When I changed my studies from nuclear engineering to poetry writing (Georgia Tech to Georgia State), my new adviser told me I had to choose a minor. If I were going to be a poet, she said, it was either philosophy or art history. I didn’t know there were more options, so I chose art history. I loved the image and mistrusted the abstract.
About that same time, a friend of mine and I used to go around to the art galleries on weekends wherever we knew there would be an opening. Free wine. The Lowe Gallery was a place where we often ended up because Bill Lowe represented the best work in the South and the wine was drinkable. It was there I became familiar with the work of Todd Murphy. Through a number of coincidences, I was introduced to Todd at one of his openings, and he gave me a great deal of respect as a poet. He ignored a lot of rich people right then and there to talk to me. I was going to the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa in a few months. He had recently been to Iowa to photograph the floods! I had hardly read or written anything, but he said he wanted to stay in touch, and he struck up a small correspondence with me.
When I had dropped out after only a year in Iowa, I came back to Atlanta. I got in touch with Todd, and he invited me to his gigantic studio down near the old Mattress Factory so we could talk about art and poetry. I must have visited him there only three or four times over a few years.
One winter morning, I paid him a visit. I remember he showed me around to see his latest work. I followed him up to the loft that overlooked the warehouse. We drank coffee, and we talked about Pound. Todd brought out some of the Cantos and he read to me. I believe I recited a few poems that I had committed to memory. After I had sufficiently taken up the time of an actual artist, I felt I should go. Somehow it came out during our conversation that it was my birthday. We were headed down the stairs on the way out, and he pulled a big framed artwork off the wall. He pushed it toward me and said, “Happy birthday.”
I said, “I can’t take this from you.” His smaller work even then was worth many thousands of dollars.
He said, “Okay,” and started to put it back on the wall. Then he smiled and said, “Please, take it. I don’t have anything else to give you.”
I said, “But I don’t have anything to give you, either.”
“You give me your poems,” he said. This was true. I had been pushing my dreadful poems too full of feeling on him whenever I visited.
I said, “But your paintings are worth a lot. My poems are worth nothing.”
“They’re worth a lot to me,” he said, and he held the painting out to me. I didn’t actually believe him, but I took it, and walked out into the December morning. I put it in the back seat of my little car where the 36 x 39 frame barely fit. I drove off thinking that no stranger had ever done me such a kindness in my life. I hardly knew him! He believed in my poems, my art, when even I wasn’t sure what in the world I was doing.
The artwork is a huge piece of thick white cotton bond with a small figure at the center. The image appears to be made of broken beer-bottle glass and there are drops of the polyurethane all around it.
Todd told me this: at work one morning, he had peeled away the skin from the surface of an open can of polyurethane to use for the surface of another work, and when he cast these pieces aside, he saw they resembled a butterfly. And he had been working on a series in which butterfly images figured in various ways. So he rearranged the pieces on the paper and signed it with his trademark MURPHY.
The artwork hangs on a wall behind my chair in our dining room. I like that it hovers over me, a kind of encouragement, a reminder that an artist saw art in me. Over the years, I have followed his work. The larger body of it continues to amaze and challenge me as a poet. He seems to be relentlessly pursuing a vision that reminds me I might do the same with a voice.
John Poch’s poems have appeared frequently in NER, most recently in 34.3–4 with “Pomegranate Queen.”
You can see more of Todd Murphy’s artwork on his website: http://www.toddmurphy.com.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.