My Life as a Stalinist, Gerry Murphy

Southword Editions, 2018, €6 (within Republic of Ireland), €8 (shipped internationally)

Love and loss, but not as we know it

Gerry Murphy’s pamphlet is full of affection as he writes about the moments which shaped his youth. However, it’s his poetry which focuses upon the loss of his parents which is particularly impactful.

The first mention of the death of Murphy’s mother comes after 12 poems reflecting upon his childhood, spent running away from home, fighting, jumping in puddles, going to mass but being more preoccupied with ‘the always running / world-cup-final-in-my-head’ (‘New Shoes’). Then suddenly we stop at ‘Intimations of Mortality’ with an abrupt halt:

Not long after
the Tooth Fairy stopped
leaving shiny new pennies
under my pillow,
the Angel of Death,
gathering my mother
into his huge beating wings,
shook a dusty black feather
onto my bed.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear. Murphy’s pain is conveyed with such simplicity and evocative, graceful imagery. The two characters of the Tooth Fairy and the Angel of Death juxtaposed in this one poem further highlights his tragedy.

The poet goes on to imagine the ghost of his mother in ‘My Mother Alive and Well and Living in…’, as if longing were enough to make the painfully real fictitious. The next poem, ‘Nothing is Lost’ describes his mother stepping out ‘on South Main Street’ and standing before him, asking:

“Dead? Who told you I was dead?”

The ghosts of both Murphy’s parents remain ever present in his life, as in ‘My Dead Father Reading Over My Shoulder’. The final line, ‘Buy your own paper, father’ and a return to their familiar banter is comforting, full of affection. The poet imagines his parents living their own lives in ‘Holy Souls’ where his mother attends mass and the ghost of his father prepares breakfast for two, ‘While their real children / sleep fitfully on.’ That penultimate word is loaded with grief, revealing pain and torment.

Gerry Murphy’s portrayal of love and loss is delivered with a playful and delicate touch, masterful and deeply touching.

Vic Pickup