Jim Murphy


The byzantine cage snaps shut,
poet keys the box, calls the floors—
a flesh-and-metal case ascending.

Some passenger’s hand strokes
his shoulder—two soft fingers
ply the collar, spidering his neck,

cradling closer.  Can feel her
breasts heavy against his back,
traced along the gold brocade.

Buttons eased open on his uniform,
a cough from one of the gray wool
Dayton drummers behind the pair,

black men half-asleep themselves.
No exchange of words.  His protest
is a sudden stop.  The car jolts dead.

Needling attack and decay of a faint
Brahms being played on another level.
He looks.  No crowd, no car, no woman,

just receding rows of caneback chairs
set in shallow water, all empty—
out and down until they disappear.


Overhead glint of electric feeds,
the car jerks across a siding, straight
into the drumfire center of the riot.
Sunburned and shirtless figures,
distribution of bricks and bottles,
feel of a stone in every fist
heaved up, glanced against the body,
a strip of green paint gone,
another, another, another
skips the car, dents the roof,
clatter of hooves coming fast
from the narrow approaches,
sealing off the intersection,
and the sidearms now appear
just beneath the riders’ armpits
hands still on the reins, a moment’s
silence where

the music teacher
tightens his coat
pulls his hat brim
coughs just once

              Oh Lord

And someone starts the shouting,
a woman’s voice, indistinct except
the name that hammers every
accusation home.  The name itself
a cracking egg, a perforated drum,
The World Turned Upside Down
again, the reptile’s tail that curves
o-ho this a-way, o-ho that a-way
back on itself, that lashes
forward without warning, shaped
in human press of human faces,
teeth and tongues, eye whites and gums,
a half-naked advance that could be
anyone, now close enough to touch.



an incandescent evening sky—
lapped waves of night that curl
down to the corner of a garden

unhinged instinctual flights
from gnat pits—riverbottoms
into depths of royal blue

nightmare of a deadly flaw
in pressure—blast-frozen red
splinters of the texas deck

last mortuary flowers—a child’s
only photograph the stale air
sickness drops to nightly prayers

stuffed cash-boxes coming open
cognac and cigars some heavy taxes
on the brain—dull conversations

genteel madness of the age—
decanting apish wit and wisdom
clean linens and burst veins

stars that burn down in the fist—
bullets in the holly bush—poison
waxy presence of red berries

reeled back from utter darkness—
figures as much written as erased
and penned into a children’s story

unerring American local sense
the world a sucking hog mire—still
lived as if it could be different

poems copyright 2001 by Jim Murphy

Jim Murphy teaches at the University of Montevallo, just south of Birmingham, Alabama. His chapbook, The Memphis Sun, received the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Award, and is published by Kent State University Press. His poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, The Southern Review, Triquarterly, and other journals.