Books Les Murray and the poetry of the hidden
Les Murray’s latest collection reveals the poet in god mode, writes
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