The Monthly : 2018-12-01

FRONT PAGE : 73 : 73

FRONT PAGE

arts & letters — poetry again, any number of ways to see them, any number of things to say. Never the same river twice. This aspect of Murray’s poetry – its energetic, protean inexhausti­bility – frustrates the standard practice of picking out a handful of poems to speak for the rest. To discuss a poem or any of its actions feels, with this particular poet, particular­ly arbitrary: it is to omit, unconscion­ably, almost everything. One thinks of Newton picking up beach pebbles; it would be as if, thereby, he claimed possession of the whole great ocean of truth. So what I decided to do was read the collection as curated chronology. Start to finish: try to arrive at a sense of the larger, lifelong course. And what a read it was. Ridiculous, I know, to claim credit for actually reading, cover to cover, a book you’re paid to write about, but I did and I do and I can tell you this: Don’t do it! It’ll tax not just your neck and carpal tunnel tendons – I ended up reading it in bed, lying prone, pen in hand, like a journallin­g teenager – but your mental resilience too. There’s such a thing as too much Les. of 20 or so quatrains, tolled by the thudding refrain, “Axe-fall, echo and silence,” you can see – hear – Murray clearing for himself a “dreaming silence” out of the “unhuman silence” of his country – a space in which he will do his life’s work. Job done: “I shoulder my axe and set off home through the stillness.” What follows is work that ranges self-reliantly through time, geography, memory, history and art, yet never shakes off this rural flavour, nor wants to. To scan the poems is to fall into vernacular rhythms background­ed by the varied gaits and tempos of farm animals, the heavy idle and revving and fuel-cough of tractors, bulldozers, combine seeders, dragline scoops. “All days were work days on the farm”, claims one poem; another refers to “farming’s fourteen-hour days”. And work lies at the heart of Murray’s body of work. In the exterior sense that the prolific poet is still the farmboy for whom energy is non-optional – Murray has vouched that if a poem fails, he tackles it afresh, works it through and through till it’s done. But more importantl­y, internally: A Murraian poem is worked, is almost machined, subjected to extraordin­ary energy and pressure until it sets into the required compressio­n, complexity, precision, play and surprise. Its lines are made of higher-grade stuff. This conversion is embodied, perhaps, the moment poem-Murray grabs a live wire in “The Powerline Incarnatio­n”: At first, even as each poem from its opening line seems to blush its primal influence – “The Burning Truck”, Auden; “Tableau in January”, Lawrence; “The Trainee, 1914”, Sassoon; “The Widower in the Country”, Yeats – you’re aware of a sensibilit­y so selfconfid­ent it’s already brinking on sovereignt­y. The next poem, “Noonday Axeman”, tips it over. Over the space Not at first. The Monthly Hr. New episode – OUT NOW Tim Winton on saving Australia’s other great reef Listen to the magazine. The Monthly Hour. A podcast. Available on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. 71

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