Les Murray: The Biplane Houses

Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006, 90pp.

Les Murray’s total-poems-thus-far has an elephantine size and is a collection rich beyond normal readerly expectations. Future critics will need to work hard to follow and to try to describe its exact shape though already a basic pattern seems to have been laid down, one which culminates in Fredy Neptune and the bitterer poems of Subhuman Redneck Poems as a kind of catharsis. Whatever the accuracy of this, there is no doubt that The Biplane Houses forms a group with the previous Conscious and Verbal (1999) and Poems the Size of Postcards (2002). They inhabit the same corner of Murray-land and speak the same language. Perhaps it might be better to say that they inhabit the same micro-climate. There is a relaxed quality about the poetry though the themes and abstractions are recognizably those of Murray. They all post-date Murray’s catastrophic mental and physical illnesses and – what reader can say? – may reflect a kind of convalescent, “I really shouldn’t be here” calm.

There are great pleasures to be had reading Murray’s poems. Just as he has been in the past the most combative of poets he is also one of those who gives most pleasure. And the pleasures come in recognizable modes, modes which circulate throughout Conscious and Verbal and Poems the Size of Postcards as well as this new volume. I’d like to focus on these poetic modes rather than the evolving panorama of Murray’s complex views on Australia, religion, the human race etc. After all, the modes form the arsenal for the poet’s multi-pronged response to existence.

There are the cryptic squibs, for example. The Biplane Houses is framed by two of them, “The Averted” (“The one whose eyes / do not meet yours / is alone at heart / and looks where the dead look / for an ally in his cause” and “Industrial Relations” (“Said the conjuror Could I have afforded / to resign on the spot when you ordered / me to saw the Fat Lady / in half before payday / I would have. I find wage cuts sordid.”) Neither of these is quite as simple as it appears on the surface or as expectations based on a previous experience of this genre in the work of other poets might lead us to expect. Usually the pleasure comes immediately from the recognition of a deep truth placed in a beautiful syntactic shape. Think of Auden’s “Private faces in public places / are wiser and nicer / than public faces in private places”. Murray’s two squibs are predicated on his complex analysis of the world (that is, they are not derived from a widely-held but perhaps not understood or rarely expressed view of things) and, I have to say, really resist interpretation. Is sawing the fat lady in half to be seen as a punning example of a “wage-cut” – ie an operation paid for? I can’t help feeling that the resistance to interpretation is deliberate and that Murray’s squibs are half riddle though I could be being particularly interpretively obtuse here. There is nothing cryptic about “The Test”, however, and “Blueprint II” makes sense to anyone who has ever thought about what a Christian heaven might actually be like “Life after death / with all the difficult people / away in a separate felicity”. Here everything depends on the last word’s unspoken chiming with that coldly bureaucratic word “facility” and might well open out into a comment on the current government’s movement of people it considers difficult out to an off-shore “facility”. At any rate, the meanings here open out rather than try to close themselves off.

“The Statistics of Good” is a kind of extended version of “The Test”. A very beautiful sentence extended over two stanzas recalls Archbishop Mannix’s successful attempts to defeat the conscription campaign in the first world war . Then the final stanza returns to the proposition that Mannix saved the lives of perhaps half “the fit men of a generation”:

How many men? Half a million? Who knows?
Goodness counts each and theirs.
Politics and Death chase the numbers.

Even here, however, it is not immediately obvious why “theirs” is included.

Murray’s witticisms are thus unusual in demanding that we are familiar with the Murray interpretation of the world. We can follow the rest of the book through by looking at the kinds of poems Murray deploys and the relationships between them. The second poem, “Early Summer Hail with Rhymes in O” begins:

Suddenly the bush was America:
dark woods, and in them like snow.
The highway was miles of bath house,
bulk steam off ice shovelled over blue.

If one of Murray’s signatures is his invention, and special use, of abstractions, another is his distinctive syntactic shifts. The prose version of this opening might run “Suddenly the bush looked like something you might find in the north-east of the United States and being in the bush was like being in a snow storm in those woods”. In the first line the shift from simile to metaphor twists the meaning rather than simply intensifies it and the second line works by intense and distorting compression to produce “and in them like snow”. It looks back to an early poem “Once in a Lifetime, Snow” and thus connects up with other Murray poems and it also of course pulls Dante and Frost into the picture. The tone, though, is light and celebratory more than anything and concludes in a typically Murray way by associating delight with exhaled breath (as well as punning on “hail”):

Hills west of hills, twigs, hail to Dubbo,
all dunes of pursed constraint exhaling Ohh.

I think of this poem as being, if not exactly in a celebratory mode, at least in a mode which is open to the amazingness of the world. In this kind of poem the issue is not of language “capturing’ reality so much as dancing at fever pitch to keep up with the natural world. “Airscapes” is a good example as are “An Acrophobe’s Dragon” and the extraordinary “A Levitation of Land”. It is perhaps significant that two of these poems deal with the sky. This mode is both intense syntactically and also disjunctive – as though a set of verses were being thrown at a subject. Three stanzas from “Airscapes” for example:

The bubble-column of a desert whirlwind
fails, and plastic-bag ghosts
stay ascended, pallid and rare.

Over simmering wheat land,
over tree oils, scrub growing in rust
and way out to the storeyed forties.

Here be carbons, screamed up
by the djinn of blue kohl highways
that have the whish of the world
for this scorch of A.D.

These poems submit to reality rather than interpret it, or map it against a pre-existing interpretation. Other, less elevated poems, like “Travelling the British Roads”, “The Domain of the Octopus”, “Melbourne Pavement Coffee” (“Storeys over storeys without narrative / an estuarine vertical imperative / plugged into vast salt-pans of pavement”) and “Sunday on a Country River” share this disjunctive approach to their subjects. Perhaps the aim is a kind of cubist multi-perspectival view, perhaps it is a desire to write short poems and connect them into a buzzing whole. If it is the latter then a collection poem like “Twelve Poems” may be closer to Murray’s essential methods than it seems on the surface. Certainly “Lateral Dimensions” is a group of separate poems made into a whole:

haunted house -
one room the cattle
never would go in

mowing done -
each thing’s a ship again
on a wide green harbour

and so on through fourteen similar poem/sentences.

A little poem, “Winter Winds”, shows how good Murray can be at the virtues of a traditional lyric where syntax falls beautifully through line breaks:

Like appliqué on nothingness
like adjectives in hype
fallen bracts of the bougain-
eddy round the lee verandah
like flowers still partying
when their dress has gone home.

Yes it is slight but lyric poems of this kind always are – they don’t rely on the support of allegory or ideas to keep them upright – and there is something appealing about a very large poet with very large ideas treading so light-footedly.

Other poems do want to be interpreted as allegories, especially a number of the narratives. In “Upright Clear Across” children recall acting as guides on the old Pacific Highway when it flooded. They walked across the submerged road to show that it was still there and that its depth was something the waiting cars could cope with. In exchange, “every landing brought us two bobs and silver”. The situation here, children sure-footed in a flood, must have a symbolic significance: the flood is the weight of the world or of experience or it could be the pressure of the conformity demanded by the adult world. At any rate it is an ability that the passage of time renders irrelevant:

and then bridges came, high level,
and ant-logs sailed on beneath affluence.

“The Shining Slopes and Planes” describes a carpenter fixing up the Murrays’ tin roof. In a way it is a hymn to the stylish simplicity of anyone who is an expert in their field – in this case a tradesman: “Peter the carpenter walks straight up / the ladder, no hands, / and buttons down lapels of the roof”. But it is also clearly a poem about living on the ground and living in the sky – the roof is full of grass and miniature trees which have grown in the gutter. The fact that its last line produces the book’s title is also a clue to its significance.

If there is a stylistic feature that unites these modes it is Murray’s love of the pun. The title of the poem I have just mentioned refers to slopes and planes and perhaps generates the final image of “the biplane houses of Australia” through a pun on “planes”. This punning drive is not just a matter of verbal over-excitement, it is more a case of the poet seeing connections at a verbal as well as a visual level. We know this because “Black Belt in Marital Arts” faces up to the issue. It looks at first a minor, joke poem, but turns out to be crucial:

Pork hock and jellyfish. Poor cock.
King Henry had a marital block.
A dog in the manager? Don’t mock!
denial flows past Cairo.

A rhyme is a pun that knows where
to stop. Puns pique us with the glare
of worlds too coherent to bear
by any groan person.

Nothing moved him like her before.
It was like hymn and herbivore,
Serbs some are too acerbic for -
punning move toward music.

A rhyme is a pun that knows where to stop because it connects words (through sound) that otherwise have no connections (“stars”, “cars”, “jars”) but to someone seeing connections everywhere a rhyme is just a reminder of some of the less obvious ones. Puns reveal these connections to a greater extent thus creating a world of overwhelming coherence, far too much to bear for “any groan person”.

Thus the Murray world is full of symbolic correspondences. As a result riddling and punning are more than stylistic tics. There is a Murray mode though where meaning remains elusive though it is not at all like the riddling and punning modes I have been writing about. This might be described as the formal, “panel”, lyric. In a way they recall the early poem, “The Princes’ Land”, which was a formal, allegorical narrative in a very faux-medieval mode. These too look medieval in their appearance in blocks with refrain. “On the Central Coast Line” is one of these, its refrain mutating from a simple “a head ahead” (presumably to recall the sound of the train lines) but concluding, cryptically:

We knock inside a tunnel
and are released to wide chrome
to jelly-sting wharf towns -
if that head turned 
to show one certain face 
this would not be now 

It is as though a fairly standard Murray poem has been crossbred with a poem about what occurs inside someone’s mind as they look at other passengers in the train.

And what are we to make of “Leaf Brims”?

A clerk looks again at a photo,
decides, puts it into a file box
which he then ties shut with string
and the truth is years away.

A Naval longboat is rowed upstream
where jellied mirrors fracture light
all over sandstone river walls
and the truth is years away.

A one-inch baby clings to glass
on the rain side of a window as
a man halts, being led from office
but the truth is years away.

Our youngest were still child-size when
starched brims of the red lotus last
nodded over this pond in a sunny breeze
and the truth was years away.

I won’t bore readers with my cogitations about this – plainly a poem in which justice occurs in the sacral future – but its difficulties lie not in the ideas which form its context (the sort in which a smiling author seems to say, “You need a course in Murray”) but in its internalness. It is almost a very private poem.

Finally in The Biplane Houses are the narratives. These cover a wide variety of modes ranging from allegory (“Upright Clear Across”) to family experience (“Me and Je Reviens”) to personal experience (“The Succession”). But the one which is most intriguing is one which doesn’t deal with narrative meaning in a way which we are familiar with in Murray’s work. This is “Through the Lattice Door”:

This house, in lattice to the eaves,
diagonals tacked across diagonals,

is cool as a bottle in wicker.
The sun, through stiff lozenge leaves,

prints verandahs in yellow Argyle.
Under human weight, the aged floorboards

are subtly joined, and walk with you;
French windows along them flicker.

In this former hospital’s painted wards
lamplit crises have powdered to grief.

Inner walling, worn back to lead-blue,
stays moveless as the one person still

living here stands up from reading,
the one who returned here from her life,

up steps, inside the guesswork walls,
since in there love for her had persisted.

Though this has the familiar Murray graces (the floorboards, creaking, “walk with you”) it is hard to determine the author’s exact stake in the poem. It doesn’t seem to be making a point, in other words. As a result there is a kind of luminous quality about it as though Murray had given up his position as controlling author (almost always, in Murray’s poetry, tenaciously held on to) and allowed the poem to speak for itself as the poem of this woman’s life. I like it, though, of course, there is no way of knowing whether it will be a one-off of the harbinger of a new, relaxed mode where the authorial control over meaning and significance is loosened a little.