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Where the decades sped

Three poems from Beowulf translator Timothy Murphy

Mount Shuksan
Mount Shuksan

[Editor’s note: These poems were graciously submitted to The San Diego Reader by Mr. Murphy’s literary editor Jennifer Reeser.]

Five Decades

  • The boy composes poems in his tent,
  • always a little sad
  • and often pretty bad,
  • because he can’t yet mete out what he meant.
  • The young man makes his verses in his head,
  • post-adolescent rage,
  • nothing concise or sage,
  • vignettes from all the histories he’s read.
  • The farmer harvests verses in his fields,
  • checking the heading wheat,
  • the soybeans at his feet,
  • frightened by the power his banker wields.
  • The hunter writes his poems as he slogs
  • through shelter belts and sloughs,
  • his lab with drooling flews.
  • He’s really good at writing about dogs.
  • The aging man writes poems in his bed.
  • They come to him in dream
  • and often take as theme
  • bewilderment at where the decades sped.

Mount Shuksan

  • What is it about the West,
  • brother, that makes us so
  • eager for summit snow
  • which proves too tall a test
  • for those who crave the sky,
  • who stretch before we die?
  • We had the High Plains prairie
  • under our Vibram boots,
  • and there we sank our roots.
  • Both of us chose to marry,
  • you in your normal way,
  • but me? I sailed astray.
  • We have our peaks to vet
  • where I am roped to you,
  • magnificent, the view.
  • Indulge my cigarette,
  • slowing the way we go
  • up Shuksan in the snow.

The Parsonage

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife—Thomas Gray

  • Helping the faithful battle their despair,
  • he lives alone in his broad-shouldered house.
  • He vowed to God he’d never take a spouse,
  • and now three hundred wives are in his care.
  • Who to marry and bury them but he,
  • and none but Christ to keep him company?
  • His is the only intellect in town
  • to ferret errors from the Septuagint.
  • Hebrew, Latin, and Greek he learnt by dint
  • of midnight toil that won him no renown.
  • Keyboard and screen are his scriptorium,
  • ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
  • He heats canned soup. The housekeeper just died.
  • She never made her pilgrimage to Rome,
  • never returned to County Cork, her home.
  • But praise the Lord, she is her Savior’s bride.
  • He thinks “I now pronounce you God and wife.”
  • His is a busy, solitary life.
Timothy Murphy

Born in 1951, Timothy Murphy grew up in the Red River Valley of the North. He studied at Yale University under Robert Penn Warren, graduating (B.A.) as Scholar of the House in Poetry in 1972. Afterwards, he farmed and hunted in the Dakotas until his death from cancer in June 2018. His previous collections of poetry are The Deed of Gift, Story Line Press, 1998, Very Far North, Waywiser Press, 2002, Mortal Stakes | Faint Thunder, The Dakota Institute, 2011, Hunter’s Log, The Dakota Institute, 2011, and Devotions, North Dakota State University Press, 2017. His memoir in verse and prose, Set the Ploughshare Deep, was published by Ohio University Press in 2002. With his late partner, Alan Sullivan, he translated the Beowulf, which AB Longman published in 2004.

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Mount Shuksan
Mount Shuksan

[Editor’s note: These poems were graciously submitted to The San Diego Reader by Mr. Murphy’s literary editor Jennifer Reeser.]

Five Decades

  • The boy composes poems in his tent,
  • always a little sad
  • and often pretty bad,
  • because he can’t yet mete out what he meant.
  • The young man makes his verses in his head,
  • post-adolescent rage,
  • nothing concise or sage,
  • vignettes from all the histories he’s read.
  • The farmer harvests verses in his fields,
  • checking the heading wheat,
  • the soybeans at his feet,
  • frightened by the power his banker wields.
  • The hunter writes his poems as he slogs
  • through shelter belts and sloughs,
  • his lab with drooling flews.
  • He’s really good at writing about dogs.
  • The aging man writes poems in his bed.
  • They come to him in dream
  • and often take as theme
  • bewilderment at where the decades sped.

Mount Shuksan

  • What is it about the West,
  • brother, that makes us so
  • eager for summit snow
  • which proves too tall a test
  • for those who crave the sky,
  • who stretch before we die?
  • We had the High Plains prairie
  • under our Vibram boots,
  • and there we sank our roots.
  • Both of us chose to marry,
  • you in your normal way,
  • but me? I sailed astray.
  • We have our peaks to vet
  • where I am roped to you,
  • magnificent, the view.
  • Indulge my cigarette,
  • slowing the way we go
  • up Shuksan in the snow.

The Parsonage

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife—Thomas Gray

  • Helping the faithful battle their despair,
  • he lives alone in his broad-shouldered house.
  • He vowed to God he’d never take a spouse,
  • and now three hundred wives are in his care.
  • Who to marry and bury them but he,
  • and none but Christ to keep him company?
  • His is the only intellect in town
  • to ferret errors from the Septuagint.
  • Hebrew, Latin, and Greek he learnt by dint
  • of midnight toil that won him no renown.
  • Keyboard and screen are his scriptorium,
  • ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
  • He heats canned soup. The housekeeper just died.
  • She never made her pilgrimage to Rome,
  • never returned to County Cork, her home.
  • But praise the Lord, she is her Savior’s bride.
  • He thinks “I now pronounce you God and wife.”
  • His is a busy, solitary life.
Timothy Murphy

Born in 1951, Timothy Murphy grew up in the Red River Valley of the North. He studied at Yale University under Robert Penn Warren, graduating (B.A.) as Scholar of the House in Poetry in 1972. Afterwards, he farmed and hunted in the Dakotas until his death from cancer in June 2018. His previous collections of poetry are The Deed of Gift, Story Line Press, 1998, Very Far North, Waywiser Press, 2002, Mortal Stakes | Faint Thunder, The Dakota Institute, 2011, Hunter’s Log, The Dakota Institute, 2011, and Devotions, North Dakota State University Press, 2017. His memoir in verse and prose, Set the Ploughshare Deep, was published by Ohio University Press in 2002. With his late partner, Alan Sullivan, he translated the Beowulf, which AB Longman published in 2004.

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