By Richard Murphy
Her voice is a mist on the phone
Far away and precarious
As a tree whose roots cling
To rocks overhanging a cliff
As she threatens to hang up.
Years pass into dust
With drills, hammers and saws
Remodelling an old house
Whose walls of silence
Keep a granite hold on my loss.
Now that she’ll never intrude
On my rock garden concord
Far away through a static mist
I hear in her voice
Endless silence falling dead.
This poem is taken from the May 30 2008 issue of UK's Time Literary Supplement.
Apparently this looks like a very simple, straightforward poem, one whose meaning any reader would have no trouble grasping.
You would know, straight off, that the poet is listening to someone’s voice on the phone, whose sound is so distant that it is like a mist, far away. His use of precarious tells us there is some element of danger, of falling. We confirm this in words like overhanging a cliff, threatens, hang. The line with tree whose roots cling / To rocks … imply a once solid relationship. She is probably the rock, and he the tree with clinging roots. She might be the dependable and sturdy one in the relationship, and he the one who is clinging onto a relationship that is losing its steady foundation. Hang is a repeat of hang in overhanging: so, who is the one threatening to do oneself harm?
The years passing seems a very, very long time, if everything has crumbled into dust. The second stanza takes on the foundation or building motif for the second and third lines. He is trying to rebuild his foundation (Remodelling an old house) with a vengeance, with his full might or tenacity (With drills, hammers and saws); especially the walls of silence which are still, strongly, reminding him of his loss (a granite hold on my loss). He’s trying to redress his past, his former old ways.
In the last stanza he gives up his hold on his loss, now that he has tooled a rock-solid foundation. Rock here rhymes with rock of stanza one, inviting comparison or contrast. Like her, he is, or has, his own rock, a rock garden concord, a private, personal one which she’ll never intrude/On. In the last three lines, we see that he is accepting that her voice will always be far away through a static mist. Her voice is repeated from stanza one, as are mist and far away. The poet views these words differently, with acceptance of things as they must be now, without panic.
Unlike the rushing and panicky rhythm of the first line, with two double off-beats, endless silence falling dead has a steady, even, falling rhythm, with single beats. End in Endless, at the front of the line, and dead end-stopping with a full-stop, at the end of the line, round up nicely, at both ends (his and hers), the ending or death of the relationship. Also, there is no question about the finality of the relationship when the final beat misses a falling offbeat.