Shoestring Press, 2008   £5.00 -

For my money, the more unusual a writing residency, the better the outcome. Allotments is a good example. In 2005 Michael Murphy spent the warmest spring on record as Writer-in-Residence at the National Wildflower Centre on Merseyside. The core of this slim pamphlet uses wildflowers as a trigger for a series of interwoven two-part sonnets. They are not easy poems. There is no immediate ‘ah-ha’ moment on first reading. They describe and they philosophise, and they wrestle with large ideas. After numerous readings I’m still left wondering about the overall meaning of some of the poems. I would have liked a bit more help, a bit more space for the poem to explain itself in.


Yet the struggle to understand brings increasing rewards, and there is much pleasure to be had in the musicality and compression of Murphy’s writing. A good example is ‘Primrose’, a two-part sonnet that starts quietly:


Birdsong and Busoni in the deserted car park.

I switch off the engine, opening the door

birdsong alone.


By the second section it has become a meditation on our place in the world, invoking Gaia, the hypothesis that views the earth as a single organism:


This is Gaia shaking loose her curls, bunched

isobars above the Gulf. Contingent, anomalous.  


What a terrific image: Gaia shaking loose her curls. Murphy is good at unusual imagery. In ‘Backyard’ he has “the apocalypse/ of an empty coke can” and in the title poem ‘Allotments’ we find Learning to let go,/ the sun impales the year on cemented brakes of razor wire, necklaces of broken glass...


Other poems include ‘Essays’, written to celebrate the 30th birthday of Landlife, an environmental charity. It is made up of 30 two-line stanzas woven around wildflowers, each with the refrain “les fleurs mauvaises” terse stanzas packed with historical reference and information that intrigues. The only poem which disappointed was ‘Muse’, which would have left me completely blank but for Murphy’s explanation that it consists of  loose translations of directions by Proust to his domestic staff. ‘America’ was written to celebrate the marriage of Murphy’s sister, and has the most uplifting last six lines I’ve read in a long time:


How and when love brings us to

our senses, leaving us breathless,

inclined to prayer or broken speech,

like a salmon arching upstream, the

tongue unlocks its back and

leaps, entering another element.



Karin Koller