Sunday, 6 March 2011

Precision Engineering: A Review.

This Is Not About What You Think. A Poetry Collection By, Jim Murdoch.

Murdoch is not a poet of excess. Murdoch does not mess about. Murdoch gets to the point, and then gets off the page. In some respects the poems are sterile, not in the sense of imagination, but of being thoroughly clean and free of destructive elements.

And why? Well, they don't need it. As Murdoch says 'Once written I understand myself a little more. I may still be carrying around the same baggage but it's packed a little more neatly.'

That's what I like about this collection – it's compactness, it's neatness. It contains one hundred and four page-poems that do not over-state, or obfuscate. (Obfuscate, is guilty of itself). Each has a simplicity. Each contains a small stone of wisdom. If it's true that 'the idiot talks, while the wise man remains silent' then, Murdoch is wise, for he is brief and insightful.

It is the brevity and succinctness in Murdoch’s poems that make them readable. You can mull over their domestic insights, their wise old mans tale observations; consume them snack size with a moments notice. As Shakespeare wrote'...brevity is the soul of wit...' so I shall shut up, and let the poems speak:

Advice to children V

People are rarely

what they say they are

and never what they think

they are.

Or would like to be.

The first lies we tell

are generally to


Reflections of Glass

Her mirrored face reflected grief

and - in the way that some mirrors do -

twisted it (it's a trick of the light).

And when I came to face her, I looked

and I saw nothing and I realised that,

for her, I was not there, as if I were


Tunnel of Love

Love is not a thing you fall into

but an experience you go through

like a long tunnel.

Sometimes I just like to sit

in the dark in ours and pretend

I don't see the light at the end.

For My Father

Dutifully I dial the number and ask for him.

He answers and

brick by brick we build a conversation.

Progressively the pauses

become more frequent

and intense.

Finally we replace our recievers,

each regretting not having said

what he had no words to say.

Somehow I love him

yet cannot reach him.

'This Is Not About What You Think' charts a life in seven sections, from childhood to adulthood, the life is not necessarily biographical, but it certianly lends from the life of the author. There is some light inside this collection, but there is a scrupulous meaness throughout too. A depression with life, with the hand that it was dealt. But, it is through hardship we learn our lessons, right?

Throughout this collection there is a bleakness hard to over look. Poems of quiet regret, of failed relationships, in particular a relationship with a father which shared not much friendship, intimacy, or love. There is a nihilistic quality in the content, which is hightened by the strict minimalism of the layout. In the content their is a philosophical awareness that life is short, relationships insufficient, meaning transient and contradictory, and emotional lives are burden, we all leave with much left unsaid, in an existence that is opened ended and unfinished.

Critically, I think it lacks fireworks, lacks experiment/danger/chaos, some of the poems feel incomplete, there is not much left to the imagination, ultimately we have a life revealed through surgically small prose poems. But, I like chaos, private turmoil, confessions, messy life, language paly and there is not enough of it in here for me. I much prefer reading Murdoch's essays, reviews, and Aggie and Shuggie skits. However, 'This Is Not About What You Think' is worth buying for its clear and simple insight, its common share in expressing the fear, dread, and anxiety, that mark every life.

Jim Murdoch is a poet, and novelist, from Glasgow. Read more from Murdoch, buy his poetry, buy his novels here: The Truth About Lies


  1. A very good review, McGuire. Thank you. You’re right, this isn’t a book full of verbal pyrotechnics. Fireworks are best seen at night. These are poems to be read in the cold and unforgiving light of day. I would disagree with you that I leave little to the imagination though. The reader’s imagination is a vital component in any piece of writing; they complete the poems.

  2. I've read this book of poetry over and over and find new depth each time. I don't find them lacking fire in any way. The choice of words is pared down for maximum impact.

  3. Well Colin, have you seen Jim's latest Aggie and Shuggie. Like many a writer, Jim seems to have read your review and made a beeline for the one negative comment.

    I understand this. I do it myself.

    In the end I think this is a terrific thoughtful and generous review of a wonderful writer. Only next time, you might use less of a dramatic metaphor than fireworks, though that said how can I review the reviewer without offending someone else.

    Writing's like that we step on one another's toes.


  4. Jim - I have made small edits to the review. Just to keep you in the know.

    Kass - The words do have a certain power, being stripped down to the minimum. I just feel the subject and themes are quite tighly knit. Which is the desired affect. I just like a bit more chaos, variation, play.

    Elisabeth - I enjoyed the Aggie and Shuggie skit. I don't think Jim took my critical points badly. I just don't want to be sycophantic. I don't want to simply praise it. No stepping on toes. In fact, Jim has encouraged my no end. I just didn't want to praise with my eyes closed to other critical points I felt.

    Glad you all came to read and post.

    May you be Sunday calm and tea pot comforted. x

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