Murphy's Law: On the Road Again
by David M. Story

“In Jim Murphy’s America, a blessed music is anywhere. It is everywhere. It bears us home.”
-- Jake Adam York

Cover of Heaven Overland



It seems cliché to play off of the phrase "If it can go wrong, it will go wrong," but realistically speaking, it’s undeniable that for travelin’ man and poet Jim Murphy, when it comes to writing poetry, if it can go right, it does. Murphy has hit the mark again with his latest collection of poems, Heaven Overland, an ode to the communal and historical geography of our land, a route-inspired topography that has mapped his growth as an Alabama poet.

Heaven Overland (Kennesaw State University Press) has proved for Murphy to be a journey, not from east to west, but from the inner self to the outer realty. For the past half-century, America's poetry has been largely based on ego and personhood, to the extent that almost every poem seems to be confessional, or at the very least autobiographical. By contrast, in this new collection Murphy explores a new and different poetry of community and environment, a geographically "civic" poetry of conscientiousness.

James Howard Kunstler wrote in The Geography of Nowhere that "a suburbanite could stand in on her law for three hours on a weekday afternoon and never have the chance for conversation." Not so in Heaven Overland. Murphy stands on the corner of Main Street and takes us everywhere, complete with inner dialogue and outward commentary.

WLM: The sections on Heaven Overland are titled by "Route" numbers. Tell our readers about a memorable cross-country trip.

JM: The highway has always been a source of inspiration for me, poetic and otherwise. One of the most memorable trips I've taken was when I moved to Cincinnati from Lawrence, Kansas. A buddy of mine drove my car, and I drove a little U-haul from Kansas to Ohio in a day, and then promptly drove down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana before shooting over to Austin, Texas. Then I drove up Highway 61 and cut across the Natchez Trace through Mississippi, then up to my folks' house in Illinois. After a few days I drove back to Cincinnati. It all seemed so easy! I was only twenty-three at the time, so I guess it was. I think even a single leg of that trip would be tough now! It's funny, because that rough circle pretty much covers the territory, which I'm most interested in, in my poems, which is that North-South axis along the big rivers.

WLM: Is "The Family Cadillac for Sale" autobiographical -- did your parents drive a caddy on a road trip?

JM: My folks drove a Pontiac, an AMC Hornet, and then a Plymouth K-car. I don't think I've ever even sat in a Cadillac! You can't really get at America through the metaphor of a K-car. Well, maybe you can. It's a different world now, isn't it?

WLM: How did a poem like "Spectacles of 1906" about distinguished educator W.E.B. DuBois, end up in a spatially-oriented collection of poetry?

JM: I've always thought of DuBois as a signal influence, across both space and time. In The Souls of Black Folk he essentially outlines the ideas that will infuse soul music fifty years later. He includes bars of spirituals as partial epigraphs for each chapter, perfect for the new African American vision of culture he's describing. He's got a comprehensive view of sociology and economics as well, and so you can see in that book so much of what's to come. I think he's a prophet, really. And so in a way, like Whitman or Dickinson, a forecaster, a proto-modern, what have you. That particular poem is about the horrific irony of a time when he lived in Atlanta as the city went through a race riot. Here was DuBois, coming up with a truly generous and broad vision of culture, uniting all these cultural strains that had been ignored or dismissed to that point, propelling a positive image into the future, and he walks out of his front door into racial violence, lynchings, the worst human beings can do to each other.  

WLM: "Twentieth-Century Limited" and "A Monday Night Date" are so sparse compared to some of your lengthier, more narrative poems. Which form are you more comfortable with?

JM: I begin equally uncomfortably with any of them! But I can say that some subjects seem to ask for deeper or longer treatments. The two you mention here are a goodbye postcard to the last century and a little lyric that caps on an Earl "Father" Hines song, so it seemed right to me to keep it short in each case. If I'm lucky, I've chosen a space that fits the program and feel of the poem. You never know how that's going to work out, but you can recognize the key moments where you need to close something off or open it up accordingly.

WLM:  "Stag Hollywood" appeals to film buffs -- is that an interest of yours and would it be too much of a stretch to glimpse a little bit of Day of the Locust in this poem?

JM: I appreciate well-made movies as much as anyone. That particular one is about a silent movie actor named John Gilbert, who suddenly finds himself out of work in the talkie era because his voice is so tinny. It's really a kind of tragic thing. As far as Day of the Locust goes, there is a warping of personality involved, a kind of seedy fantasy that Hollywood can infamously hand out and take away, so there is a connection in a sense, though it's not direct. The whole city seems to be a dark theme park.

WLM: As for "Sarah Vaughn's Voice," tell the readers what your favorite Sarah Vaughn song is and then compare this poem to "Twilight Call Louis Armstrong Park."

JM: "I Cried for You" has that great lyric "Every road has a turning. / That's one thing I'm learning." I love that one. That's probably my favorite of all. That poem is very personal, about a couple traveling together and going through changes together and finding their way back to each other despite -- or because -- of it all. The other one is a meditation on the beginnings of jazz in Congo Square in New Orleans. It used to be that guidebooks warned you to never, ever go to Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans because of the high street crime in the area. That's where Congo Square is, the place where the slaves of New Orleans could play their African rhythms on Sundays, where true African American music originated, if you can say it originated anywhere -- jazz, blues, rock and roll -- right there.

WLM: "Night Visitation" is a compelling poem -- is it autobiographical? What was its genesis?

JM: We all serve our students well, and we all do them wrong, from time to time. When you half-listen to questions because you're thinking about what the dean wants you to do that day; when you lose a page of someone's short story; when you do the automatic thing instead of the genuine thing -- that's doing them wrong. And it's unavoidable. It's nothing conscious or malicious, either. Fortunately, if we're good teachers, it's rare. That metaphor came to me suddenly and powerfully. "Thumbing through my ... suits" seemed right on target for students who learn your tricks, figure you out, the weaknesses and the strengths. And most often these are the ones most like you -- almost mirror images of yourself.

WLM: Route 66 is for many boomers an all-time favorite television show. Have you seen it?

JM: I've never seen it! I love the Bobby Troup song. There's a version of it on the Rolling Stones' December's Children album, a weird live version where all you can hear is bass and screaming. It's hilarious the way Mick Jagger tosses off all these American place names -- "Flagstaff, Arizona, don't forget Winona" -- with probably no idea where in the world these places are!

WLM:  Tell the readers about the last poem in the collection, "Dual Jazz Funeral."

JM: It's a really important poem for me because New Orleans has a funereal cast all the time. There's always the presence of so many ghosts to contend with, even on a good day. They exist in the architecture, in the trees, even in the weather. I think this awful, slow, oscillating rhythm between life and death and life is a reality for many people there, psychologically, economically, spiritually. This is the most American city, and principally because it's this terrific mixture of things people don't think of as American. We've always been bad at respecting ourselves, our history, where we come from. The response to Hurricane Katrina is a national case-in-point. That poem is a somber note for closure, and nothing about it invokes Katrina or politics specifically, but rather, it comes out of a place like Emily Dickinson described: "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." It's a lyrical march through those emotions. The duality is the same as the second line march, too. You walk a slow, reflecting path out to the gravesite, and there's a raucous celebration of life on the way back home. People tend to focus on one or the other when it comes to this, but you need both to make sense of the ritual. Maybe that's the way forward, and not just for New Orleans.

Jim Murphy at Sun Records

Journalist, historian, and academic Henry B. Adams once said “American society is a sort of flat, fresh-water pond which absorbs silently, without reaction, anything which is thrown into it.” This saying might well serve as metaphor for the evolution of Murphy’s work into what is a sense of community and belonging and even more broadly a national sense of interconnectedness and civic-mindedness.

For Murphy, the seeming tranquility beneath academia has, without reacting, absorbed both his life’s cross-country travels and interior contemplations, resulting in a spatial exercise that transcends traditional poetry and becomes a hypsometry underlining one man’s emotional journey down Route 66.

University of Montevallo professor Jim Murphy serves on the Montevallo Literary Festival committee and contributes poetry to Red Mountain Review. His first book, The Memphis Sun, was published by Wick Poetry Chapbook Series.

Copyright © Jan 2011 We Like Media.
You may email David M. Story.