Alan Murray’s Perhaps turns out to be a very substantial slim volume

 

Perhapsperhaps alan murray
by Alan Murray,
Acumen Publications 2013.
ISBN 978-1-873161-39-5
32 pp  £3.50

 

Alan Murray has spent much of his adult life as a student and a teacher of philosophy so one should not be surprised that the poems in his debut pamphlet collection Perhaps all feature a logical train of thought and a careful development of ideas.  This is not to say they are pedantic or didactic. On the contrary they are speculative, imaginative and often amusing: but the point is that they follow an idea or an image through to a conclusion (which may well be more difficult than the not-uncommon approach of seeking a cumulative effect simply by piling up impressions).

The poems are often serious but they do not take themselves too seriously.  The very first one, ‘Blank Verse’, teases the reader (and seems to undermine itself) with the thought that she is now on her own with the poems and there is no going back.  Teasing continues in the second piece which explores the paradox of self-deception, inviting us to consider our own capacity for a mental feat, a sleight of mind which allows us both to know something and also to tell ourselves it isn’t true.  This is an interior debate

that neither side has any hope of winning,
when being both deceiver and deceived,
clearly I’m as sinned against as sinning.

Implicit in self-deception are ideas of ‘doubleness’ and a ‘shadow self’; and these themes occur quite frequently and intriguingly in other poems.  In ‘Departures’ the poet reflects Until I find some way / to leave my self behind, / travelling will always be / a disappointment; and in the title poem he encounters a man who looks so much like me and wonders whether, by talking to him, he could become again, in time, my former self.  In ‘Lately’ – about the aftermath of a relationship – one partner has the sense of being  something … experiencing its own absence.  By contrast, in the poem ‘The Doppler effect’ (where even the title suggests the notion of Doppelganger – although Doppler is merely the name of the scientist who first documented the phenomenon) it is a failure to recognize difference between approaching and receding sounds that becomes a central metaphor for insensitivity to signs of the end of an affair.

Alongside these unsettling doubleness effects, other slightly sinister and ominous events can also occur; but the pace of the poems is such that they tend to happen quietly and gently.  In ‘Safe House’ a breeze is almost like a whisper that might be looking for something; and in ‘Down House’ a brief lightening of a dark sky is as if the lid of the world / had been lifted then quietly closed.  Even a hoped-for quiet lunch ends in a surprising revelation (‘…and you know it’).  The chief – indeed perhaps the only – departure from the book’s measured and understated tone is in the mildly outrageous ‘More heat Than Light’ with its suggested (and suggestive) new use for a mobile phone.

In terms of their poetic craft, the poems seem as carefully put-together as the ideas and observations they contain.  There is perhaps on over-reliance on iambic pentameter – I estimate that about half the poems drop into this metre either wholly or partly.  It is however always well done and easy on the ear.  There is skilful use of rhyme in ‘On Self-Deception’.  And in the single prose-poem (possibly a found poem?) ‘What to Do When Someone Dies’ the form is very well suited to its theme.  Murray also offers us quite a few memorable lines, from the wry comedic opening

It is the mark of a true pessimist
that he will even take a gloomy view
of other pessimists.

to the evocative image of a dead pigeon with one white wing fanned  like a hand of cards.  (Both quotations come from a witty sequence entitled ‘Harry’.)  Other tellingly memorable word pictures include an elderly woman’s slow iambic shuffle; a stream transformed by a summer shower into a vast Venn diagram of expanding empty sets; and the grooves around a stranger’s mouth making it seem as if his every word were in parenthesis.

I would not normally expect to write at this length about a chapbook.  But I found so much to enjoy and appreciate in Perhaps that I hope Alan Murray’s first full collection will be forthcoming before too long.

Michael Bartholomew-Biggs