The poet as re­flected in his own mir­ror

The Best 100 Po­ems of Les Mur­ray

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Fiona Wright

Se­lected by Les Mur­ray Black Inc, 120pp, $24.99 (HB)

LES Mur­ray is de­scribed in this col­lec­tion as ‘‘ Aus­tralia’s lead­ing poet’’, an en­dorse­ment that is as de­lib­er­ate as it is un­de­ni­able. In a near 50-year ca­reer, Mur­ray has pub­lished at least 32 col­lec­tions of po­etry, in­clud­ing seven other col­lected or select­eds, won an Or­der of Aus­tralia, been named a Na­tional Liv­ing Trea­sure and been touted as a po­ten­tial win­ner of the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture.

Mur­ray cer­tainly is Aus­tralia’s best-known poet, as strange an hon­our as that may be, and this book at its core is about Mur­ray as an icon: the cover im­age en­cap­su­lates this, de­pict­ing his dis­tinc­tive floppy hat float­ing above a fig­ure ab­sent, but strongly im­plied.

The 100 po­ems that make up this col­lec­tion have been cho­sen by Mur­ray, and do in­clude some of his most fa­mous and best loved po­ems. The ev­ery­day grace of The Broad Bean Ser­mon is here, along­side the al­most macabre rhyming cou­plets of The Tin Wash Dish. So too the cheeky The Dream of Wear­ing Shorts For­ever.

Mur­ray, of course, is a widely an­thol­o­gised poet, and so it’s in­ter­est­ing to note which of his most fre­quently se­lected po­ems are miss­ing. Four of Mur­ray’s po­ems are in­cluded in the Nor­ton An­thol­ogy of Po­etry — very few Aus­tralian po­ets grace its pages — and the poet him­self has cho­sen none of th­ese. Other no­table ab­sences in­clude The Qual­ity of Sprawl (in­cluded in the PEN Mac­quarie An­thol­ogy of Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture, Aus­tralian Po­etry since 1788 and the Nor­ton) and Equa­nim­ity (in­cluded in the Pen­guin An­thol­ogy of Aus­tralian Po­etry and Aus­tralian Po­etry since 1788).

And there are po­ems here too that are more idio­syn­cratic se­lec­tions. Some seem slight, such as the sin­gle-im­age po­ems Dream­babwe, or Cat­tle-Hoof Hard­pan. Slight­ness it­self is no crit­i­cism but it does make Mur­ray’s in­clu­sion of the po­ems an in­ter­est­ing choice. In­cluded too are some po­ems, such as Cher­ries from Young, which seem flat and plat­i­tudi­nous be­side Mur­ray’s more vi­brant works, and the oc­ca­sional poem that feels al­most in­dul­gent, such as The Wed­ding at Ber­rico, writ­ten for the mar­riage of Mur­ray’s daugh­ter and some­what out of con­text in this book.

Th­ese ques­tions of se­lec­tion are al­most in­evitable, how­ever, given the vol­ume and va­ri­ety of Mur­ray’s po­etry. And it also makes ob­vi­ous the very dif­fer­ent uses to which other an­tholo­gies have put his work. The Best 100 Po­ems of Les Mur­ray, then, may be im­por­tant be­cause it al­lows for a se­lec­tion un­der­scored by no po­lit­i­cal or lit­er­ary agenda other than the poet’s own. This is Mur­ray as he sees him­self: the icon in the mir­ror, not on the stage. Even if it’s just in time for Christ­mas.

There is a sur­pris­ing va­ri­ety within this book, with many po­ems play­ing with lan­guage and sound. Mur­ray is a great in­ven­tor of words; some of the more de­light­ful of­fer­ings in­clude ‘‘ fruit-roofed’’ ( Ripe in the Ar­bour of the Nose), ‘‘ win­dow-struck’’ ( High-Speed Bird) and ‘‘ in­fra-dog’’ from The Nos­tril Songs.

In­deed, one of the fi­nal po­ems in the col­lec­tion, In­fi­nite An­thol­ogy, of­fers a dic­tionary-like list­ing of the creations of ‘‘ sin­gle-word po­ets’’, a cheeky, partly satir­i­cal col­lec­tion of old-fash­ioned slang, an hon­our­ing of the pun­ning it re­lies on.

Other an­i­mal po­ems ex­per­i­ment more with sound and sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, of­ten con­tain­ing eerie strings of ono­matopoeia, such as the whole stanza of Bats’ Ul­tra­sound given over to sounds such as ‘‘ ah, eyrie-ire, aero hour, eh?/ O’er our ur-area (our era aye/ ere your raw row) we air our ar­ray’’. The Cows on Killing Day opens with the lines ‘‘ All of me are stand­ing on feed. The sky is shin­ing // All of me have just been milked’’ and imag­ines an in­ter­nal, an­i­mal voice. Mur­ray’s deft turns of un­usual lan­guage and dis­junc­tive rhythms make this less an­thro­po­mor­phic than es­trang­ing: th­ese are not at­tempts to hu­man­ise an­i­mals but to ren­der them un­know­able and strange.

Some­what sur­pris­ing too is the pres­ence

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