FARGO — Prolific prairie poet Timothy Murphy wasn’t going to be done writing until the good Lord made it clear.
But in early 2018, hearing the diagnosis “bone cancer,” he reckoned it might be sooner than later, so he set about creating what might be his final collection, giving it a working title, “Last Poems?”
The question mark later was removed; Murphy succumbed to the disease on June 30, 2018, at his humble Fargo home, strewn with Charles Beck art and cigarette butts, near the Red River.
“Hip fractured, riddled with cancer, nearly dead — ‘By God, hell of a party!’ Murphy said.”
These, the last lines of “Lonesome Dove Revisited,” and of his career, Murphy wrote on paper in scrawl one must squint to read. A tribute to his hunting buddy Steven Syrdal, the full poem will be available with others next month through the North Dakota State University Press.
In anticipation of the release of Murphy’s final poetry collection, friends shared memories of this local-grown, Yale-educated, Plains-pruned soul.
First friend, brother
Jim, Murphy’s younger, and only, brother stood vigil at his bedside in the waning months when Murphy was no longer able to move about — not to mention cock his hunting rifle.
“From a very young age, Tim was interested in books, literature and music,” Jim shares, crediting his mother, Katherine, with having read poetry to her firstborn beginning in infancy.
“Cradle Song” by A.A. Milne seems to have been written about his brother, he adds, down to the blue eyes and red hair.
But the outdoors also called to him, including boating and swimming, camping with Boy Scouts and hunting with their father.
In those years, “you didn’t have to go far to find pheasants,” Jim says, recalling an early expedition south of Moorhead when he, around 6, “was too young to carry a gun, and Tim was just starting to hunt,” at around 11. “Back then, I was the dog,” he laughs.
Hunting became a major theme in Murphy’s works, with Labradors eventually replacing his little brother as his retriever. But in a sense, the pursuit was secondary to the words Tim found dancing in his head while undertaking the sport — and the friendships forged through it.
Steve Syrdal met Murphy while at dog training for their Labrador retrievers. The 30-year friendship involved numerous trips into the Dakota wilderness.
In the beginning, Syrdal had no idea of Murphy’s poetic proclivity. “I was astonished,” he says of learning his friend was well-known in his craft.
At the time, Murphy was “estranged from his (Christian) faith,” Syrdal says, noting that he and his literary partner, Alan Sullivan, were exploring Eastern religions.
“He didn’t hold the Catholicism of his youth in very high regard; he’d been hurt (by abuse).”
But ultimately, Murphy experienced a dramatic “reversion” back to his faith, following a suicide attempt, thwarted by a call from a “college friend turned Benedictine monk.” Their friendship deepened after this, Syrdal says, with Murphy transitioning from “embittered, estranged Catholic, to ‘all in.’”
Murphy got a decade more of living, writing and, ultimately, preparation to meet his diagnosis with bravery.
“Steve, I guess the rivers of whiskey and barns full of tobacco finally caught up to me,” he’d told him.
As Murphy’s days dimmed, Syrdal observed the grace-filled suffering, with visitors welcomed despite his friend’s “wasting away.”
“It was remarkable to see and experience, and I was privileged to be part of it, however small,” he says.
Syrdal’s wife, Sharon, was equally touched.
“I have wonderful memories of reading new poems about Advent or Easter that usually left me in tears,” she says, noting that their dog still tries to “drag us to the door” whenever they’re near Murphy’s old house.
Murphy and Matt Valan were a few years apart in school in Moorhead.
“I knew him as a great scholar, a great debater and a great mind in high school,” says Valan, noting a divergence in their lives after graduation. “But we came together in a spiritual way at the end.”
Valan, a Lutheran pastor, had prayed at many deathbeds. After reacquainting with Murphy through Syrdal, he asked one day if he could “pay him a visit.” They talked about Murphy’s work and life, and eventually Valan asked him if he could pray with him.
“He said, ‘Please,’ and held out his hands.”
At the “Amen,” Murphy “raised his eyebrows, and opened his eyes,” Valan says. He then dared to ask Murphy, “How is your soul?”
“He looked at me, and the most perfect, spirit-filled peace came over him. As if speaking for both of us, he said, ‘Perfect.’ Not an earned ‘perfect,’” he explains, but one attained “through the life and death of Jesus Christ,” adding, “It’s a moment that I’ll take to eternity.”
In 2007, Murphy walked into a local video store, upset at a skipping DVD. Jack Stenerson, a 17-year-old employee, helped resolve the issue.
During subsequent encounters, the two would talk movies and history — two things they both enjoyed. “At one point, he brought up that he was a hunter; I barely kill mosquitoes,” says Stenerson, now 31.
Eventually, the two collaborated when Murphy asked Stenerson, a college video production student, to record his poetry recitations.
“Our last session was middle to late April of 2018,” Stenerson says. “He was hooked up to his chemo machine, determined to get everything he could recorded.”
Like Syrdal, Stenerson had no idea the genius before him, until Murphy mentioned having studied under Robert Penn Warren.
“He eventually began telling me stories, from meeting Alan to running his orchards, to sailing everywhere,” he says. “He lived enough life for a dozen people.”
After his diagnosis, Murphy told Stenerson, “I’m toast.”
“He knew his time was coming, but he wanted to fight and make the most of the time he had left,” Stenerson says. “He really believed he was put here to write and share these poems.”
Though several priests entered Murphy’s life, Monsignor Robert Laliberte played a special role, helping weigh in on the spiritual integrity of the collaboration Murphy undertook with Sullivan before his death — a major translation of the Psalms of King David.
From there, a friendship developed, ending with Laliberte offering the homily at his funeral.
“Tim loved talking about people he admired and didn’t tend to criticize people all that much,” especially post-conversion, he says. “I think it was part of the energy he got from his own life.”
Laliberte also observed Murphy’s strong belief in “the nature of poetry.”
“He considered himself to be a restorer of the value of structured poetry — with meter, rhyme and assonance — the classic elements,” working “assiduously” at his craft.
It was Richard Wilbur, he says, who “persuaded Tim to start writing devotional poems, explaining that this was a largely abandoned area of poetry,” and that most contemporary poetry was debased.
His later works, Laliberte says, were Holy Spirit-inspired, according to Murphy.
“Pope John Paul II came to him in a dream and basically told him that he was beloved of God, and that he loved Tim,” he says. “He was also an extraordinarily good raconteur — he gave the most interesting, animated stories,” though “you had to learn to listen a lot because he did most of the talking.”
Laliberte observed two sides of Murphy that seemed prominent: “the vulnerable, wounded side, and the very competent, survivalist, upbeat, enthusiastic” side, noting that he was a man “absolutely determined to live, and who really wanted to live for God.”
Canadian poet Catherine Chandler was among a small group of writers who stayed in touch with Murphy online, and whom he called his “dear ones.” His request that Chandler edit his last collection came through email on Mother’s Day in 2018, a little over a month before his death.
His work was “spiraling out of control,” he’d noted, and he wasn’t lucid enough to complete the edits himself. “I’ve been summoning up the courage to ask for several weeks now. Please help me. Tim.”
Having just dreamt about him the night before, Chandler recalls, “Right away, I said, ‘Yes.’”
At that point, the refinement of Murphy’s work became a priority.
“He was so prolific, and up until that May, he was very optimistic,” Chandler says. “He was still making plans to go hunting with Steve and do other projects. He believed he had at least eight months more to live.”
Chandler wanted his last collection to be as perfect as possible, she says, but the writer was no longer there to consult. Finally, with the help of a proofreader, Julie Sih, she completed the editing by the end of September and sent it off to North Dakota for final edits.
In an editor’s note at the beginning of “Last Poems,” Chandler writes, “In his unmistakable voice, and often in stark language almost too painful to read, Tim chronicles his physical, spiritual and emotional life during his final months…”
The faithful will appreciate his devotional works, she says, but the more secular will also enjoy themes that include hunting, sailing and Murphy’s observation of landscape.
“I miss him very much,” Chandler says. “It’s like a light has gone out somewhere. The poetry world has lost a brilliant poet and a very fine person.”
Scheduled to be released June 30, “Last Poems” will be available for purchase through www.ndsupress.org, Baker & Taylor, Amazon and many independent bookstores.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on May 14, 2021.]