On Richard Murphy’s Sailing to an Island

Although I remember skimming through it years ago, and being generally aware of Richard Murphy and his links with Hughes and Plath (I remember a piece by Murphy  in Poetry Ireland Review 30 years ago or so about his friendship with them), Roethke, and the next generation, of Heaney, Longley and Mahon, Sailing to an Island isn’t a book I knew well until a couple of years ago when I acquired a copy.

Like most intriguing collections, it has a thematic, geographic unity: set in, and about the peoples of, a particular corner of Connemara, in the West of Ireland – both the ‘poor’ Catholic folk living off the fruits of the sea and the (once) ‘rich’ Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy to which Murphy and his family belonged, so it’s at once both general and personal. It’s book-ended by poems which show the sometimes destructive power of the sea and is threaded with the (then) recent, post-Irish Independence history of that locality.

It’s comprised of several beautifully-controlled long, narrative poems, and some much shorter, but (mostly) equally effective ones which use a pleasing variety of forms. For example, Murphy, like Plath, especially excelled at terza rima.

Murphy tells ‘big’, dramatic, fast-paced – but not too fast-paced – stories in these longer poems, using vigorous, sonorous language, including muscular verbs, and isn’t afraid to rope-in technical terms to do with boats and fishing; in fact he seems to revel in using them but without being showy about it.

The real heart of the book lies in ‘The Cleggan Disaster’, which closes the first of three sections of the book. It’s prefigured by the long-ish title-poem, by reference to ‘the boat that belched its crew/ Dead on the shingle in the Cleggan disaster’, and another long-ish nautical poem, ‘The Last Galway Hooker’. It acts as a counterpoint of sorts to ‘Sailing to an Island’, which relates a disaster averted. (Incidentally, it may be just coincidence, but the tragic events which inspired the poem – spoiler alert: there are drownings and lots of them! – took place in 1927, the year of Murphy’s birth.) Murphy’s re-creation of what happened is vivid, almost epic, from the outset: ‘The hulls hissed and rolled on the sea’s black earth/ In the shadow of stacks close to the island.’ Obviously with a title that tells the reader that all will not end well, the beauty lies in the pacing and power of the story-telling, but at no time does the narrative feel like prose. I think that’s partly because Murphy varies the stanza lengths, and the sentence lengths, so as to let the story dictate the form, and partly because he’s evidently very good at the technical craft of writing poetry. Take this stanza, roughly a third of the way through the poem, whose language is simultaneously descriptive of the events but within a high, though not too high, register, totally apposite to the story:

The men began to pray. The stack-funnelled hail
Crackled in volleys, with blasts on the bows
Where Concannon stood to fend with his body
The slash of seas. Then sickness surged,
And against their will they were gripped with terror.
He told them to bail. When they lost the bailer
They bailed with their boots. Then they cast overboard
Their costly nets and a thousand mackerel.

It’s a gripping, electric, tour de force of a poem. And to the brilliance of the story-telling, Murphy adds a five-stanza shorter-lined epilogue, set ‘years later’, which acts as a coda to the poem’s symphony. It’s good enough to stand as a lovely poem in its own right, and indeed Plath chose it as the winner of a competition she judged in 1962.

Another poem which stands out is ‘The Woman of the House’, a brilliant, affectionate ‘portrait’, in 26 finely turned quatrains, of Murphy’s grandmother; reminiscent of the poems in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in which isolated individuals eke out lives which, despite formerly grand family backgrounds, have long ago become pitiable, futile existences. There is rich detail in the poem, especially concerning the features of the house which are stuck in a time long past (‘Hers were the fruits of a family tree:/ A china clock, the Church’s calendar/ Gardeners polite, governesses plenty,/ And incomes waiting to be married for.’) and regarding his grandmother’s decline into dementia, somehow mirroring the decline of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy itself.

I’d also highlight ‘Epitaph on a Fir-tree’, which is not so much an epitaph on the tree, but on the long-gone days of the Ascendancy and all its wealth, society weddings etc. It works as a companion piece to both the poems which precede it (‘The Woman of the House’ and ‘Auction’). The conceit of the tree as a witness to all that has gone on and changed is a clever one.

The poems stand in contrast to the image I have of Murphy, from a friend-of-a-friend who knew him, that the shock of seeing him wearing a purple velvet suit was exacerbated by his considerable height.

Richard Murphy, Sailing to an Island, Faber, 1963.

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