Les Murray: Waiting for the Past

Collingwood: Black Inc., 2015, 78pp.

Among the many marvellous poems of Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past, there is one of special interest and significance called “I Wrote a Little Haiku”:

I wrote a little haiku
titled The Springfields:

Lead drips out of
a burning farm rail.
Their Civil War.

Critics didn’t like it,
said it was obscure ”“
The title was the rifle
both American sides bore,
lead was its heavy bullet
the Minié, which tore

often wet with blood and sera
into the farmyard timbers
and forests of that era,
wood that, burnt even now,

might still re-melt and pour
out runs of silvery ichor
the size of wasted semen
it had annulled before.

There are a lot of interesting things happening here: firstly at the level of the poem itself. Because contemporary poetry can range in length it is possible actually to embed a poem within another one rather than merely allude to it. The fact that “The Springfields” is quoted (it appeared in Murray’s previous book, Taller When Prone) means that one poem is embedded in another in the same way, of course, that the lead bullets are embedded in the forests and farm rails of the battlefields of the American Civil War. The embedding is announced formally by having the first two lines in seven and five syllables respectively, thus preparing for the five, seven, five pattern of a traditional haiku and the pun on “bore” reveals a meditating, poetic mind whereby such connections rise to the surface. The poem thus belongs to that small but profoundly satisfying (for the reader) genre of unusual and thought-provoking mimeseis. Even mimesis can be said to “embed” meaning in the sense of enacting it and so “I Wrote a Little Haiku” turns out, at one level at least, to be about how meaning is embedded in a poem. To follow this line of thought allegorically, the suggestion might be that the “true” meaning of a poem is revealed (melted out as silvery ichor) only many years later (perhaps when a new, superior generation of critics of Australian poetry has arisen).

Contradicting this reading, slightly, is the undeniable fact that this is a poem which is not prepared to wait for the future but which wants to explain the meaning of the first poem now. Thus, structurally, it follows the old “Text – Gloss” form which is quite different to “Meaning hidden within and awaiting release” which is the one suggested by the poem’s content. The explanation that the larger poem gives is one which ties the event of the released metal of the bullets into Murray’s notion of war and the way in which war can be an assault on a generation of young men. In the case of the Civil War, where men from rural towns joined the same regiment, a particularly fierce encounter (the “Bloody Angle” or the “Peach Orchard) could deprive a community of an entire male generation. Thus the silvery ichor is not only meaning but also wasted semen. And, finally, one has to entertain the remote possibility that “I Wrote a Little Haiku” is a hoax poem, a mine embedded in a text, a deliberately dud poem designed to attract critics whose love of complex mimeticisms and lack of any sense of value will make them easy dupes: but that way paranoia lies!

It is also a poem which raises the complex issue of obscurity in poetry. Although obscurity ties in with the conscious riddling of many of Murray’s poems (an issue dealt with by Lisa Gorton in her review in the Sydney Review of Books), riddling is only one, fairly benevolent kind of obscurity. In the Indo-European poetic tradition, riddling arises out of the poet’s meditation on the connectedness (often through kennings and other sorts of metaphor) between things and, especially in the Germanic tradition, between things and their names. But, basically, riddles have only one answer and all power lies with the riddler. The riddle may be obscure but that is because the solver’s mind is not as attuned to reality and metaphor as is the riddler’s. In a way, “Yregami”, a poem from The Biplane Houses, shows how much Murray ponders these matters: there, metaphors are interestingly inverted, the tenor becoming the bearer (“A warm stocking caught among limbs / evokes a country road . . .” rather than the more conventional “a country road looks like a stocking”). The title, which sounds like an interesting Japanese art practice, is of course, the word “imagery” appropriately inverted: you have no freedom of interpretation here, you just have to “get it”.

But this is only one kind of obscurity. The sort of obscurity which emerges in “The Springfields” is the obscurity of disjunction. It could be argued that it’s endemic to a genre like haiku where, conventionally, two images are juxtaposed. The human mind, being what it is, always tries to grasp the connection between juxtaposed elements, even in more extreme cases where the method is entirely aleatory. But good poems of paired images often have solutions in commonly accepted cultural values: the images, that is, are two boats in the same ocean. In Murray’s original poem, the matrix from which the meaning of the juxtaposition arises is Murray’s own ideas about warfare and young men. If you’re au fait with these, the odds are that you will twig to the intended meaning.

My own desultory thoughts about obscurity in poetry are inclined to relate it to structure. Obscurity in ordinary language use – ranging from non-fictional prose like reports (and reviews) to genre fiction – is an infringement of what is really a mercantile relationship between writer and reader. And the fault is always likely to lie with the writer (though he or she might invoke the excuse that they didn’t realise that their readers were so dumb!). Obscurity in poetry differs because poetry is one of the limited areas of language use where there isn’t a mercantile relationship between writer and reader: if we buy books of poetry it is probably in the hope of having our own inner lives expanded or challenged but there are no guarantees anywhere on the book that allow us to return it, like a toaster, if it didn’t work. I’m inclined to think that there is at least one kind of obscurity in poetry that is a fault in a poem’s structure so that parts of it become subject to more stress than they can bear. An incomprehensible haiku is just two images that don’t relate and thus, structurally, the poem falls apart. Of course there are other kinds of obscurity: Yeats’s “Byzantium” is a magnificently integrated poem structurally, but the world of meaning in which it exists is so complex and alien that it might come from a different culture.

Finally in these thoughts about “I Wrote a Little Haiku”, one is forced, reluctantly in my case, to face questions of value. Is the larger poem a better poem than “The Springfields”? Does this question make any sense? It will be no surprise to readers who have put up with this analysis this far, that I think the longer poem is superior, essentially on structural grounds. The tie between the first two lines of “The Springfields” and the last is just a bit weak. What if the last line were replaced by “Medieval rhetoric” (admittedly seven syllables rather than five, but Murray’s has four) turning it, if it were to be embedded in a longer poem, into a short poem about how time and the application of the various methods of allegorical reading will gradually release the silvery meaning? Or even something like “Mahler’s faint hope” (four syllables) tying the meaning to the hope that in the future listeners or hearers will be born who understand the meaning?

As I’ve said, riddling and unexpected puzzles form an important part of Murray’s approach to his art and the poems of Waiting for the Past are full of them. Sometimes one feels that if one only knew Murray’s distinctive analysis of the world in more detail, these puzzles would solve themselves, but sometimes one isn’t so sure. In “Whale Sounding”, for example, we are treated to six lines of brilliant evocative description (“vertically diving, / thick roof tail / spilling salt rain . . .”) capped by “bubba dog down”. “The Backroad Collections” has a similar, if expanded, structure. Thirteen lines of brilliant, linguistically lush and celebrative description of the sort of second-hand clothes that can be found on the verandahs of country shops (“yellow bordure and buttony rib, / pouched swimsuits, cretonne ad lib / in front of blush-crimson sleeves”) is followed by a sort of “altogether elsewhere” moment:

and cattle who haven’t yet entered
any building wander, contented,
munching under their last trees

till a blowsy gold-ginger horizon
stacked up out of the day’s talk
glorifies and buries the sun.
A nude moon burns the newsprint version.

It’s tempting to see it, at first glance, as an extended haiku although it may well be that “The Fall of Rome” is its true structural original. It remains a challenging poem though. At first you think of it as being built out of its oppositions: a catalogue of outmoded fashions (“fashion” is always a loaded word in Murray) of dress is contrasted to the naked, wandering cattle. Basic farming culture, perhaps, juxtaposed with trivial cultural obsessions. But the description of the clothes is so linguistically celebratory that it is hard to see any negative judgements here. And what are these cattle doing? The fact that they haven’t yet entered any building and that the trees which they munch under are their “last” trees suggests that a particular building, an abattoir, awaits them in which case they are beef, not dairy, cattle. And what are we to make of the last four lines? Presumably the opposition of fashion and farming is transposed to an opposition between social trivia (talk which, ultimately, covers the sun) and the clear, monochromatic view of the moon. At any rate, there are resonances here with other poems from this collection: the idea of animals being naked – here not stated specifically but arising as part of the oppositions of the poem – appears in “Money and the Flying Horses” where stallions are described as “the nudest creatures alive”.

If “I Wrote a Little Haiku” redirects our reading of “The Springfields” towards the nature of war, there are plenty of poems in Waiting for the Past which take that subject up. “The Murders of Women” is a poem about domestic violence and, perhaps, also an attack on ignorant as well as ideologically driven interpretations of the phenomenon whereby:

. . . . . 
It brings the blue sergeants
to push down a head
still full of a war
that will feed the guess-writers.
One woman. Fifty-two women.

And then there are sectarian wars. “All of Half Way” is about leaving the Catholic south of Ireland for the Protestant north and “Persistence of the Reformation” tracks that historical phenomenon (“four hundred years of ship-spread / jihad at first called / the Thirty Years War”) down from sixteenth century Europe to the farms of rural Australia. This poem escapes the charge of being sectarian propaganda by its emphasis on the way in which decency tried to alleviate the worst of the problems – it’s a humanist poem at heart:

. . . . . 
while mutual help and space
and breach of cliché and face
here civilised the boundary fences
. . . . .
the local dead
still mostly lie in ranks
assigned them by denomination
though belief may say Ask Mum
and unpreached help
has long been the message.

But the subject of war, in its widest extent, also emerges in those poems which deal with the limiting of sexuality. “High Rise” is about the new, high rise cities of China (“Latest theory is, the billions / will slow their overbreeding // only when consuming in the sky . . . . . above all the only children”) and “Nuclear Family Bees” is a semi-allegorical account of the way in which native bees do not form self-protecting colonies (“pumped from a common womb”) but, instead, build “single wax houses” much more vulnerable to predators.

“Raising an Only Child” seems to connect with such poems but it is really one of those personal poems – like “Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver” or “The Tune on Your Mind” – where Murray considers elements of his own personality as well as their origins. “Raising an Only Child” is actually a brilliant analysis not so much of an only child as of the phenomenon of an only child raised by parents who, themselves, come from multi-child families and thus “found you a mystery”:

. . . . . 
Expecting rejection, you tell
stories of yourself to the hills,
confused by your few instincts.

Employable only solo or top,
making friends from your own kind
is relief with blades in it
. . . . . 
Unable to flirt 
or credit most advances
you sit and mourn
links of your self-raising chain.

Murray belongs to that group of poets born before the Second World War and his personal overview of history is thus a long one. Many of these poems are about the past and many are about the changes that have taken place in the last three-quarters of a century. “Growth”, from which the book’s title (yet another puzzle) is taken, is based on the childhood experience of the death of an elderly neighbour, and “High Speed Trap Space”, though it might ultimately be an allegory about not swerving from the path of one’s faith, is based on an adolescent experience. And then there is “When Two Percent Were Students” (whose opening line, “Gorgeous expansion of life” is a good description of what readers might hope to get from poetry) which goes back to Murray’s days at university and implicitly contrasts the past with a present in which almost all young people are students of one kind or another. “Holland’s Nadir” recalls a visit paid to a Dutch submarine at the end of the war but moves, in its conclusion, to a wider statement about language and nations in the post-war period:

. . . . . 
The only ripostes still open
to them were torpedoes
and their throaty half-

American-sounding language.
Speaking a luckier one
we set off home then. Home

and all that word would mean
in the age of rebirthing nations
which would be my time.

Sometimes the personal component of these “historical” poems is reduced in favour of a more generalised interest in cultural history. “1960 Brought the Electric” is about the arrival of electricity in the country: though generally considered to be a miraculous thing, the artisanal skill of judging “whether boxwood / or mahogany baked longer / or hotter or better” in a wood-fired stove was lost as a result. And “Big Rabbit at the Verandah” details another war, that against the rabbit in the pre-myxomatosis years: it’s a cultural recollection spurred by the sight of a large “fleecy-chested and fawn” specimen sighted at the verandah. The way in which the change is embodied in the behaviour of working dogs, mentioned in this poem, is taken up in “Dog Skills” where what had in the past been “untrained mixed-breed biters / screamed at from the house” have morphed into surprisingly professional animals, going about their work with no fuss at all:

. . . . . 
Now new breeds and skill
silence the paddocks

a murmured vowel
brings collie and kelpie flying
along the road-cutting

till each makes its leap
of judgement into the tractor
tray, loose-tongued and smiling front.

Of course the expanded wealth of historical perspective that comes with age is counterbalanced by an increase in general physical decrepitude. A number of poems – including “English as a Second Language” and “The Plaster Eater” – refer to Murray’s wife, Valerie, his long partnership with her and the inevitable separations of hospital stays. The most moving poem in the book is “Last World Before the Stars” a vision of depression induced by separation which is imagined as standing on Pluto:

. . . . . 
looking off the short horizon,
the Sun a white daystar of squinch
glazing the ground like frozen twilight,

no life, no company, no nearness,
never a memory or a joke . . .

Future scholars will probably make much of the fact that this poem appears next to “Bird Signatures” which is in every sense positive, celebrating the beauties of the natural world and, even more, poetry’s ability to convey something of it. Being able to say that the “Tiny spinnakers / of blue wrens wag among waves / of uncut lawn grass” or that the cry of the Nankeen night heron is like a Japanese wood saw or an “Oz nail pulled out” – presumably reluctantly and by a claw hammer – is always something to place against the oncoming darker days.