• Set the Ploughshare Deep
        by Timothy Murphy
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CRITICAL ISSUE winter 2002
Set the Ploughshare Deep
 by Timothy Murphy
Reviewed by Len Krisak 



            You can almost hear the knives against the whirring grindstones.  Timothy Murphy has committed the one unpardonable sin in what passes for American literary culture:  he has written great poetry born of a people and a land practically no one on the left or right coasts thinks worthy of such attention—and he’s done it—gasp!—in meter and rhyme.  I don’t know what the brave folks at Ohio University Press were thinking when they decided to publish this memoir in poems and prose and woodcuts, but they needn’t sit up by the phone waiting for thanks from APR.  
            What hath Ohio wrought?  First, a touching prose account of North Dakota and Minnesota farming and hunting by the poet’s father, Vincent Murphy.  Although wholly compelling in their own right, these pages deepen our appreciation of the work of the son, and also help to ground seven beautiful woodcuts (in color) by Charles Beck (“Snow Goose” and “Ghost Farm” are particularly vivid and evocative, with a haunting, abstract quality).
            Timothy Murphy’s prose—now dry and witty, now spare and forceful—allows his poems breathing space and tells us always just enough of what we both need and want to know about the prairie and the hail, the bankers and the inchworms, the hunting dogs and the floods.  Murphy summons up Boethius and Dante with this prose accompaniment, lending the verse the broader dimension of a  social context.  The people who appear in the poems—flinty and funny and wholly themselves—lose none of their “color” or distinctive voices, and it is a brilliant decision to tell us more stories about them—individuals who have already captured our attention in verse.  So far from turning these people into “characters,” the prose of Set the Ploughshare Deep simply makes them richer and more real.  We are in pastoral, all right, but Frost is the tutelary spirit.
            The poet Alan Sullivan has contributed his usual terrific editorial due diligence to this project and has also written a perfect welcoming Foreword.
            So what could possibly account for the bloodlust this book is sure to elicit in certain quarters?  The sad truth is, in a word, genius.  We’ve come to a moment in our national literary consciousness when the culture of resentment (to use Bloom’s phrase) has taken hold so tenaciously that almost any sign of genuine talent, especially in poetry, is immediately subject to envy, suspicion, and even downright hatred, usually with a good dose of “postmodernist” political cant thrown in.  Listen to these howlers and banshees and you’d almost think it was a perilous moment for talent—which these folk usually misdescribe as “elitism.”
            Well, Timothy Murphy’s poetry is guilty as charged.  Whatever it is we seek in great verse, Set the Ploughshare Deep has it in abundance.
            There is the subtlety of structure and imagery in “The Godless Sky,” where from an Olympian height, a perspective straight out of Genesis (“Airborne, I view the flood”) affords the speaker the chance to acknowledge desolation—a great recurring theme of the book.  But an uncle “bears the cross,” and the poem ends with its ersatz god “under the godless sky.”  Religious imagery is not that common in these poems, by the way—a pagan/classical vision of the world seems  more in accord with Murphy’s spirit—but in “The Expulsion,” a brilliant and frighteningly compressed pair of quatrains, the heat and drought that have done for the corn call up an angel as powerful as any visionary biblical figure in Blake:

            over that land
            an angel stands
            with an iron brand
            singeing his hands.

            Can Murphy handle the transformation of “simple” natural imagery into almost wistful allegory?  Well, “The Sage Hen,” complete with its punning title, offers a loving tribute to Murphy’s mother:

            Now she is distressed,
            always dreading the worst
            for the flighty brood she nursed
            because we do not nest.

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