Fargo poet Murphy confronts mortality, struggles of faith

FARGO - Timothy Murphy recalls the exact moment his life changed. It was in 2004. His corporate, seven-state hog farm had gone under, leaving him and the other owners $50 million in debt. "My life insurance, at one point, looked like the most hon...

FARGO - Timothy Murphy recalls the exact moment his life changed.

It was in 2004. His corporate, seven-state hog farm had gone under, leaving him and the other owners $50 million in debt.

"My life insurance, at one point, looked like the most honorable course," he says.

So Murphy took out his shotgun, loaded it and was preparing to kill himself.

Then the phone rang.

It was the valedictorian from his Yale class of 1972, the same person who converted Murphy from Catholicism to atheism years ago. Since graduation, however, that friend had become a member of the Benedictine order.

His old friend told Murphy of a recent vision. In it, Murphy had just loaded the gun and was preparing to kill himself.

"When you're confronted with that, it's pretty hard to remain an atheist," Murphy says now.

The Fargo writer tapped into the three things he felt that day - the darkness that surrounded him, the light and his rediscovered faith that chased the darkness away, and the hunting gun that stood between the two - for two new collections of poems.

The poet reads from "Mortal Stakes / Faint Thunder" and "Hunter's Log" Thursday night at Studio 222 in Fargo.

Writing recovery

"My books are entirely autobiographical," Murphy says when asked how much readers should take literally from his poems.

"Mortal Stakes / Faint Thunder" may not be his complete life story, but the first collection details some of the issues that lead to that life-changing day in 2004.

Poems, particularly in the chapter "Prayer for Sobriety," address his drinking ("How shall I Drink" and "Prayer for the Bushmills") and suffering clerical sexual abuse and his homosexuality ("Case Notes").

"That's not a good combination for a Catholic," Murphy says, revealing his dry wit.

"I spent almost 40 years in a state of the blackest apostasy and heresy that one could ever imagine, in a state of mortal sin," Murphy claims.

But when his old friend called that fateful day, it wasn't just the Yale valedictorian who reached out and touched someone.

"The Holy Spirit just took complete control of my life," Murphy says, adding that he feels more creatively alive.

"I get to go back to all of my favorite themes, but this time from a different perspective, that of a nut job, born-again Christian," he says.

Taking aim

One of Murphy's favorite themes, hunting, crosses over easily into spirituality, he says, adding that he's always working on a poem or reciting one, even when he's walking the fields looking for birds.

Where "Mortal Stakes / Faint Thunder" reveals what Murphy was facing inside, "Hunter's Log" is his connection to the outdoors.

The poems illustrate not only the hunt and the game but also the relationship he develops with his hunting dogs.

His fourth dog, Feeney, is 11 and starting to slow, so Murphy is thinking of looking for a pup in the spring, though he's not sure how much longer he'll keep chasing birds.

Besides the thrill of the chase and the end product, Murphy says he likes that hunting brings him closer to an acceptance of mortality.

"Every night, I pray that God empowers me to celebrate not only the majesty of his creation but also the majesty of the Creator," Murphy says. "North Dakota is a place of horizontal grandeur, and I absolutely love being afield and I never feel closer to the Lord than when I'm out on the prairie."

Walking the fields

"He's in an amazingly productive period," says Clay Jenkinson, editor of Dakota Institute Press, which published Murphy's new books of verse.

Jenkinson estimates Murphy writes a poem a day.

When the publisher first asked Murphy if he had any works ready for print, the poet said he had six books worth.

"I've got more inventory than Ford Motor Co.," Murphy jokes.

Murphy says Dakota Institute Press will release another book in 2013.

"These are poems North Dakotans can enjoy," Jenkinson says. "For lots of people in the heartland, poetry is T.S. Eliot and Baudelaire. It's like spinach, you know you should like it, but you really don't that much. Murphy is different. Disarmingly simple seeming (but) much deeper than they first seem."

Jenkinson compares Murphy to North Dakota Poet Laureate Larry Woiwode in his efforts to "wrestle with this place," and bring the character of the region to the page and to readers around the world.

"He has an international reputation and is a darling of the poetry world but is virtually unknown, so far, in North Dakota," Jenkinson says. "We want to change that."

Murphy has already seen a lot of change in his life. Alan Sullivan, his longtime partner and collaborator (the two translated the old English epic "Beowulf") died in 2010.

Now 60, Murphy is done with farming and "pretty much retired."

It leaves more time in his life for writing, going to Mass and Alcoholics Anonymous.

"It's one day at a time," he says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533