Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: “The Ruin of Eleanor Marx” by Mark A. Murphy

Murphy Eleanor Marx Cover_VA01[1857] crop

-Mark A. Murphy

Mark A. Murphy has had work published in 18 countries. He is a 3 time Pushcart Nominee, and has published eight books of poetry to date.. German publisher ‘Moloko Print’ published his latest collection, ‘The Ruin of Eleanor Marx’ in the summer of 2022.

He states: I have always thought that poetry can change lives, and still do. I believe artists have a responsibility to step up to the mark, and say the things, others, perhaps less privileged, would like to, or are unable to say. If humanity is to survive the current and impending ecological disaster beyond the next generation, we must learn new ways of living together.

His book may be purchased here http://www.molokoplusrecords.de/finder.php?folder=Print

The Interview

1. How did you decide the order of the poems in your book?

The poems wrote themselves. I was only the conduit for ‘divine’ inspiration, so the book fell together quite organically. However, there is a beginning, middle and end, and the poems do have a loose chronological unity. The book starts with Eleanor’s birth under the ‘mocking eaves of Dean Street’ and ends with her death, and then the death of Eleanor’s middle sister, Laura (the last surviving Marx sibling) and her husband Paul Lafargue.

Moreover, the book reads like a potted biography, discussing everything from Marx’s  own obsessive love sickness for Eleanor, to Eleanor’s obsessive love sickness for her    common law husband, Dr Aveling.

2. The poems are full of historical details about life at that time. How did you assemble this knowledge?

Some of the historical background I was already familiar with. However, I did a lot of research, reading books and letters and studying numerous online essays and articles about Eleanor’s life.

One document in particular, ‘Tussy’s Great Delusion – Eleanor Marx’s Death Revisited,’ (a letter from Maria Mendelson to Vera Zasulich) had laid buried in the archives for over 120 years, detailing Aveling’s boasts and sex crimes. This document proved invaluable, revealing Aveling as a serial rapist, not least of all, against Eleanor herself, whom he used to drug with chloroform before raping.  

3. How important was it for the historical details to appeal to all the five sense of the reader?

Certainly, in setting the scene for Victoria’s London, this was a consideration. I guess some poems work better than others in this respect. ‘Night Soil’ might best exemplify this aspect of the writing, with the Baroness left hanging in Leicester Square greeted by ‘halos of sulphuric gas,’ ‘manure, cesspools, hand shakes.’ Then ‘black rain,’ ‘cats, dogs,’ ‘ rancid mutton,’ ‘consumptive gin joints,’ and ‘human excrement.’ A veritable merry-go-round for the senses.

4. Why are some words in capital letters?

I borrowed the idea from Frank Bidart. Sometimes, capitalisation is used as a red herring, quite meaningless. Other times, it is essentially polemic. It’s up to the READER to decide. In terms of how the text looks aesthetically (on the page) it unifies or integrates disparate elements. A stylistic device that engages the eye more rigorously.

5. How important is the white space in your poetry?

Again, it really depends on the poem. If you take a poem like ‘Human Shaped Emptiness,’ the white space becomes all important.  The white space is concrete, and is a metaphor, in and of itself, for the ‘abyss.’ Some of the poems appear as fragments, divided by the white space of several blank lines, which allows the various clauses to breathe. I’m a big fan of white space, but one has to get the balance right for it to make a difference to the form. I’m quite obsessive about how the poem translates into an image on the page. A poem has a way of greeting you just at a fleeting glance. The ‘picture’ a poems paints in silhouette on the page affects the overall unity of form and content. Get it right, and it’s a joy to look at, as well as read.

6. Why did you choose to use the very Victorian weighted word “ruin” in the title? 

The Ruin of Eleanor Marx, has a certain assonance about it, which I liked. It also covers all bases, regarding the course of her life. The ruin starts early on for Eleanor. She is born into a patriarchal society, to a father who has an ‘obsessive love sickness’ for her. Four of her siblings die in infancy, further complicating her sense of self and feelings of injustice at the world, which she is powerless to ameliorate.

Her relationships take on the same ‘obsessive’ character. Her teenage engagement to the Communard, Lissagaray (a man twice her age) proves ill fated, given in part to her disapproving father, and her own inability to cut the apron strings. Her common law marriage to Aveling, a man she cannot save, despite her infatuation with doing so. Ruin is on the cards at every turn. Abject poverty, anorexia nervosa, death in the family, unrealistic expectations, bitter disappointment, all play their part. The disunity of ideas and practice unravel into a picture of ruin that is impossible to escape.

‘Ruin’ is the watchword in the Shakespearian tragedy that proves to be the primary focus of her experience. ‘Ruin’ is the only experience for the vast majority in Victoria’s Britain. Finally, Dr Aveling’s promise: ‘utter ruin… down to the last penny,’ (that would’ve put the entire movement, and everything Eleanor was fighting for, in jeopardy) roots Eleanor’s story in everything that would eventually prove fatal to her.

7. How hard was it to avoid slipping into “melodrama” that was often the genre of Victorian England?

One tries to avoid the pitfalls of spectacle and soap opera but that’s really for the reader to decide.

8. What is the purpose of repetition of phrases in your poetry? I am thinking particularly of “The Emigre Philosopher”.

Repetition acts as a refrain, concentrating the mind of the reader on what is being proposed. In this instance: ‘Where is the man of the moment,’ acts ironically, to pull the chain of Herr Marx, the man of action and ideas. The refrain acts as a veiled criticism of praxis. ‘The man of the moment’ is a phrase that frames Marx in the context of history. In some sense, even history has its expectations of him. ‘The man of the moment’ is a conduit for the struggle. He acts as the historical agent of change, and at the same time, is acted upon by the very machinery of cruelty he seeks to overturn.

9. There seems to be an omniscient narrator who expresses opinions and descriptions throughout the book. How deliberate is this?

The omniscient narrator is a reflection of the collective consciousness. The ‘I, me, my’ of the default poem is replaced by ‘we, us, our,’ in an attempt to put the reader at the centre of the narrative. Opinions and descriptions come from the universal mind as opposed to one all knowing mind. In ‘Song for Tussy’ for example: ‘We choose to love you as a poet/

for in poetry we find no preconceptions…’ the narrator is the people. The universal appropriates the particular, making love the common expression of the people’s will.

10. In “Time Travel” you write “we scribble with no intention of making sense.” What does this comment on the poems you have written?

It is not the job of the poet to make sense, per se. Moreover, no matter what we write, the past can’t be undone. Time can never be conquered, as Auden had said.  The dead can’t be restored to life, which ultimately turns any attempts at rehabilitation into an absurdity. It is up to the reader to make sense, or not, of what is written.

11. Once they have read your book what do you want the reader to leave with?

It would be nice to think that the poetry might facilitate further interest in Eleanor Marx, and her ideas. Namely, that human nature isn’t fixed, or intrinsically bad. But that people can change their outlook, and make a difference, in a world that is heading towards the destruction of organised human life on this planet.

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