human and natural generation:
Morris no-till drills
pulled by three Versatiles
keep the soil from blowing
off his communal hills--
hills that the bison haunted
and his Sioux forebears hunted,
fields where the cocks are crowing
and his green sons growing.
As these lines attest, Timothy Murphy's true home lies somewhere west of Robert Frost's New Hampshire and Thomas Hardy's Wessex in a land where words endure like quartz.