Unabashed juvenile melodrama invigorates gay writer Miguel Murphy’s poems. This might seem pejorative, but I think it’s rare to find a poet who trickily embraces borderline pretentiousness in order to create work that’s direct in its longing for those pre-adulthood years. In the poetry book Now You’re the Enemy, Hall sporadically abandons his hyperbolic comic conceits in favor of a far less provocative description of a dysfunctional relationship between mother and son.
Murphy doesn't fall into that trap.
Here in one of his more recent poems, "Estrella Avenue" published in the fantastic on-line mag diode, Murphy isn’t talking about familial relationships, but that of lovers, an older and a substantially younger one. Murphy smartly refuses to rely on journalist understatement - a trait Hall will hopefully relinquish. With swift and deliberate over determination, Murphy inflates lyric moments with such force that even the clichés take on a wacky spin. Just look at the opening:
You open small windows for love
when you care
and someone else means more to you than
is a dream still, and we are there together.
The wet hustle of starlight
and the dogs run stray—
There is color, and it’s the most
important thing. It is.
How can you now want to read a poem that dares to begin with such adolescent banality? The narrator is undeniably young. Even as he offers the sentimentality there’s an irresistible tentativeness; Murphy's choice to put the phrase “when you care” on one line in and of itself gestures to a teenager’s idea of romantic uplift, but then the unclean line break after the “than” comes across as a deliberate stumble. The narrator is trying to articulate love the only way he knows how (ie. Hallmark card), but his own self-consciousness interrupts his train of thought, and he clears his throat and gives it another try.
That the word “Mexico” begins immediately is telling. No line break for a complete rest. Instead there's a need to rattle on, his best hope towards stumbling to an adult expression of love.
This poem is emblematic of the best of Murphy’s work. It’s a remarkable feat: to have a young narrator wax nostalgic for The Now, not the past. That’s youth: mourning for what you still have in the present. Being an adult is longing for what has truly been taken away.
You see that the narrator’s overdetermination to be the ultimate lover makes him an oddball romantic, so sexily tender, something lacking too often from poems and in life. The narrator is trying hard to be the man he wants to become. His repetitive assertion of color mattering (“It is”) exemplifies the narrator’s desirous ascent into manhood. He’s more than describing his feelings; with the assertion, he’s declaring that his truth should be ours.
Again the “you,” that beloved is obviously older than the narrator. He is the one “writing the grants and scheduling the hours.” How does this cause our juvenile narrator to react? He throws a charming tantrum:
What a dismal, soulless America
dressed in partitions, so I’m dramatic as chains
like the sea
and when the lyric stops,
its manic, dark murmuring your own
we’re not in our house in the future in Guanajuato,
for the moment we are alone
kissing the black mouth of a telephone,
each of us considering our own light-year.
Other than the killer closing line, what I like most about this excerpt is the velocity of the narrator’s mind. He begins with awkward politicized histrionics (“soulless America/dressed in partitions”), then an unapologetic yet knowledgeable awareness of his behavior (“dramatic as chains”) and then reverts to the juvenile: thinking an extended phone call, and the romanticized isolation it engenders may be a panacea.
Until the time they are bound to be once and for all together. And live happily ever after.
The beloved "you" and the readers of the poem know better. Thankfully, the narrator does not; his delusions are what intrigue us and where Murphy's best poetry surfaces.
On more than one occasion the narrator sounds like he’s regurgitating the idea of illusion versus reality in his high school lit class. Look how he compares “reality” to “the practiced one,” the phony:
Because it takes a wall of
star-blue to stupefy a man to his very loneliest
self, to stand before
the real life, and not the practiced one
a gate of green pipe cactus in the yard and wildflowers lacing
the shadows, in which we bandage the wounds with work
and get drunk
Through all these shifts, Murphy accomplishes something exciting. He fuses the voice of a silly young romantic man with that of his own: an accomplished poet who is creating his own idiosyncratic turns-of phrase: “wall of/star-blue to stupefy a man...” This persona is irresistible. Against your better judgment, he convinces you of romantic impossibilities.
Of course, Murphy and his persona are lyricists.
They're all about the moment even though you know in a couple of years, or more often a couple of weeks, after he’s forced to deal with “his very loneliest/self”, he’ll be back. He still wants to learn and fuck. When he grows up and becomes sober, he’ll be a lot less fun. He’ll be recovering but will have all the same dumb baggage. You'll long for the youth drunk on love and language.
Better To Travel reissue available for purchase
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