Evocative tribute to poet’s rural abode
Anna Heyward On Bunyah By Les Murray Black Inc, 160pp, $32.99 (HB)
Les Murray is often described as “Australia’s leading poet”, which prompts an image of him as a sort of Pied Piper, with all the other Australian poets following behind him, keeping up. What those who use the phrase probably mean is most prominent poet, which is code for “most likely to be read”.
We are living in a time when prose, and particularly the novel, have almost totally cannibalised other forms. Poetry and today’s reader have a suspicious, resentful relationship: is it too abstract, is it an efficient device for describing the world, and how consumable is it? When I worked in a bookshop in Melbourne, I found it hard to sell poetry. “What will I do with it?” asked a customer on whom I was attempting to press a volume of Murray’s verse, as though books of poetry have to be used or consumed in some rarefied way (they don’t).
The appetite for fact and narrative isn’t, as that customer probably believed, neglected by poems. Murray’s two-and-a-bit-page poem Letters to the Winner, included in On Bunyah, his verse and photographic tribute to his NSW home town, could almost be in a short story anthology alongside Chekhov, or Maupassant’s The Necklace.
In it, a Bunyah neighbour wins the lottery and, “pausing in the door to wash his hands”, sits at his kitchen table and reads letters from acquaintances and non-acquaintances who have crawled out of the woodwork now that he is understood to be rich. There’s almost no action in the poem, but in the 49 spaced-apart lines that it takes Murray’s neighbour to read his correspondence, a vast range of human nature is parsed, all through the precise wheedling begging language of the letter’s authors: remember we met on Roma Street for your delight and mine a lick of the sultana and mate if your interested in a fellow diggers problems old mate a friend in need.
Poverty is a theme in this book, as it has been in Murray’s life, and seems to have been in Bunyah. In 2013, Robert Crawford wrote in the London Review of Books that Murray had “a brutally harsh, smelly, idyllic childhood, of the sort few children in the Western world now experience”, growing up in a two-room, earth-floor construction without electricity or running water. Among the simply captioned photographs in the book is one of “Author’s first childhood home”. In the poem The Tin Wash Dish, poverty, “lank poverty, dank poverty” pervades all of life, and inspires wariness: Watch out if this does well at school and has to leave and longs to leave: someone, sometime, will have to pay.
Murray writes in his introduction to On Bunyah: “Many other verse surveys have dealt with cities and towns — this one concentrates on the smallest habitats of community, the scattered village and the lone house, where space makes the isolated dwelling into an illusory distant city ruled by its family and their laws.” As he notes in the poem Cesar’s Ghost, there is no life more global than a village. The life contained in On Bunyah elides time, in that the language in it manages to touch both ends of the past century.
I once asked Murray, in front of a roomful of his readers, why he wrote poetry and not prose. The answer was that poetry would last longer than prose — we were in a bookshop at the time — and that “the most durable things in here are poems”.
Poetry’s ancient self-belief comes from the exact same source that causes readers’ suspicion: its auditory and associative potential, the ability to turn abstraction into meaning, to make it perform at a higher frequency than any prose.
At age nine, before starting school, Murray had reportedly memorised large parts of Cassell’s Encyclopedia. Today, aged 76, he works on the Macquarie Dictionary, our national book of reference, helping to form, in a very real way other than his poetry, the English language as we speak it. Some words and phrases that have recently been acknowledged by Murray to have entered our vocabulary include blacksnow, hydropole, maisonette, marron, musset hut, nointer, schnitter, hobo glove, fugitive emissions, mummy blog, masstige, take a telling, riceburner.
In this book, language comes across as a mutably useful method of articulation. Humans and animals are observed together as sharers of the land squares of Bunyah. In Layers of Pregnancy, there is a kangaroo: As Rain the father scented ahead through time greens into motherhood expels a blood-clot to climb Wet womb to womb of fur And implants another in the ruby wall.
Les Murray, left, at home in Bunyah, on the NSW mid-north coast
Murray, the author of some of the best poetry about creatures that I’ve read, is especially adept at sensing creature-human language, as in his celebrated poem The Cows
on Killing Day: The carrion stinking dog, who is calf of human and wolf, Is chasing and eating little blood things the humans scatter and all me run away, over smells, toward the sky.
In The Iron Kitchen, animals understand human language — “The garden was all she had: the parrots were at it / and she came out and said to them, quite serious / like as if to reasonable people They are my peas. / And do you know? They flew off and never came back” — while in In Two Dogs, animal language is translated: “Orifice, he wriggles. Night fox? Night fox, with left pad wound./ Cement bag, hints his shoulder. Catmeat, boasts his tail, twice enjoyed.’’
The final line of Bat’s Ultrasound (not included in this collection) is: “A rare ear, our aery yahweh!” It’s a bit like Lewis Carroll, but the other way around. Jabberwocky makes nonsense words sound like English, whereas
Bat’s Ultrasound makes common English words sound like the bat’s scream. But both find a perfect pitch to make the sound recognisable — as (human) animal language. The reorientation and reconfiguration the English language is one of the remarkable things Murray’s poetry does. It’s intertwined with another thing he does with a near-perfect ear: the echoing of speech and voice.
And this book is a little museum for the warm, contracted language of Bunyah. Bunyah is “is a rural valley inland from the Pacific, around 300 kilometres north of Sydney”. What is language? A localised system, purpose-built and convenience adapted, often but not always belonging to a physical place. In the back of this volume, Murray has included a little glossary of Bunyah terms for the outsider’s use (To Bandicoot: to eat root vegetables straight out of the ground).
Where Murray is right, and poetry so often turns out to be a better long-distance athlete than prose, is in its efficiency. Very small facts, or compact lines, are so sturdy and architecturally constructed as to be able to carry the weight of a lot of meaning and the suggestion of a whole village’s life, across a century of growth and sameness. Here is the poem Child
ren’s Commandment in its entirety: Thou shalt not play Between milkings on a Sunday