Books Les Mur­ray and the po­etry of the hid­den

Les Mur­ray’s lat­est col­lec­tion re­veals the poet in god mode, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

More than a few read­ers of Aus­tralian po­etry must have ob­served the re­cent dual com­mem­o­ra­tions of Gal­lipoli and the Ar­me­nian geno­cide and thought of Fredy Nep­tune, Les Mur­ray’s 1998 verse novel whose pro­tag­o­nist, Fred Boettcher, wit­nesses the burning alive of Ar­me­nian women in Trab­zon (“with their faces un­wrapped in the open”) and is cursed to ric­o­chet through the Great War and its af­ter­math de­prived of the sense of touch. Though Mur­ray him­self won’t brook the com­par­i­son, that 9500line epic is the clos­est we have to an Aus­tralian Odyssey, and one of the great po­etic achieve­ments in English of the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury.

It is now 50 years since the pub­li­ca­tion of Mur­ray’s 1965 de­but po­etry col­lec­tion, The Ilex Tree, jointly writ­ten with Ge­of­frey Lehmann. Wait­ing for the Past is Mur­ray’s fourth ful­l­length col­lec­tion to ap­pear this cen­tury, though 11 of the 64 po­ems col­lected here ap­peared in last year’s New Se­lected Po­ems. While it would be in­ac­cu­rate to sug­gest any­thing so de­fin­i­tive as a “late style” in Mur­ray’s work, it is clear that Po­ems the Size of Pho­to­graphs, pub­lished in 2002, her­alded some­thing of a shift to­wards brevity.

In late Mur­ray we do not find the vast aquifers of thought and im­agery that ram­ify through 20 stan­zas or a 120 lines with­out ap­pear­ing to break a sweat. Now in his late sev­en­ties, it seems the vast feats of po­etic en­durance that char­ac­terise Mur­ray’s early and mid-ca­reer — the mon­u­men­tal se­quences such as Walk­ing to the Cat­tle Place and The Bu­lade­lah-Ta­ree Hol­i­day Song Cy­cle or the dozens of hefty medium-sized works in­clud­ing Flood Plains on the Coast Fac­ing Asia or Kim­ber­ley Brief — are no longer a pri­or­ity. The av­er­age poem in this vol­ume is 15-20 lines, four or five qua­trains, say, or half a dozen ter­cets; the long­est, Per­sis­tence of the Ref­or­ma­tion, stops short of the end of its sec­ond page, at 45 lines.

As the ti­tle sug­gests, time grinds its gears in Wait­ing for the Past. “Bread turns to land­fill on the shelf” in The Glory and Decline of Bread, one of sev­eral po­ems in which the rem­nants of a by­gone era stub­bornly persist, in­clud­ing 1960 Brought the Elec­tric, The Thir­ties and When Two Per­cent Were Stu­dents, the lat­ter two gnarled in bit­ter de­fi­ance of the cap­i­tal-G “Gov­ern­ment” (“Hosts of De­pres­sion-time and wartime / hated their fail­ure, which was you”). Mur­ray’s hurt is decades cal­loused, but the wound of moder­nity re­mains fresh: “Grown ups twist as the mod­ern ap­proaches down gravel” ( The Care); “Grown sons rest­less to dress mod­ern” ( Big Rab­bit at the Ve­ran­dah). Pow­der of Light dis­tills nos­tal­gia to child­hood trips to the drivein movies to see “peo­ple in mu­sic / who did and said dressy / stuff in English or Amer­i­can”.

A tai­lor’s eye for the ap­parel of the past, the cos­tumes of his­tory, even their fab­rics, gives the col­lec­tion a dis­tinc­tive lex­i­cal tex­ture. The Back­road Col­lec­tions, a homage to the small town op-shop, has the poet rif­fling forgotten weaves, “yel­low bor­dure and but­tony rib, / pouched swim­suits, cre­tonne ad lib”. “Voile” and “crino­line” ap­pear in Goths in Leipzig, a sim­i­lar sar­to­rial snap­shot, this time of a group of Goths emerg­ing from a train sta­tion in the Ger­man city. This is the dens­est poem in the col­lec­tion, a sin­gle 22-line sen­tence cum quasi-cat­walk com­men­tary from a caf­feinated cou­ture his­to­rian, spot­ting a “swart ruff”, the an­cient eye­liner “kohl”, a “gilet” (sleeve­less jacket), “bolero” (a cropped cardi­gan), “cu­lottes” (old Euro­pean knee-breeches) and “mari­achi pants” (Mex­i­can folk mu­sic at­tire). Whether ac­cou­tred in “plain­clothes”, “pin­stripe” or “Gal­li­gask­ins”, Mur­ray’s im­agery has un­doubt­edly taken a ves­tiary turn: “Our of­fi­cer class / fought both of its world wars in rid­ing tog: / Luft­waffe and Wer­ma­cht in haunched jodh­pur pants” ( Money and the Fly­ing Horses).

Even with­out fac­tor­ing in Fredy Nep­tune, Mur­ray has al­ways been one of our strong­est writ­ers on war. “Geli­bolu, Chanakkale — / there’s no place called Gal­lipoli”, be­gins Vis­it­ing An­zac in the Year of Met­ri­ca­tion, from his 1977 col­lec­tion Eth­nic Ra­dio. Who but Mur­ray could begin an An­zac poem by un­der­min­ing the very word that fixes the event in the Aus­tralian con­scious­ness? Some of his best-known zingers are

May 23-24, 2015 Wait­ing for the Past By Les Mur­ray Black Inc, 81pp, $24.99 (HB) in­flected by mil­i­tary themes or im­agery:

“Is war very big? As big as New South Wales?” (1965); “Mind you, Hitler was one of us.” (1974); “to farm blokes, war is Sud­den City” (1977); “The peren­nial war drugs are made in our­selves: sex and adren­a­line” (1987); “Sex is a Nazi” (1996). The first of th­ese, from the very early six-line poem The Trainee, 1914, re­minds us that Mur­ray’s pen­chant for the philip­pic squib is noth­ing new. The last, one of the most no­to­ri­ous first sen­tences in Aus­tralian po­etry, not only al­ludes to the per­ceived so­cial pres­sures of the sex­ual revo­lu­tion (as in­di­cated by the poem’s ti­tle, Rock Mu­sic), but drolly re­casts bi­ol­ogy it­self as fascis­tic. In Mur­ray, the ba­sic fact of em­bod­i­ment is so fraught that we are set on a con­stant war foot­ing.

Mur­ray turns his at­ten­tion to the le­gacy of “the Chris­tian civil war” in Per­sis­tence of the Ref­or­ma­tion. Re­fer­ring to the great schism as “four hun­dred years of ship-spread / ji­had at first called / the Thirty Years War’’ is all the more pi­quant when it comes from a Catholic con­vert who fa­mously ded­i­cates his books, this one in­cluded, “To the glory of God”. For me though, the poem ends a lit­tle murk­ily, and doesn’t scale the heights of ear­lier works in a sim­i­lar vein, such as Po­etry and Reli­gion: “It is the same mir­ror: / mo­bile, glanc­ing, we call it po­etry, / fixed centrally, we call it a reli­gion”.

In the sec­ond poem in this new col­lec­tion, In­spect­ing the River­mouth, we join the poet on a jour­ney to the delta of the great river with which he shares his name: Next morn­ing to the Mur­ray mouth, reed-wrapped bot­tlings of view gri­gio and verdelho.

This nod to fe­cun­dity sig­nals the vol­ume’s dom­i­nant the­matic note of abun­dance, and is rich in clas­si­cal res­o­nance. The lines in­voke po­etry and viti­cul­ture’s clas­si­cal bond, forged in the sec­ond of Vir­gil’s Geor­gics (ded­i­cated to Bac­chus, “Fa­ther of the Wine­press”), a dis­tant fore­bear. “Reed-wrapped” even re­calls the lesser-known Syrinx, who meta­mor­phosed into the reeds with which Pan fash­ioned the first pan pipes. No­tice how both grape va­ri­eties end in the vowel ‘‘o’’, which is also the shape mouths, reeds and bot­tles make. A later poem in the vol­ume, Sun Taiko, named for the Ja­panese for “drum”, sim­i­larly de­picts rain­wa­ter tanks “each with a rimmed / O hole for sound”.

But the kicker is of course the pun on the poet’s name. Like Shake­speare’s Son­net 73, with its “Will to boot, and Will in over­plus”, this too is a ges­ture of abun­dance. The scene’s part­ing im­age is of “steam­boats knead­ing heron-blue / lake, the river full again”. A re­plen­ish­ment has oc­curred, the river has swollen, and Wait­ing for the Past is the re­sult: a new case of “reed­wrapped bot­tlings of view” di­rect from the “Mur­ray mouth”.

Mur­ray has a stack of mar­vel­lous po­ems about all kinds of rain. From the ec­static youth­ful­ness of Spring Hail, one of his ear­li­est (“the hail I scooped / from un­der­foot still bore the taste of sky”), to Two Rains from Dog Fox Field (1990), in which Queens­land rain is “warm as a Pa­puan for­est, / a rain you can sweat in, / it steams in the sun like a hard-rid­den horse”. To this is now added The Flute, one of my favourite po­ems in the col­lec­tion.

An hour, and trees in spasm of wind as day­break grew pelted each other with wreck­age.

Like Cicero and Henry James, Mur­ray is a com­pul­sive syn­tac­ti­cal acro­bat; a case in point is the de­fer­ral of the verb “pelted” here, which ar­rives only af­ter three prepo­si­tional phrases that mod­ify the trees (“in spasm / of wind as day­break grew”); the plo­sive kick of the trochee (“pel-”) gives mo­men­tum to the fi­nal line, not only echo­ing but en­act­ing the ear­lier “spasm”. In the storm’s af­ter­math we see how the clear core of the rain gauge drawn out, over­spilled its met­rics like a cham­pagne flute raised to the sea­son.

This fi­nal cel­e­bra­tory toast to the “over­spilling” rain gauge is of course a toast to abun­dance, and has at its heart Mur­ray’s guiding prin­ci­ple, the so-called “qual­ity of sprawl”, with its “one boot up on the rail / of pos­si­bil­ity”. The poem it­self doesn’t over­spill; its six taut qua­trains do not sprawl in a met­ri­cal or vis­ual sense. This isn’t Mur­ray with his sin­glet out, it’s Mur­ray in his best khakis at a chris­ten­ing. It’s rare we find him this neat; Mur­ray usu­ally gives the im­pres­sion that his po­ems could sport the prim hos­pi­tal cor­ners of Ge­orge Her­bert’s or AD Hope’s, if only he wanted them to, but that he’d rather kick his feet out from un­der the cov­ers.

Of course in the Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence, abun­dance can quickly turn to ex­cess. Flood­time Night Shel­ter seems es­pe­cially apt in light of the re­cent del­uge in the eastern states: No mat­tress for the last levee shov­eller, es­tates of damp cloth­ing rather and gro­ceries and crises on the net­ball squeak floor, within side­long of the river.

Here the pathos of un­re­warded labour (the “last levee shov­eller” left with­out a mat­tress) is en­hanced by the ironic “es­tates” (“of damp cloth­ing”). Later we see “far off houses col­lid­ing in main stream”, just as res­i­dents of Dun­gog have re­cently done. At 13 lines, it is but a snap­shot of a del­uge; a deeper study can be found in The Trans­for­ma­tion of Cler­mont, the poem that opens Dog Fox Field, con­cern­ing the af­ter­math of the 1916 floods in the Queens­land town that killed 65 peo­ple (“the sway­ing nailed hull of a church go­ing on be­fore us”).

Coiled like a spring within the book’s ethos

Mur­ray at home

in Bun­yah; his type­writer, right

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