Les Murray: Taller When Prone

Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010, 89pp.

This new book of Les Murray’s seems, on first readings at least, to be firmly in the late Murray style, inaugurated by Conscious and Verbal in 1999. These books will, you feel, inevitably be described as less combative, less in need of an opponent, often more playful. You have to be a quite a remove from the poems themselves to speak in these terms since the individual poems are usually, and intriguingly, very different from one another. At any rate, Taller When Prone encourages the taxonomist in me in that it makes me want to try to make some sense of the way different experiences get absorbed and expressed in different kinds of poems in the late Murray books. Murray’s poems do fall into various types or, at least, have familiar interests: there are portraits, poems devoted to arcane but interesting facts, poems revelling in the physicality of the world, poems revisiting personal and familial history, poems laying out Murray’s complex though by now familiar values and poems which analyse historical events in terms of those values. But this typing is fairly superficial. At a deeper level, involving the way the poems actually operate as poems, the way they come to their material and “deal with” it, there is another series of types, apparently independent of the material.

To take the portrait poems (of which there are more in Taller When Prone than in, say, The Biplane Houses) as an example. “The Double Diamond”, despite its title (which might have more significance than merely being a rural reference), is a portrait of an eighty year old man’s appearance at his wife’s funeral. It may be an attempt to pay tribute to a relative (“He was the family soldier / deadly marksman on tropic steeps.”) and to keep alive a certain rural generation, but to me it seems like a poem whose function is to support its final lines in which the eighty year old says, “Late years, I’ve lived at the hospital. / Now I’ll forget the way there.” It is, in other words, a celebration of rural wit embodying self-deprecating grace under pressure. Thus, structurally, it should probably be connected to poems like the comic one in which Murray is mistaken by a neighbouring lady diner for a writer of cookbooks. When these “books” are praised (as she leaves) Murray responds that they have obviously “done you nothing but good” before commenting “which was perhaps immodest / of whoever I am”. Or it might be grouped with “Phone Canvass” where a caller for the Blind Society responds to Murray’s “shy questions” about what blindness is like with a long poetic description before finishing “I can hear you smiling”.

Other portraits celebrate, like the one of Matt Laffan who lived with birth defects caused by the fact, Murray says, that the emigrations from Ireland led to a loss of lore as to which bloodlines should not be mixed. It is a celebration, though, in which the celebrator, in the concluding stanza, allows himself to be compared and contrasted with his subject:

Popular with women, and yet
vision of him in their company
often shows a precipice near
or a balcony-lit corridor.
I would have lacked his
heroism in being a hero.

The heroism, in other words, in being a visible rallying point for those suffering an affliction is greater than living with the affliction itself, because it makes one vulnerable to the group, one of the major baddies of Murray’s moral universe. Another poem celebrates a New England “outlaw”, Black Tommy McPherson, finally a victim of either social or anthropological snobbery (he was drugged by someone who was, perhaps, “a Darwin reader”) enacted through their agents, the police. Of course, in this view of things, there is the comforting fantasy that his “group” – “diggers, carriers and Cobb and Co. men / with relations and not” – wreak a kind of revenge by declaring the hotel black “in the new jargon of then”. The whole poem is done as a kind of bush ballad, in keeping with the time and location of the action, but it is ramshackle enough to look like a part-parody of the mode. The interesting part of the poem is the conclusion where, as with the Matt Laffan portrait, Murray brings himself into the picture:

I was thinking about New England,
of the Drummonds, the Wards and the Wrights,
how they’d all conjured gold from that country
by their different methods and lights.

All the gold I’d spun out of country
was imagery, remotely extolled,
but Tommy McPherson sported his with an air,
a black cousin with literal gold.

Although this is done with proper deference (Tommy’s gold is literal while the poet’s is merely metaphorical) there is still an alignment and affinity-making going on when Murray declares Tommy a cousin (metaphorically speaking). In fact some odd counter-images go on here. Tommy is black in colour but not “black” metaphorically – that experience is saved for his killers who become “black” in the sense of being removed from business and perhaps social intercourse. Tommy also owns literal “gold” whereas Murray, the poet, is the literal/literary man.

There are other portraits where the author doesn’t appear (at least, “literally”), such as that for the Cubanophile push member, Harry Reade, and a very moving poem, “Nursing Home”, where Murray presents one of his best realisations of sanctity on earth in the form of the elderly lady “distilled to love” who “sits holding hands / with an ancient woman / who calls her brother and George”.

And then there is a poem about the death and burial of Isaac Nathan, the setter of Byron’s Hebrew Melodies and perhaps son of the son of Poland’s last king who, finishing up in the antipodes, became, in 1864, the first tramcar victim in Sydney and who was buried in Camperdown cemetery near one of the putative originals for Dickens’s Miss Havisham. Of course I speak knowledgeably like this thanks to Wikipedia and a description such as I have given looks at the poem from the wrong way around. On first reading it is a congeries of completely arcane snippets of information which challenges you to get your head around it. As Sydney’s first musician, first attempted recorder of aboriginal chants, first victim of technology and member of an ethnicity always prone to persecution, Nathan may be being celebrated here as someone with whom Murray feels a bond (as he did with McPherson and Laffan), but this isn’t something the poem explores openly.

To me, although this is a portrait, its more important underlying mode involves the acquisition of arcane knowledge. There is a great deal of this in Murray’s poetry (the title of this book comes from a poem which lists a group of weird errors about the world) and it gives great pleasure both to its author and to its reader. A poem from The Biplane Houses where Murray identifies himself as a sufferer of Asperger’s Syndrome lists, among the features of that condition, “great memory”, but the poem that meshes best with it, for me, is a very early one, “Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver”, from the 1974 collection, Lunch & Counterlunch:

. . . . .
they simplify
who say the Artist’s a child
they miss the point closely: an artist
even if he has brothers, sisters, spouse
is an only child

among the self-taught
the loners, chart-freaks, bush encyclopedists
there are protocols, too; we meet
gravely as stiff princes, and swap fact:
did you know some bats can climb side on?

Mind you, Hitler was one of us.
He had a theory. We also count stern scholars
in whose disputes you almost hear the teenage
hobbyist still: this then is no Persicum variant
nor – alas, o fleeting time – a Messerschmitt variant
. . . . . 

Another result of reading Taller When Prone is that one would like to follow up these threads which link poems by mode. But that would involve investigating their origins and etiologies – an immense task that I will happily leave to future Murray scholars and critics.

“Visiting Geneva” is simultaneously a portrait of that town and of John Calvin. (It also contains, in its list of the historical refugees of Geneva, a great deal of, to me, arcane knowledge.) But it is really one of those poems where Murray’s ethical framework comes into play. Calvin can be analysed under many heads, very few of them at all sympathetic, but to Murray he represents two vices: the mechanical joylessness of a certain kind of Protestantism with which Murray was familiar from his upbringing and, more importantly, the desire to create division which leads to groups, classes, castes:

. . . . . 
but, when you were God
sermons went on all day
without numen or presence.
Children were denied play.

I had fun with your moral snobbery
but your great work’s your recruits,
your Winners and Losers. You
turn mankind into suits -

Even Italy, messer John.

Readers of Murray are fairly used to this and, it is true, the application of Murray’s ethical position is less abrasive than it once was. For the first thirty years of Murray’s poetic career it was so extreme that it was something that readers, critics and scholars simply couldn’t avoid though discussion of it seemed uncomfortable and fed back into Murray’s own difficulties of those times by making him seem (to himself) assaulted on all sides. But if somebody makes a career of punching you in the prejudices (with their own prejudices) what are you to do: sit quietly and accept it? In the poems of Taller When Prone there is less of a fullscale assault and more of a quiet niggling that most readers can pass over with no more than a pained smile as coming with the Murray territory. One poem, “The 41st Year of 1968”, ascribes the horrors of last year’s Victorian bushfires to the hippy tendency to decry clear felling of rainforest and to seek homes in the deep bush. It’s title also suggests that somehow the poets of the great poetic upsurge of that period, sometimes called the “generation of 68”, were in some way involved (despite the fact that they were, by and large, extremely urban). In the Murray universe, it is true, there will be subterranean (probably metaphoric) connections between the writings of a great generation of poets whose values were, poetically, socially and politically, opposed to his own and the doings of those who wanted to drop out into the bush. Again, the poem looks like an elegy on the surface but is really a punch, or at least, a speculative jab. Another poem on the subject of bushfire, “Hesiod on Bushfire”, absorbs the entire horrible experience into Murray’s larger perspective in a way that recalls his debate with the late Peter Porter (Porter’s wonderful dig at Hesiod and his rural verities in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod” prompted an essay in reply from Murray) and even “The Burning Truck” the earliest poem of Murray’s Selecteds. “Hesiod on Bushfire” concludes:

. . . . .
Sex is Fire, in the ancient Law.
Investment is fire. Grazing beasts are cool Fire
backburning paddocks to the door.
Ideology is Fire.

The British Isles and giant fig trees are Water.
Horse-penis helicopters are watery TV
but unblocked roads and straight volunteers
are lifesaving spume spray.

Water and Fire chase each other in jet
planes. May you never flee through them
at a generation’s end, as when
the Great Depression died, or Marvellous Melbourne.

This is, in mode, quintessential Murray. It is enormously compressed and would take a lot of teasing out before one became comfortable with that sudden conclusion. Compression is usually a poetic virtue but it does have the additional advantage for Murray of compressing his social ideas into gnomic phrases that act as talismans and are difficult for a hostile reader to unravel.

Another poem, “Eucalypts in Exile”, is intriguing because it looks like a celebration of something distinctively Australian but sustains itself by being built on what I’ve called arcane knowledge: we are told that overseas plantings of gum trees have been thrown in Paris uprisings, been used to sop up malaria, and so on. But the poem finishes by moving the entire material into the world of allegory. Eucalypts are “loveable singly or unmarshalled” but they are “merciless in a gang”. They burn violently, “they have to shower sometimes in Hell”, and they cause the kinds of bushfires that “Hesiod on Bushfire” and “The 41st Year of 1968” are about, but at an allegorical level they represent groups motivated by ideology – the quintessential villains in the Murray universe.

Another of the types that turn up in this book are what you might call “travels in retrospect”. Travel literature of any kind is intriguing because one learns a lot about the personality of the writer who, in good travel writing, subjects him or herself to experiences which will test comfortable ethno-certainties. Taller When Prone begins with an interesting visit to the Taj Mahal, “From a Tourist Journal”. This poem starts with a brilliant compressed statement of difference:

We came to Agra over honking roads
being built under us, past baby wheat
and undoomed beasts and walking people.

Wonderful as this is (what prose travel writer can be said to be so luminously compressed?), it has to be pointed out that the poem, rather than lose its bearings in an alien reality which is beyond empathic connection, stresses the solid strength of the observing self. Murray is capable of fitting something as alien as the Taj, the Moghul culture that produced it and the modern-day inheritors of that culture, into his own system. He understands the poor who wear soldiers’ uniforms, “I’d felt that lure too, and understood” and the poem finishes with a description of a world of groups and hierarchies and perspectives and depths that is familiar to us from Murray’s poems about Australia:

Schoolkids from Nagaland posed with us
below it, for their brag books, and new cars
streamed left and right to the new world,
but from Agra Fort we’d viewed, through haze,

perfection as a factory making depth,
pearl chimneys of the Taj Mahal.

The tension that makes this a powerful work seems to me to be between its superlative rendering of difference and a simultaneous assertion of sameness, an assertion that “my system works, it can cope with this”.

It is possible that this is what is happening in a difficult three-line poem, “The Springfields”: “Lead drips out of / a burning farm rail. / Their Civil War.” I understand the basic situation here: when farm timber was burnt, the lead of the bullets fired in the Civil War which had been embedded in them, melted out. And the bullets were fired by Springfield rifles – a name always likely to produce wry smiles at its ironies. But in the Murray universe, civil war is the war between castes. Is he really suggesting that the American Civil War was a chance for the foul urban elites of the north to attack the honest white poor of the South? History is a lot more complex than that and one can’t believe that Murray would be so reductive.

There’s a lot that I’ve omitted by focussing on the different kind of modes in Murray. I’ve strategically managed to be in a position where I don’t have to say anything about the really cryptic poems like “Medallion”, “Singing Tour in Vietnam” and “The Fallen Golfer”. There are also poems of landscape which turn out to be poems of perspective. And there is a fascinating poem, “As Country Was Slow”, which focuses on the new roads around Taree and Buladelah. Roads are a Murray obsession and the cars that drive on them lead back, as so much in this book does, to “Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver” where they are described as “high-speed hermitage[s]”. “As Country Was Slow” contains a magnificent description of Australia:

We’re one Ireland, plus
at least six Great Britains
welded around Mars
and cross-linked by cars - 
Benzene, diesel, autobahn;
they’re a German creation,
these private world-splicers.

I love the idea of Central Australia being described as Mars. How the rest is read depends: it could be referring simply to Australia’s total land area but if you want to stress the pun in Ireland, you might say the intention was for it to represent Tasmania while the six Great Britains were the mainland capitals. If you read it geographically then Western Australia (out on the western margins) might be Ireland. And if you read it in terms of ethnic heritage then it might mean that the “Anglo”-derived population of Australia outnumbered the Celtic by six to one. At any rate, the poem has a wonderful conclusion which returns to Murray himself, partaking of both the modern world of cars and the older rural world of horse-drawn carts and wondering whether, with a fuel or economic crisis, the future might finish up looking like the past. In doing so he speaks of his own ride to the graveyard in that vehicle which is always slow:

The uncle who farmed our place
was an Arab of his day
growing fuel for the horses
who hauled the roads then.
1914 ended that. Will I
see fuel crops come again?
I’ll ride a slow vehicle

before cars are slow
as country was slow.