Friday, October 04, 2019

Among the Enigmas Poems by Robert Murphy

Among the Enigmas
Poems by Robert Murphy
Artwork by Donald Golder
Dos Madres Press
ISBN: 978-1-948017-52-7
61 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Without an inductive or deductive leg to stand on, Robert Murphy, in his new collection of poetry, Among the Enigmas, nails the existential perplexities that niggle our attempts to apprehend human consciousness and metaphysical selfhood. Quite an accomplishment! He achieves his ends with humor, wordplay, and puckish subversions, marbled throughout with his singular warmth and kindliness.

Additionally, most of Murphy’s poems are paired up with intriguing artwork by Donald Golder. Golder’s ink drawings and watercolor images both complement the knotty verse puzzlements and tease away any trite conclusions.

Murphy opens his collection with a nod to poet William Bronk in a lovely piece entitled The Lay Of The Land—Hudson Falls New York, Just This Side Of Elysium. He recalls sending his fellow poet a myth laden daffodil, properly named poeticus narcissus. The flower was spoken of by Virgil and is associated with Persephone (she had been gathering them before her abduction into the Underworld) and Narcissus (the goddess Nemesis turned him into the flower). Bronk, who lived Hudson Falls New York, died there in 1999. Here is the heart of Murphy’s poem,

I sent Bill the poet’s flower, poeticus narcissus, variety
old pheasant eye. Those ones that are fragrant,
almost impossibly so, an echo of the Mediterranean world
from which they come, pure white, with six (as it is described
in the catalogs) perianth segments on a single stem,
petals slightly recurved; with a small, red rimmed
ruffled yellow cup into which you might pour yourself
to lie within reflected—the last of its kind to bloom,
                                                      late spring.

Turning the Cartesian philosophical proposition Cogito, ergo sum on its head, Jean Paul Sartre famously declared I am, therefore I think. Yet Sartre did not believe that the “I” even exists. In fact he declared it a fiction. Murphy seems to buy into Sartre with one exception: he concocts his “I” as a dynamic, but empty, container of sorts, enabling what was already there. Two of the poet’s early pieces make this clear. In The Real Problem Is, Murphy characterizes internal consciousness as an alien invader. The poet explains,

…we live,
Colonized, inhabited by
Thoughts as much unlived as we
Whose words survive us—
Life having fled with the naming of things

Murphy effects much the same proposition from a different angle in his poem The Times. In the process he reroutes Heraclitus’ famous river into a circular flow. Murphy illuminates the action,

… every day is
Brought back to life in us to live

Where what was, otherwise,
Would never think to do, does,

And remembered so
Time and Again
Has its way with us.

The poet warns his readers against the use of rational tools in delving into life’s appearances.  Murphy winks while comically employing cliché after cliché in making his case. He plays the Holy Fool with sacerdotal expertise. Speaking of these same appearances he says,

Hidden in plain sight as they always are
Right under our noses…
(if not the coffee, try the roses)
And just out of earshot too, 
     -- “Listen up!” –
Fact is, if facts mattered,
And they don’t.
Not in any real world:
Priest, Rabbi, Mullah,
Good Time Evangelical Rock and Roller.
Dear Mother of God, it’s true.
And you’re dead right.
When not for the first time
You find a serpent
In your shoe…

Jumping Jehoshaphat!”

My friend, have faith.

In Murphy’s poem entitled At the Border he ruminates on the very meaning of “I.” Observing the phenomenon of consciousness at work is not enough. His name is attached and that means something. Or does it? The poet considers his connundrum,

Trying to convince the authorities
We are who we say we are:

Those who know us best.
Ourselves being the ones we are
Most desperate to convince.

For a lot of us being human means making the best of things. Shadows menace us on the outskirts of our world. Yet, somehow, we must pass the time, we must continue as our nature demands. Something on life’s extremity, just out of sight awaits us with answers. We are pretty sure of it. Murphy, in his piece Shelter in Place, spells it out this way,

…still we are waiting
To be told what it is at the edge of our lives
That shadows us—
What it is that keeps us so at bay.

“Shelter in place!” “Shelter in place!”
Neither knowing how it came to be,
Nor how it must surely end.

We do what we can to pass the time of day.
Some tell stories, others joke,
The more guarded listen and look.
Of the unaccountable, no one will say.

Perhaps the most compelling poems in Murphy’s collection he saves for last. His Imp sequence of nine poems wrestles with the duality concept of mind and body, conjuring up the absurd construction of self. In Imp, the first piece in the series, Murphy opens by setting the conversational tone of gleeful wordplay,

Lord knows, for who should know better than I,
bottled up as you and I have been, the two of us, together.
What is it now, near to a lifetime? Ah, the soul,

the soul! How in the end we worry about its disposition,
as if the body, too, wasn’t just another name
for what you would, if you could, sell

separately on the cheap, down river. Admit it, though,
if wishes were fishes,… didn’t I reel you in a boat load?
Yeah, and beware of what you wish for. I hear you.

Yes, Murphy’s readers hear him too—both his oracular wit and his musical inquiry. And, in my experience, once one hearkens to Murphy’s especial brand of poetry, one wants, nay, one needs more. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Book Club Play By Karen Zacarias


The Book Club Play
By Karen Zacarias
Through October 13

Review by Lawrence Kessenich

If you like your humor broad and a little silly, this production of The Book Club Play at Boston Playwrights Theatre will please you. I doubt you’ll be in danger of falling out of your seat with laughter, but you’ll get some good chuckles.

The setting is a middle class living room (beautifully designed by Jeffrey Petersen) where the eponymous book group of 30-somethings has been meeting for five years. The group includes newspaper columnist Ana, who claims to have founded the group; her college friend (and brief beau at the time) Will, a history museum curator who continually reminds Ana that the book group was his idea; Ana’s husband and Will’s former college roommate Rob, a reluctant member of the group who rarely reads the books (he says he’s in it for the food), Ana’s somewhat forlorn single friend Jennifer; and the newest member of the group, Ana’s protégé at the newspaper, Lily.

Adding interest—and making everyone totally self-conscious—is the fact that everything that happens in the groups for a couple months is being filmed by an unmanned camera and the footage will be used by an internationally famous filmmaker for a documentary about book groups. Many times in the play, members of the group address the camera directly, usually asking the filmmaker to cut the part that has just been recorded.

This is a very literary book club—when the play opens, they’re discussing Moby Dick—but a somewhat clumsy exchange with Lily, who is black, reveals that the group has only read white authors. They ask Lily to pick something intense and out of their wheelhouse, clearly hoping it will be a classic author of color, but Lily picks the popular novel Twilight, written by a white woman. Ana and Will are aghast, but the others are willing to give it a try, so they decide to read the book.

Much of the humor for the middle part of the play grows out of the discrepancy between Ana and Will’s classical tastes and everyone else’s appreciation of Twilight and then The Da Vinci Code, which is introduced by a man Jennifer springs on the group. The man, Alex, is a professor of comparative literature, but, having recently been dumped by his girlfriend because she read Twilight, he has come to realize that he knows nothing about popular literature and ought to be learning about it.

There is a good deal of back and forth between the opposing groups about the value of popular literature, and though some of it is interesting, and even insightful, it isn’t terribly dramatic and goes on a bit too lolng. What provides some drama is Rob’s dissatisfaction with his marriage to Ana, Will’s coming to grips with his sexuality, and Ana’s dealing with her slipping control over the group. It would be spoiling things to describe what happens in these areas, but suffice it to say that there are a number of revelations that cause confusion and consternation in the group.

Interspersed with the book club scenes are brief monologues by a single actor, Brooks Reeves, who appears upstage, with the set dark behind him, as an amazing variety of characters, including: a female literary agent, who talks about how many books there are and how few get published and read; a male Secret Service agent, who talks about his own book group and how they enforce attendance; “Sam” from Walmart, who talks about how many books the company sells and how intra-Walmart book clubs keep its underpaid employees happy; and an elderly, retired librarian, about to skydive, who warns readers to live life for real, not just through books. While these interludes are sometimes fun, they really don’t relate to the rest of play in any direct way—except at the very end, when the Secret Service agent makes a brief appearance with the rest of the characters.

Besides Reeves, because of the variety of his characters, none of the actors really stands out. They are good performers, but I never really believed in them as real human beings, because the director, Shana Gozansky, has them play their roles on a kind of middle ground, neither realistically nor over-the-top (except for brief moments). If they’d been over-the-top most of the time, the farcical quality would have carried the humor better. But I think it would have been even more effective if they’d been asked to play their characters as naturally as possible, which would have set off the absurdity of what goes on among them. So, this reviewer was left feeling lukewarm about the play, caught on his own middle ground between liking and not liking the play. Depending on your tastes, you might go either way.