Friday, April 09, 2010

Ryan Murphy, The Redcoats


A stain what hearts last
Saddles a river through snow
In falling sunlight.

Eating an orange
Reminds us tomorrow is another day.

The general fog of the metropolitan
Night sky is warm orange—
And thus not alone.

Ain’t no lighthouse
In that eye’s dilated star.

A savagery sw-
Hollows me up.
The redcoats are coming, the redcoats are coming. Everyone who knows history, and even those that might not, across North America knows what these words mean, spoken by Paul Revere. “I have cannibalized other moments to invent this one,” poet Ryan Murphy writes. Moving through American history, specifically the American Revolution, is Murphy’s new poetry collection, The Redcoats (San Francisco CA: Krupskaya, 2010). In poems that call out to themselves, Murphy explores the myths and stories of American history, stripping away the topsoil of how founding stories get told, just what happened, and what it all means. Murphy engages the question, even if those questions aren’t entirely certain, twisted, and turning in on what we think we might know. Just what is he asking, moving through the complexities of history? The poems want to know, clearly, as much as we do, and struggle their clear way across chasms, as in this piece from the sequence “Poems for the American Revolution”:
Ethan Allen & the Green Mountain Boys

Is it not enough to be loved
and repulsed?

Fenway—in your ashes
build a republic.

Sebastian, not a name
one should chose for oneself. Nameless
above Ticonderoga.

Lake Champlain
into the vowel of your open mouth
the water rushes in
This is American history redux, one that doesn’t take anything at face value, even questioning the values inherent in the stories retold so many times they’ve turned myth. This is American history post-lyric, exploring the facts and the language of story, and all their inherent, and even contradictory, meanings. Poor Benedict Arnold, for example, treated so poorly he turned, and blasphemed for his grief, or Thomas Paine, as Murphy writes in “One More for Thomas Paine”: “When we lost your head / I’m sorry.” Murphy writes America the colonizer, fighting back against their British forebears for injuries, real and imagined, while the same colonizers blissfully unaware (and as often, painfully deliberate) of how they were perpetrating their own savageries, despite the resulting myths. In subjects not found, they are merely lost, as in this fifth section of the poem “All Saints,” that reads:
Vigorous and charming
the baseball hats and commemorative
coins of the bicentennial.
The rotting hulls of the last tall ships.

Daisystar, pulled by the plague
of storms and foglights,
sinking fast, amongst calls for

more rope.

I am some sad potatoes.
Which is also awful.

It is Monday, the same Monday
or another Monday come around,
and the petulant lights of the churchtop
warn off small planes

like a children’s book lighthouse.
The tensions in Murphy’s poems exist through the lightest touch, in a collection of lyrics that create poems as a rock creates skips over a lake, working to create as many touches as possible and creating more than what water means and thus makes, before slipping (inevitably) under. Murphy manages quite a pack in some of these, and the strength comes from the lightness of touch, and the simple, subtle flick of a line, and a line-break. Just as easily, some pieces exist purely as small, lovely lyrics, touching and inferring what the most of it means.

A Valentine

We emblems

in this, the gray
lilac of February.

Hearts is ash.

Warm drone
from the amber

of medicine bottles.

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