Les Murray’s Col­lected Po­ems. Melissa Har­ri­son’s All Among the Bar­ley. Colm Tóibín’s Mad, Bad, Dan­ger­ous to Know.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week -

Les Murray has al­ways been a sort of enig­matic dou­ble-headed ea­gle: one pro­filed eye look­ing into the past, the other star­ing into the fu­ture.

Of course, we know, or think we know, about the back­ward-look­ing Murray, the so-called bard of Bun­yah with his ru­ral child­hood and Scot­tish ances­try, the pas­toral dreamer ob­sessed with draw­ing out a quasimyth­i­cal set­tler his­tory with odes on clan and creed and fam­ily. And, too, there’s his fas­ci­na­tion with the Indige­nous Dream­ing and what he calls the vast map of song-po­etry that ex­isted be­fore Eu­ro­pean con­tact and which per­sists still.

It’s the voice of cos­mic reverie we hear in such cel­e­brated po­ems as “The Bu­lade­lahTa­ree Hol­i­day Song Cy­cle” from Eth­nic Ra­dio in 1977 with its scenes tied to an el­e­vated but pre­cise vi­sion of preterite places: The Fa­thers and the Great-grand­fa­thers, they are out in the pad­docks all the time, they live out there, at the place of the Rail Fence, of the Fur­rows Un­der Grass, at the place of the Slab Chim­ney.

Who hasn’t seen a soli­tary stone chim­ney stand­ing with mute pa­tience in a dry pad­dock and felt the strange at­trac­tion

of dis­ap­peared ways of life? The in­stant fa­mil­iar­ity of such imagery has led some crit­ics to sug­gest that nos­tal­gia is at the heart of Murray’s oeu­vre, as if he were sim­ply a mys­tic re­mem­brancer. But then what of this short poem from Con­scious and Ver­bal: Things were not bet­ter when I was young: things were poorer and harsher, drought dust on the crock­ery, and I was young.

More than the dust or the harsh­ness, that self-ac­cusatory last line should scotch any lin­ger­ing sus­pi­cion that Murray dreams of re­turn­ing to some half-real Boeo­tian youth of Aussie parochial­ism.

And in any case, the clar­ity of Murray’s vi­sion is in­im­i­cal to the blurry sen­ti­men­tal­ism of nos­tal­gia’s old-time bal­lads. That re­mark­able gift of phras­ing, that bound­less tal­ent to in­vig­o­rate the lan­guage, has al­ways given Murray a sure means of es­cape from the loops and snares of mere re­ca­pit­u­la­tion. Few po­ets – ever – have had Murray’s in­stinct for metaphor and com­par­i­son.

And few po­ets have un­der­stood the per­sua­sive power of the de­tail se­lected with max­i­mum care. Of course, a touch of na­ture

makes the whole world kin and Murray is a kind of na­ture poet, but his de­tails de­fa­mil­iarise and make new the kin­ships he trans­lates in his bravura way.

In any case, it’s strik­ing to no­tice while read­ing this new Col­lected Po­ems how of­ten he di­rectly in­vokes the fu­ture. In­deed, so many of his great­est po­ems be­gin as es­says in search of lost time only to cul­mi­nate in an ac­cel­er­ated dra­matic move­ment towards what is to come, as in his “El­egy for An­gus Mac­don­ald of Cn­o­clinn”: but my fa­thers were High­landers long ago then Border­ers, be­fore this land­fall – “sav­ages” once, now we are “set­tlers” in the mouth of the death­less en­emy – but I am seized of this fu­ture now.

Yes, there are con­tra­dic­tions in Murray’s work and his pol­i­tics and world out­look, but I don’t think his re­la­tion­ship with the past is any­thing so starkly para­dox­i­cal as a love–hate re­la­tion­ship.

His project, and it con­sti­tutes the fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tic of his work in all its mon­u­men­tal con­sis­tency, con­sists in trac­ing over con­nec­tions be­tween then and now, fol­low­ing tra­jec­to­ries out of that which is his­tor­i­cal, whether per­sonal or na­tional, into new pos­si­bil­i­ties for the fu­ture. He is look­ing for those se­cret in­ter­faces be­tween what has been, what is and what may be.

All of which is made more or less ex­plicit in “Post Mortem”, orig­i­nally pub­lished in The Bi­plane Houses and un­for­tu­nately not in­cluded in this new Col­lected Po­ems: Un­sat­is­fied to go as a de­tec­tive to the past. I want the past live with the body we have in the prom­ise, that book which opens when the story ends.

(A late omis­sion, per­haps, as cryp­ti­cally it’s listed in both the in­dex of first lines and the in­dex of ti­tles.)

Murray is for­ever spec­u­lat­ing on where the past in its var­i­ous cul­tural and so­cial man­i­fes­ta­tions might carry us. Think of the last stanza of “The Qual­ity of Sprawl”, one of the truly great comic po­ems as well as a state­ment on the power and gen­eros­ity im­plicit in a dis­tinctly Aus­tralian way of walk­ing and talk­ing and hear­ing: Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.

Rep­ri­manded and dis­missed it lis­tens with a grin and one boot up on the rail of pos­si­bil­ity. It may have to leave the Earth. Be­ing roughly Chris­tian, it scratches the other cheek and thinks it un­likely. Though peo­ple have been shot for sprawl.

It’s been 12 years since Murray’s pre­vi­ous Col­lected Po­ems. This new edi­tion in­cludes work from The Bi­plane Houses, Taller When Prone and his most re­cent vol­ume Wait­ing for the Past. He is now in his 80s and we shouldn’t be sur­prised if the weight of the past makes him look back more to the whilom ways.

And yet what is most re­mark­able about these later po­ems is how well he has re­tained that equi­lib­rium be­tween the past and the fu­ture and the imag­i­na­tive space be­tween that he has made his own. In­deed, that last ti­tle seems to en­cap­su­late his re­la­tion­ship with the shadow of his­tory that lies across the fu­ture.

The rail of pos­si­bil­ity is get­ting shorter for him, as for all of us, but his boot still rests as surely and as lightly as it al­ways has. It can­not be re­peated too of­ten that Col­lected Po­ems is an ut­terly re­mark­able book and the work of the most prodi­giously tal­ented writer in any field this coun­try has pro­duced.

It is a col­lec­tion of the first mag­ni­tude and a ma­ture vi­sion of what is past, pass­ing and to come that should have a place on ev­ery book­shelf. JR

Black Inc, 736pp, $59.99

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