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Oracular Redux: The Poetry of Robert Murphy and Ralph La Charity
Living in Cincinnati Ohio for thirty years, I’ve had my ups and downs adjusting to the cultures of the metropolitan area, quite distinct in form and emphasis from my hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Given the Motor City’s decimation by a number of global (e.g., NAFTA), national (e.g., the boom/bust cycle facilitated by Reaganomics deregulation), and local (e.g., white flight) factors, one might assume that I feel lucky to have left when I did. In truth, for a long time, I missed, and in some ways, still miss, the vibrant musical, visual and literary scenes in the city, particularly those congregated around my alma mater, Wayne State University, located near the northern tip of the Cass Corridor, a neighborhood just north of downtown. Originally populated by Appalachians and other ethnic (European) minorities, it is home to a mix of college students, urban “pioneers” and social and political radicals. More broadly, I also miss the large Middle Eastern population (primarily Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian) just west of the city borders in one of those old Henry Ford “company” towns.
When I came to Cincinnati in 1983, culture shock hit me hard. I felt as if I’d entered a time warp, hurled back some thirty years. I did get involved in the poetry reading scenes around bars and restaurants and I had a kindred spirit in my colleague, Norman Finkelstein, and locals like Terri Ford and Steve Lansky. Of course there were a number of poets around then (including one of my favorites, Michelle Boisseau), two of whom I discuss below, but meeting poets like Dana Ward, Don Bogen (University of Cincinnati), Andrew Miller (Northern Kentucky University), Cathy Hardy and others over the years certainly made a difference. And then when people like Bill and Lisa Howe, Keith Tuma, cris cheek, and Cathy Wagner began making the trek down to Cincinnati from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio I felt things were really changing in the literary culture of Southwest Ohio.
As Dana hinted at a few months in one of his posts, Cincinnati is now, I think, a major poetry center in the Midwest, thanks not only to the people mentioned above but also to the rise of performance poetry and spoken word (if you’re ever in the city, check out Roh’s near the University of Cincinnati, the Greenwich Tavern near downtown and The Comet, in Dana’s neighborhood in Northside). Still, there are many other scenes around, and one of them is connected to a local publishing venue, Dos Madres Press, run by the husband and wife team of Robert and Elizabeth Murphy (Beth is a painter and she is responsible for the beautifully designed books and chapbooks they’ve published). Full disclosure: the Murphys have published a chapbook and full collection of poetry by yours truly. However, it isn’t as a publisher that I want to talk about Robert (Bob to his friends). He is also a poet and has published two full collections of his own work. In many ways I think of Bob and his work the way I think of another local phenomenon—Ralph La Charity—and his work. Both are, from the point of view of contemporary literary trends, poets “out of time,” poets whose aesthetics belong to “older” eras. In one of those twists that define the spiraling trajectories of cultural history in the United States, both Bob and Ralph are old enough to be “relevant” once again for, despite different aesthetics (Bob is part Emersonian Transcendentalist, part Irish bard, while Ralph is a neo-Beat/ self-professed drum poet) they have in common a commitment to the oracular power of poetry. To that extent, they, along with many others, can be understood as forerunners of today’s performance poetry and spoken word performers.
Ralph was one of the first poets I ever heard at one of those bar/ restaurant reading series (York Street, Arnold’s, Upstairs at Grammer’s).
He was never a featured performer at the readings I attended. Instead, during the open mike that preceded or, more often, followed the headliners, he would rise from his seat and begin to orate from memory or improvise, his tremulous voice rising from a whisper to a half-spoken, half-chanted baritone and, occasionally, tenor. I never knew that Ralph was already “famous” outside Cincinnati circles until Charles Bernstein, visiting the University of Cincinnati last year, asked if he could meet La Charity. All those years I’d see him sitting quietly in the back of some room, waiting for the moment he could perform. I’ve heard some excellent local performance performers (like the 144 ensemble) but few have sustained such a powerful marriage of voice and form, drama and “content.”
Robert Murphy is one of those few. His most recent book, From Behind the Blind (Dos Madres Press, 2013), is a mixture of wry, ironic and devastatingly “sincere” poetry and prose “journal’ entries. He would certainly endorse Calvin Bedient’s defense of affective poetry though I’m not sure he’d go so far as targeting conceptualism in particular. For Bob is essentially a lover of lyric verse. From Behind the Blind, however, goes beyond the lyric to embrace the cosmos as such with dramatic, religious intensity. Like most, I imagine, poet-publishers, Bob hasn’t allowed his own preferred aesthetics to predetermine the books he chooses to publish. The press features a wide assortment of styles. As a poet, however, Bob has remained true to his lyrical roots. He is hardly a careerist. I used to think that he hadn’t tried to expand his audience because of his day job, a construction company that was the family business. The recession sank the company but Bob hasn’t exactly hit the road to do the usual and, let’s face it, necessary self-promotion. Like so many local poets in cities and towns across the country his reputation is regional. He rarely gives readings in and around Cincinnati, much less out of town. In every sense, then, he and Dana Ward (or me, or…), for example, are polar opposites. Yet what Dana shares with Bob, what Bob shares with Ralph, and what Ralph shares with many local poets here and elsewhere is an intense dedication to the present, the moment, a celebratory embrace of the “now” even if that “now” registers differently for each of them. Cincinnati poets all, they remind me of the shamanic origins and possibilities of all poetry. If you ever get the chance to hear or read Bob and Ralph, you’ll know what I’m talking about.