Review by Alvin Malpaya
by Rich Murphy
Gival Press, LLC
P.O. Box 3812
Arlington, VA 22203
2009, 85 pp., $15.00
More basic to its definition than even its sexual elements, the term voyeur—which, in its original French, simply denoted “one who sees”—carries the implication that a deviate of such leanings must himself be unseen. The voyeur should not be invisible, strictly speaking, even if true invisibility were somehow made possible. He should only be hidden, a distinction that leaves open the possibility of being discovered, which is essential to the voyeur’s gratification. None of this is to say that a typical voyeur ever wishes to be discovered, consciously or not. But if in his mind the reward isn’t somehow commensurate with the risk—and, in his distorted mind, it likely is—the risk, especially with what’s at stake, only intensifies the need for delicacy and calculation when attempting the enterprise. So in this way, a certain degree of control, or perhaps the illusion of control, is restored to a person who has, by every other measure, lost it completely.
Although the speaker found in Voyeur, Rich Murphy’s new book of poems, is not a typical voyeur, he resembles such a person just enough fundamentally to carry the title. He is, of course, elusive and inconspicuous—the pronoun I, for instance, is used only eleven times throughout the book’s sixty-seven poems. The careful construction of these mostly brief poems betrays, furthermore, a personality of extreme deliberateness and calculation, someone who controls language obsessively, as if in compensation for his inability to halt his often dark and desultory imagination: “My pornography,” he states in the title poem, “has arrested / enough marriages and mates to occupy / a thousand brothels . . . I pan from coast to coast / and bedrooms frame acts of the American / Dream in abandon.” And, in these lines as much as in any in the collection, you can almost make out the wry half-smile of someone enjoying the view of something no one should be seeing, the shadowy countenance of silenced excitement typical, I imagine, of a voyeur secretly reaping his reward.
But Murphy is, again, not typical in his voyeurism—his “pornography” replaces the dark fantasies of sex with the even darker realities of marriage—anymore than he is anarchical. His desire is not for institutions to crumble, to watch interiors rot behind glossy, somehow intact facades. Rather, he desires, like someone lied to too many times, the truth only, and his pleasure (if it can be called that) derives from the simple acts of discovering and then exposing the truth at last. He peeks through the windows of suburban America and details a hidden inner life with such bleakness and cynicism as can be found there:
Passionate to secure the potential
contents of the other’s pockets,
the sex partners executing business feats
with bubbles of imitation celebrity,
skin the knees of their spoiled children
who are groomed, each to share
a slow death with a spiteful stranger.
Far from a natural occurrence, marriage is described in one poem as “filling a four-legged animal costume.” This “chimera,” Murphy continues—and chimera here is used in both senses: a patchwork monster and, more generally, an unrealizable dream—“grows corn, kids, old, but leaves / the love chain fallow” (“The Complements of the House”). And where there is marriage without love, according to Benjamin Franklin, who, despite inventing the American Dream, fathered an illegitimate child, there is love without marriage. Murphy, in another poem, corroborates:
Emerging from a motel room
and aping a seed’s creative process,
the two practitioners of giving look
for no shelter in the lives of actors
or in heat. The cold-weathered
mattress sharers improvise each
morning’s love of events while
soap operas blare from houses
that have tripped the momentum
of children pretending to be horses
that charge romance’s empty plains.
The image of the American home, a usually sunny and picket-fenced idealism, is no longer the symbol of stability that it once was. It recurs in the collection as a symbol of restriction, antithetical to the openness, the freedom, the potential of these “empty plains” of romance, walling in what is insatiable if not chaotic, what is natural. “The house,” Murphy observes, “cannot but grow as cold as law degrees” (“Chemical Waste”). This image of the American home expands into that of the American suburb where, despite its transformation into a sordid quarter of “a thousand brothels,” control—or, again, the illusion of control—is somehow upheld and perversion, in both the sexual sense and as applied to the once pure American Dream, remains, like the voyeur who embodies it, largely unseen.
For all of his cynical musings, however, Murphy keeps the book from degenerating into a series of nay-sayings from someone whose bitterness might best be described as Larkinesque. Murphy’s puckish wordplay—and Robin Goodfellow, something of a voyeur himself, does come to mind—combines with quirky, sometimes outlandish imagery to give the collection a pervasive lightheartedness: “a bolt dreamed someone else’s / career plan and a bull used office furniture / to masturbate, olé” (“Love Story”). His bottomless cache of peculiar images keeps the narrow, or focused, subject matter from becoming tiresome and redundant. There is, moreover, a kind of faux objectivity consistent in the speaker’s tone, a journalistic deadpan, which makes an outrageous image seem even more outrageous in contrast:
The genesis of women’s words
scurries from under their chairs
across the floor through the crack
in the door. Any children that may
have fallen out of them hang
stuffed on their arms at stores,
Gucci, and teeth of the flies in
their pants were fashioned from
The poems may all be variations on a single theme, but the variations are so varied, the metaphors so unusual and, at times, rapidly fired in succession, that Voyeur is anything but predictable. And although Murphy may be the bearer of bad news—and unapologetically so: “Americans want their poetry to kiss / them on the mouth in public / and hang on them through their day / or forget it” (“Jingle on the Boardwalk”)—the news he bears is the honest-to-goodness truth, the truth as he, from his shadowy, undiscovered perch, sees it.
Alvin Malpaya is a freelance writer living in Richmond, Va., where he currently proofreads obituaries for the newspaper and scientific journal articles for the local university. He can be contacted at email@example.com.