Rereadings VIII: Les A. Murray, Poems Against Economics

Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1972, 70pp.

Half a century, as I’ve noted elsewhere, can be a very long time in poetic history: it’s the time between the death of Dr Johnson, for example, and the publication of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”. It’s now fifty years (more and less) since the publication of Les Murray’s Poems Against Economics. It’s his third book if one counts his contribution to The Ilex Tree (made up of sections by himself and Geoffrey Lehmann) as a single book but perhaps it would be more realistic to describe it, ala Fellini, as Murray’s second and a half. Poems Against Economics was the first complete book of Murray’s poems which I read and I remember, even today, how impressed I was by the long sequence “Walking to the Cattle-Place” which makes up almost half the book. Fifty years on seems a good time to revisit it to see how much it has changed.

The first response is to feel that it does not seem at all dated. It’s true that there are features in our culture which have changed radically in that half-century and that these would have affected someone with Murray’s view of the world and its history. The rise of the digital era, for example, has meant that notions of community have changed considerably, even in the rural world. It would also have been interesting to see how Murray – a card-carrying non-joiner – positioned himself in the now pointed conflict between left and right over the possession of Australia’s history and culture. But, if Poems Against Economics appeared this year, I think most readers would hail a brilliant individual voice with its own achieved self-mythology and an often narky relationship with the sub-culture to which most of his readers belong – something unusual in poetic history. I try not to make too many speculative comments about literary history in these posts, but one does feel that poetic history in the last forty-odd years lacks a clear outline. There are no revolutions that a new poet simply must take into consideration – adopting or rejecting – as there were at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries as well as in the immediate post-war period. Largely because the internet makes almost all texts available, poetic models, modes and fashions are a smorgasbord of possibilities for anyone setting out on a poetic career and have been for quite a while. Murray’s beginnings as a poet occurred during the last years when Australian poetic history had a clear shape and clear faultlines: the “conflict” between the poets collected in The New Australian Poetry and an imaginary coalition made up of Murray, Lehmann, Robert Gray and followers. Time and rational consideration show this to be a fairly crude categorising of poets, certainly in terms of their poetic modes, even though it might have been an accurate description of their social groupings.

My aim in this particular rereading is to look at Murray’s early work from a poetic perspective. This was difficult at the time because the ideas in the poetry – it’s content – tended to overwhelm initial responses: there was a lot to engage with, and probably be outraged by, at that level. Fifty years on, Murray’s early self-myth is completely familiar and it’s good to be able to put it aside for a moment and think about those early poems as poems. And my conclusion is that they are a lot more unsure of themselves at this level than seemed to be the case at the time. The special locus of this uncertainty, it sems to me, is how Murray deploys himself as a poet: how he enters his own poems. I now see Poems Against Economics as a book experimenting with a possible solution.

Murray’s thirty pages in The Ilex Tree are particularly interesting from the point of view of searching for a way the poet responsible for the analysis and ideas that drive the poems can present himself. Its final poem, “Driving Through Sawmill Towns”, is still a brilliant poem, a mature work perfect of its kind. And “Noonday Axeman” is also a poem that would be kept in any brief selection of Murray’s work though it wears its ideology more openly and is full of problems when it comes to how Murray is using himself in the work. But many of the other poems don’t seem like Murray poems at all. There are dramatic monologues like “The Widower in the Country” where Murray’s father’s experience can be displaced into a third-person monologue, and “Manoeuvres” and “Deck-Chair Story” take the Murray theme of young country men who joined to serve in the First World War and deal with it in terms of monologue. “The Burning Truck” uses a technique which has more promise in the long run, using an allegorical scenario to conceal (or convey) a fragment of Murray’s worldview. A truck, set alight in a wartime strafing, trundles remorselessly through a country town. It attracts some of the young men and they follow it to the end of the poem where the allegory is sealed by the last word which describes them as “disciples”. Murray’s idea, expressed elsewhere in various forms, is that causes, ideologies, attract those young who are not firmly anchored, and become false religions. There’s nothing new in this reading of the poem but it’s interesting to ask the question of where Murray is in this scenario. He can be found, not in propria persona but as a character, in the lines, “And all of us who knew our place and prayers / Clutched our verandah rails and window-sills . . .”. In other words, conventional faith and belief in a structured community will prevent an exodus following the false gods of fashionable ideologies.

Another interesting early venture is to use a faux-ballad mode. “A New England Farm, August 1914” imagines news of the outbreak of war arriving among rural communities. This happens in the refrain, “But who is this rider on the road / With urgent spurs of burning silver?” The poem itself, a little like “The Fire Autumn” from The Weatherboard Cathedral, comes dangerously close to saying that the First World War is old Europe burning the trash of its own civilisation in the same way that Australian farmers burn cornstalks: when the farmers watch “birds come dodging through the smoke / To feast on beetles” the poem makes at least a visual connection between burning off rubbish and a wartime battle scene. It is not so much a morally outrageous thing to say as an embarrassing one: the kind of thing an adolescent boy might believe before he discovers that human beings are not symbols or ciphers. But poetically the ballad mode is interesting because it suppresses the poet’s individual point of view in favour of a sense of an entire community speaking. This is a specific kind of inflation which I’ll have something to say about later. Another ballad, this time from The Weatherboard Cathedral, is the brilliant “The Princes’ Land”. Instead of being in the Border Ballad mode, this is imagined as being heraldic, high-culture medieval though its quatrain form is very much in ballad style.

Leaves from the ancient forest gleam
in the meadow brook, and dip, and pass.
Six maidens dance on the level green,
a seventh toys with an hourglass,

letting fine hours sink away,
turning to sift them back again.
An idle prince, with a cembalo,
sings to the golden afternoon.

Two silver knights, met in a wood,
tilt at each other, clash and bow.
Upon a field semé of birds
Tom Bread-and-Cheese sleeps by his plough. . .

The poem goes on to imagine the revolutions which destroyed this aristocratic medieval world. Tom Bread-and-Cheese becomes a murderous activist who “walks in his sleep in pools of blood” and, in a final revisiting of the scene, the knights jousting have become gentlemen fencing and the prince and Tom have become princes of the plough and bread (something the royal families of Scandinavia could be said to have adopted but not the royal family of Great Britain). It’s a complex poem and its content isn’t really relevant in this brief overview, but it’s interesting to see how Murray appears in it. He begins by distancing himself from others and their way of reading the book of history – “Some will not hear, some run away, / some go to write books of their own, / some few, as the tale grows cruel, sing Hey”. In contrast, “we who have no other book / spell out the gloomy, blazing text, / page by slow page, wild year by year, / our hope refined to what comes next.” My reading of this, though I could be wrong, is that it is designed to speak for ordinary citizens who don’t have ideologies to make sense of what is happening or the power to create an interpretation of their own. They have to simply suffer, like the people who watch the burning truck run through their town but don’t follow it, or the mothers of the end of “A New England Farm” who grieve at the announcement of war because it is their sons who will run to enlist. There is a definite sleight of hand in locating oneself, poetically, with the non-poetic and I don’t think it’s a sustainable position. If you keep locating yourself as spokesman, eventually there are going to be tensions with the community you claim to be espousing and you may turn out, in its eyes, to be no more than one of the truck’s disciples.

“Driving Through Sawmill Towns”, the last poem of Murray’s section of The Ilex Tree, describes the experience of encountering these townships on the border between forest and cleared rural land. The speaker has driven his car down from the uplands – “having come from the clouds” – and gives a description of a place where people pay due deferences:

. . . . . 
when you stop your car and ask them for directions,
tall youths look away - 
it is the older men who
come out in blue singlets and talk to you . . . 

It’s an entry into the Murray sacred and all the details seem surrounded by haloes – demotic haloes, admittedly. It works, at least this once, because it is ambiguous about the positioning of the “I”, the driver of the car. If Murray had positioned himself as one of the townsfolk, this would have been nothing more than an assertion that the life I live is better than yours. But the driver has an ambiguous position as part the poet himself and part an innocent outsider stumbling on this sacred site. It touches on a crucial issue in these early poems where Murray clearly worries about the fact that he spends a good deal of time in the city despite the moral superiority of a simple rural life. “Noonday Axeman” is very much about this issue,

. . . . . 
Though I go to the cities, turning my back on these hills,
for the talk and the dazzle of cities, for the sake of belonging
for months and years at a time to the twentieth century,

the city will never quite hold me . . .

But it isn’t an issue I want to pursue here since I’m mainly concerned with the poetic issue of how Murray experiments with placing himself within his poems. The fact that it’s a poet who oscillates between city and bush though, isn’t entirely irrelevant.

In The Weatherboard Cathedral, “Recourse to the Wilderness” and “A Walk with O’Connor” are fairly straight pieces of autobiography, generally free of the burden of dealing with Murray’s attitude to the conflict between city and bush. This gives them a measure of success as poems but means that they aren’t a vehicle in Murray’s development with any great future as models. “Evening Alone at Bunyah” is also autobiographical but reduces any potential charge of egotism by bracketing the poem with stories of Murray’s widowed father. “The Abomination” is an interesting poem from the point of view of the poet’s stake. I read it as a dramatic monologue – with the “I” figure distanced from the poet himself – and as a kind of extension of “The Burning Truck”. Killing trapped rabbits, the narrator is attracted by a fire deep in the roots of trees, an example of the fires which will “suck your breath away / if you kneel before them too long”. In a sense, the fire demands to be worshipped and that is why it is an abomination. Whether it represents a specific ideology or something chthonic and primitive, or is just a temptation to the young, doesn’t really matter. Finally, there is “The Fire Autumn” where, I think, Murray hopes that his analysis of the relationship of the northern hemisphere to the south will be complex enough to sustain the poem. Unlike “A New England Farm”, which deals with the same material in a ballad-like structure, “The Fire Autumn” speaks in Murray’s own voice but nothing really protects it from the charge of a sententious tone and a pompous set of propositions – “The cesspools of maturity are heaving with those who leap short. / Some are citing as Europe’s last knowledge (Oh burning Israel) / that nothing not founded upon the irrational can stand . . .”. It’s always seemed to me to be a failure of a poem, a problem that Murray is going to try to solve in his next book.

And so, after this overlong introduction, to Poems Against Economics. It’s made up of three parts: two long sequences – “Seven Points for an Imperilled Star” and “Walking to the Cattle-Place” – with a brief set of squibs – “Juggernaut’s Little Scrapbook” – in between them. This central group, easily passed over, does have some relevance here because it contains statement poems which almost omit the author all together, and the result is a problem that lasts throughout Murray’s career: the tighter and more epigrammatic the poem, the less comprehensible it is, even for readers really well acquainted with Murray’s ideas. “Sunday, Having Read My Sheets” has puzzled me since I first read it and I’m no closer to making sense of it now:

Face-brick in please and thank you streets,
Tower blocks squinted at bottom to top
Like immensely steep accounts, impend
More. And a strange soil haloes them.

To think how many died for a wheel
That was to stay on till Moscow but
Not make Kazan. Then somehow it did.
A sad and complex win for steel.

Now the Aryans rub at caste again,
O stateless state of the brahmin lords!
O gnostic heaven, with just my peers!

The New World must have frightened some
Badly, to fight three ducks on a wall.
Hide in the open and last it out.

It’s part, of course, of the book’s attempted assault on the mechanisms of capital which is foreshadowed in the title (the idea of “poems against economics” has a grim humour that most readers of poetry probably miss: it is a very unequal battle, a little like a sparrow solemnly taking on an elephant which barely registers its existence). The second stanza refers to the Wehrmacht’s assault on Russia in the Second World War and I think the third stanza makes fun of Eurocentric intellectuals who think that their analyses entitle them to be redeemed from history and to live in a heaven which will only include their own kind. The final stanza obviously refers to refugees from Europe who have arrived in Australia and recalls parts of “The Fire Autumn” as well as poems about Murray’s father-in-law in later books. But the mode is a kind of compression of authorial ideas, satisfying to the author but frustrating to the reader. The author only exists in them as a generator of ideas which are then shaken kaleidoscopically to produce a dense and resistant text which might make its creator smile but are unlikely to have that effect on readers.

The first of the sequences, “Seven Points for an Imperilled Star”, is Murray’s first attempt at a large sequence where a tight imposed structure fights interestingly against the fact that individual poems are often in quite different modes. It’s a manner which will be repeated in “Walking to the Cattle-Place” and “The Police: Seven Voices” from the next book, Lunch & Counterlunch, where the title of the sequence, probably taken from Dickens’s “He do the police in different voices”, suggests the possibility of approaching a subject in a variety of modes. I think the attempt behind these sequences is to solve the problem I’ve been describing. It isn’t only a matter of a unified variety of modes, it’s also a way of dealing with a variety of ways the poet can position himself in his poems.

The structure of “Seven Points” is built around the idea of the number seven – there are seven poems and the first is made up of seven parts – the number of points on the stars of the Australian Flag, something that may suggest that Murray sees these sequences as confederations or commonwealths: different but united. Seven-pointed stars have also a wider heraldic significance which often exploits the fact that it is a star which can be drawn without the pen or pencil leaving the page: that is, it has a kind of unity despite its seven apices. “Points” is also, of course, a pun so that the title could be read as “Seven comments for a country in danger”. In the first poem – or sequence – “Towards the Imminent Days”, we meet Murray in a domestic mode, celebrating the marriage of Geoffrey and Sally Lehmann. But the image of the poet in the poem is one of incipient inflation which is balanced by some self-mocking. The inflation either derives from, or is a mimicking of, a Celtic mode. Murray’s love of Gaelic culture is well known and “Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil”, a later poem in the sequence which has no apparent relation to any dangers Australia may be suffering, is a comic piece that deliberately echoes Dylan Thomas – “I sang for my pains like the free”. Welsh rather than Irish, of course, but still Celtic. At any rate, we meet the inflated self:

. . . . . 
Singing All living are wild in the imminent days
I walk into furrows end-on and they rise through my flesh
Burying worlds of me.
. . . . . 
But now I am deep in butter-thick native broom
Wading, sky-happy, a cotton-bright drover of bees. . . 

The context here is hieratic: marriages are, when inflated mythologically at least, sacred rites and the poem is conceived as happening during Advent, the “imminent days”. But this first poem is also a congeries of modes and poet-positions: the sixth section is a comic story of the problems father and son, father especially, have with a rampant bull anxious to find other cows where he can make “herd-improvements”. And so, in a sense, “Towards the Imminent Days” re-enacts the structure of the sequence which contains it. Other poems use the self differently. “Lament for the Country Soldiers” is a fine poem perhaps because of the fact that the poet removes himself to a large degree and simply offers a lamentation for the fates of the boys from the country who enlisted because of an appeal to loyalty even though that loyalty was to the “king of honour” rather than the king of England. “The Conquest” does something similar though there may be something ironically satisfying about treating a man of the age of reason – “Phillip was a kindly, rational man” – in a fairly reasonable way. At the end, Murray positions himself as a representative, guilty voice of the present thinking about the fate of the indigenous populations:

. . . . . 
A few still hunt way out beyond philosophy
Where nothing is sacred till it is your flesh
And the leaves, the creeks shine through their poverty

Or so we hope. We make our conquests, too.
The ruins at our feet are hard to see,
For all the generous Governor tried to do

The planet he had touched began to melt
Though he used much Reason, and foreshadowed more
Before he recoiled into his century.

“Walking to the Cattle-Place” has a similar conception behind it to “Seven Points for an Imperilled Star” in that a unifying subject – the way a farmer in the present day partakes of a cattle world that goes back millenia – allows for a variety of modes and a variety of ways a poet can be in the text. Rereading it, I’m not sure that the force of disunity is overcome by this thematic unity though I had no such problems fifty years ago when the excitement of the content was enough to dispel doubts. At the time it was thought to be a dazzling display of erudition, amongst other things, and thus a defensive bulwark against hostile critics who saw only rural quackery in Murray’s analysis of things. Again, nowadays this erudition doesn’t seem quite as striking, again, perhaps, because with the internet anybody with a few hours to spare can get up subjects like the role of the bull in Vedic and later Hindu beliefs, or in the Irish Tain.

“The Boeotian Count” is a comical list of cow’s names – “Maudie Maisie, Shit-in-the-bail . . .” – whose name derives from Murray’s essay distinguishing between the cultures of Athens (city-based, abstract, producer of dramas, modernising etc) with Boeotia (rural, producing poets, non-abstract etc). A ‘boeotian count’ is, in other words, a list. When the poet does enter this poem, it is a self-mockingly bathetic way though it retains enough abstruse knowledge to balance this:

. . . . .
          I give you thanks
                and Dopey                              old Cornucopie
        and Honeycomb                                        rainbeaded
                                                                               and warm
                                               I  pray  that  Hughie
                                                    will send you
                                                        safe home
                                        where ploughing is playing
                                where Karma is Lilā.

The conception of the entire sequence has an element of inflation about it because the farmer is imagined to be the inheritor of this long tradition of animal husbandry so that when the first poem ends “I will follow cattle” and the last poem ends “I have travelled one day”, the deliberately humble tone doesn’t disguise the degree of inflation: this is a poetic self moving through a single day but also through an immensely complex heritage that he is able to articulate thank to his erudition. This is established at the very beginning where we are introduced to the Sanskrit for various stages in a cow’s life something that is likely to be both impressive and daunting for a reader but which may have the justification that in the Rigveda, at least, cows are associated poetically (for difficult-to-grasp reasons) with dawn and Murray’s sequence wants to trace a single day which has to begin at dawn.

Amongst the variety of positions and modes in the sequence there are strangely conceived pieces like “Stockman Songs” and “Poley Bullock Couplets”, the latter imagined as being short statements by a bullock in a way that foreshadows Translations from the Natural World where the poet removes himself to allow an animal to speak in its own way. “Hall’s Cattle”, though not written as a ballad, is a narrative about Ben Hall and allows the poet to be no more than a sophisticated narrative voice and “Novilladas Democráticas” is also a narrative of a kind, though imbued with a distinct narratorial personality, which describes bull-riding, conceived as an Australian equivalent of the classic aristocratic bull-fight: the bull wins.

“Walking to the Cattle-Place” also contains one of the best-loved of Murray’s early poems, “Birds in Their Title Work Freeholds of Straw”, the second poem and thus one set in the early morning. Its subject is children, a subject where Murray has a deft and sympathetic touch. Because of this, although it contains the predictable attack on city-based capitalism – “as the dairy universe / Reels from a Wall Street tremor, a London red-shift / On the flesh-eating graphs . . .” – it concludes with the image of the small children, up since dawn herding cows, now “dead beat at their desks” in school instinctively translating the Latin for something like “Caesar arose and summoned his soldiers” as “Caesar got up and Milked then he Got his soldiers”. It’s a poem that also softens the usual opposition of town and country by including a side of country life which, if not bad, is at least highly eccentric:

. . . . . 
I can tell you sparetime childhoods force-fed this
Make solid cheese, but often strangely veined.
I’m thinking of aunts who had telescopes to spot
Pregnancies, inside wedlock or out
(There is no life more global than a village)
And my father’s uncles, monsters of hospitality . . .

That image of the strangely veined cheese that is produced by the milk recalls an image from “Evening Alone at Bunyah” where Murray contemplates a picked up stone looking at the veins in the quartz and reflecting that an individual stone like this – like the poet himself – “reflects the grain / and tendency of the mother-lode”.

Ultimately, this idea of a non-sequential sequence is not one that Murray continues or needs to continue. By the time of Lunch & Counterlunch we already have poems in the modes which Murray will use throughout the rest of his career. These include ultra-compressed riddling pieces like those in “Juggernaut’s Little Scrapbook” but also the more relaxed, complex expository and celebratory pieces like “The Broad Bean Sermon” and “First Essay on Interest”. When he does return to longer sequences, as in “Sidere Mens Eadem Mutato”, “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle”, “Machine Portraits With Pendant Spaceman” and “The Idyll Wheel”, there is a clear unity in tone and mode.

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 Minie, 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.

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.

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 applique 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.