70 on Nam Le Les Murray’s ‘Collected Poems’ His own gravity He just can’t take it seriously. And how could you expect him to? There he sits, in black and white, arms splayed on leather rests, the toothy grin on his face that of grand doyen but also wolfy grandmother – utterly at ease, an already winner. He’d bet his life, as he’s said, on poetry; here is the prize. Les Murray is 80 and his nearly 800 pages, is a magisterial achievement. A life’s work. And hasn’t he just dressed up for the celebration: his big black boots rebuffing light, his cargo pants creaseless. He brings to mind (perhaps it’s cruel to say) the brute uncle who won the lottery and then waited out his nephew’s poem about him, “blackened in his riches”. And black is apt, black is right: black-hardbound, black-fat-spined, the cover photo matt black with only the head and hands aglow. As though the man is in the process of sinking back into his medium. As though it’ll soon be impossible to tell what’s Murray and what’s what’s around him – the curved-back club chair, the rough parquet floorboards, the indistinct stage-drape dark behind; he’ll be captioned only by his superimposed name and title, his body become corpus, his corpus this many-leafed monument of a book. Monument is no doubt the aim. I dwell on the cover partly because it’s the only new part of the package. There are no previously unpublished poems in this collection; in fact, the first 554 pages are transplanted wholesale – word for word, poem for poem, page for page – from Murray’s last fat also published by Black Inc., in 2006. (That cover image, which I loved, showed a sitting elephant and a little girl clinging to a fraction of its rump.) Per the press release, this latest “contains all the poems [Murray] wants to preserve, apart from the verse novel I’ll admit to being a little surprised that in the 12 years since his last Murray’s estimation of his first 12 books – spanning almost four decades of periodic publishing – hasn’t changed even a little. Still, we have this new which is increased by poems from (2006), (2010) and (2015), and I’m hardly complaining. Clive James on the back cover calls it “one of the great books of the modern world” (a quote from a review in this magazine), and why not? (Here I feel duty-bound to point out that Murray has praised What a jolly old giant! Collected Poems, James in other reviews.) The “great book” claim becomes grander yet when we remember that this book is still a book-in-progress; extensions will be added till the sad day “Collected” becomes “Complete”. What James is really referring to, then, is not Murray’s book of poems but his poetic oeuvre as one of the greatest of the modern world (whatever “modern” means), and, again, why not? The poetry speaks for itself. And its voice is a spate of voices – vast, fast, braided, bearing down and lifted up, “a mainstream …” (to use a metaphor the poet deadpan invites) “… with footnotes, a folklorists’ river”. It is polytonal, panchromatic, multichannelled. It takes in all it moves through, it surges through the deep. (It sometimes sputters in the shallows.) Everything is natural to it. Salt and fresh, at thalweg and in estuary, this river Murray is always vital – it is, the closer you look at it, the more full of life, full of nutrient, humus, mineral, effluent, clay and grit. It is chthonically sourced, most of it at any time submerged – but every part gets its turn at that heady interface of light and air. It is, to use a word of power in Murray’s ur-poem, This poses a problem for a close-reading critic: one looks at these 700-odd poems and finds, over and over Collected Poems, Collected Fredy Neptune”. Collected, Collected, The Biplane Houses Waiting for the Past Taller When Prone inexhaustible. arts & letters — poetry Photograph by Joan Marcus
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