Evoca­tive trib­ute to poet’s ru­ral abode

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Anna Hey­ward is a writer and re­porter based in New York.

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

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