December 2018 – January 2019

Arts & Letters

Les Murray’s magisterial ‘Collected Poems’

By Nam Le

Photograph by Joan Marcus

How to approach a 736-page collection by Australia’s greatest poet?

What a jolly old giant! He just can’t take it seriously. And how could you expect him to? There he sits, in black and white, arms splayed on leather rests, the toothy grin on his face that of grand doyen but also wolfy grandmother – utterly at ease, an already winner. He’d bet his life, as he’s said, on poetry; here is the prize. Les Murray is 80 and his Collected Poems, nearly 800 pages, is a magisterial achievement. A life’s work. And hasn’t he just dressed up for the celebration: his big black boots rebuffing light, his cargo pants creaseless. He brings to mind (perhaps it’s cruel to say) the brute uncle who won the lottery and then waited out his nephew’s poem about him, “blackened in his riches”.

And black is apt, black is right: black-hardbound, black-fat-spined, the cover photo matt black with only the head and hands aglow. As though the man is in the process of sinking back into his medium. As though it’ll soon be impossible to tell what’s Murray and what’s what’s around him – the curved-back club chair, the rough parquet floorboards, the indistinct stage-drape dark behind; he’ll be captioned only by his superimposed name and title, his body become corpus, his corpus this many-leafed monument of a book.

Monument is no doubt the aim. I dwell on the cover partly because it’s the only new part of the package. There are no previously unpublished poems in this collection; in fact, the first 554 pages are transplanted wholesale – word for word, poem for poem, page for page – from Murray’s last fat Collected Poems, also published by Black Inc., in 2006. (That cover image, which I loved, showed a sitting elephant and a little girl clinging to a fraction of its rump.) Per the press release, this latest Collected “contains all the poems [Murray] wants to preserve, apart from the verse novel Fredy Neptune”. I’ll admit to being a little surprised that in the 12 years since his last Collected, Murray’s estimation of his first 12 books – spanning almost four decades of periodic publishing – hasn’t changed even a little.

Still, we have this new Collected, which is increased by poems from The Biplane Houses (2006), Taller When Prone (2010) and Waiting for the Past (2015), and I’m hardly complaining. Clive James on the back cover calls it “one of the great books of the modern world” (a quote from a review in this magazine), and why not? (Here I feel duty-bound to point out that Murray has praised James in other reviews.) The “great book” claim becomes grander yet when we remember that this book is still a book-in-progress; extensions will be added till the sad day “Collected” becomes “Complete”. What James is really referring to, then, is not Murray’s book of poems but his poetic oeuvre as one of the greatest of the modern world (whatever “modern” means), and, again, why not?

The poetry speaks for itself. And its voice is a spate of voices – vast, fast, braided, bearing down and lifted up, “a mainstream …” (to use a metaphor the poet deadpan invites) “… with footnotes, a folklorists’ river”. It is polytonal, panchromatic, multichannelled. It takes in all it moves through, it surges through the deep. (It sometimes sputters in the shallows.) Everything is natural to it. Salt and fresh, at thalweg and in estuary, this river Murray is always vital – it is, the closer you look at it, the more full of life, full of nutrient, humus, mineral, effluent, clay and grit. It is chthonically sourced, most of it at any time submerged – but every part gets its turn at that heady interface of light and air. It is, to use a word of power in Murray’s ur-poem, inexhaustible.

This poses a problem for a close-reading critic: one looks at these 700-odd poems and finds, over and over again, any number of ways to see them, any number of things to say. Never the same river twice. This aspect of Murray’s poetry – its energetic, protean inexhaustibility – frustrates the standard practice of picking out a handful of poems to speak for the rest. To discuss a poem or any of its actions feels, with this particular poet, particularly arbitrary: it is to omit, unconscionably, almost everything. One thinks of Newton picking up beach pebbles; it would be as if, thereby, he claimed possession of the whole great ocean of truth.

So what I decided to do was read the collection as curated chronology. Start to finish: try to arrive at a sense of the larger, lifelong course. And what a read it was. Ridiculous, I know, to claim credit for actually reading, cover to cover, a book you’re paid to write about, but I did and I do and I can tell you this: Don’t do it! It’ll tax not just your neck and carpal tunnel tendons – I ended up reading it in bed, lying prone, pen in hand, like a journalling teenager – but your mental resilience too. There’s such a thing as too much Les.

Not at first. At first, even as each poem from its opening line seems to blush its primal influence – “The Burning Truck”, Auden; “Tableau in January”, Lawrence; “The Trainee, 1914”, Sassoon; “The Widower in the Country”, Yeats – you’re aware of a sensibility so self-­confident it’s already brinking on sovereignty. The next poem, “Noonday Axeman”, tips it over. Over the space of 20 or so quatrains, tolled by the thudding refrain, “Axe-fall, echo and silence,” you can see – hear – Murray clearing for himself a “dreaming silence” out of the “unhuman silence” of his country – a space in which he will do his life’s work. Job done: “I shoulder my axe and set off home through the stillness.”

What follows is work that ranges self-reliantly through time, geography, memory, history and art, yet never shakes off this rural flavour, nor wants to. To scan the poems is to fall into vernacular rhythms backgrounded by the varied gaits and tempos of farm animals, the heavy idle and revving and fuel-cough of tractors, bulldozers, combine seeders, dragline scoops. “All days were work days on the farm”, claims one poem; another refers to “farming’s fourteen-hour days”. And work lies at the heart of Murray’s body of work. In the exterior sense that the prolific poet is still the farmboy for whom energy is non-optional – Murray has vouched that if a poem fails, he tackles it afresh, works it through and through till it’s done. But more importantly, internally: A Murraian poem is worked, is almost machined, subjected to extraordinary energy and pressure until it sets into the required compression, complexity, precision, play and surprise. Its lines are made of higher-grade stuff.

This conversion is embodied, perhaps, the moment poem-Murray grabs a live wire in “The Powerline Incarnation”:

Vehicles that run on death come howling into
our street with lights a thousandth of my blue
arms keep my wife from my beauty    from my
the jewels in my tips
                                        I would accept her in
blind white remarriage    cover her with wealth
to arrest the heart      we’d share Apache leaps
crying out Disyzygy!
                                  shield her from me, humans
from this happiness I burn to share

At its best, Collected Poems is a conduit for this ecstatic current. Its charges are strong and several. Its formal gusto alone staggers: here are ballads and limericks alongside aubades and epithalamia; Horatian meditations beside haikus; eclogues, threnodies and riddles; verse-essays, verse-letters and verse-sermons; songs (and chansons) and song cycles. And they’re written in every form of verse – free and metered, blank and slant and rhymed, in juiced-up sonnets, villanelles, roundels, pantoums, Spenserian and ottava rima stanzas – seemingly every stanzaic configuration – and look, there’s a splash of concrete poetry!

For Murray’s eye and ear, which are the best in the business, the world’s a romp. His gift is to defamiliarise, even denature, shared perception – its mesh of acculturated assumptions and emotions (he has placed himself on the autism spectrum) – then recombine it in his idiolect. To say things differently is to read things differently is to see and hear (and feel) them differently. This feedback ekphrasis Murray directs not towards art but towards the world, most profoundly the natural world; witness, here, the kinetic soundscape in “Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands”:

these flexures are all reflections, motion-glyphs,
       pitches of impediment,
say a log commemorated in a log-long hump
       of wave,
a buried rock continually noted, a squeeze-play

or this, from “Lotus Dam”:

Each speculum, pearl and pebble of the first water
rides, sprung with weight, on its live mirroring skin
tipped green and loganberry, till one or other sky

redeems it, beneath bent foils and ferruled canes
where cupped pink bursts all day, above riddled

The images, the descriptions of the images, the sonic patterning to rouse them. What poet could better articulate the simultaneous deep-seenness and in-itselfness of water?

Murray’s poems are coruscant with such observations. If they spark, by his own account, from an asocial, neurodivergent mind, they are no less available to affect. The “Powerline” excerpt above shows this. These are full-bodied, wholehearted poems, and, piled atop one another, they extrude an embarrassment of insights. Try it. Open the book, say, every hundred pages; you’ll find:

“Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver” (p.101)
A car is also
a high-speed hermitage.


“Second Essay on Interest: The Emu” (p.201)
Weathered blond as a grass tree, a huge Beatles
raises an alert periscope and stares out
over scrub. Her large olivine eggs click
oilily together


“The Transposition of Clermont” (p.301)
Certain houses burst, and vanished.
One wept its windows


“Like Wheeling Stacked Water” (p.401)
The flood boomed up nearly to the door
like a taxiing airliner. It flew past all day.


“Sound Bites” (p.501)
What’s sketched at light speed
thunder must track, bumbling, for miles


“Ripe in the Arbours of the Nose” (p.601)
A shadowy fast spiral through
and a crow’s transfixed an orange
to carry off and mine
its latitudes and longitudes
till they’re a parched void scrotum.

Illumination and off-kiltering. Swerved association and insane compression. Language rich, riddling, kidding, punning, unstopped, unstopping. Most of his books are dedicated “To the glory of God” – that’s his set, sought standard. And in these numinous celebrations of being, humans are kind of optional. The apotheosis of this attitude can be found in Murray’s tour de force, Translations from the Natural World, in which non-human lives announce their presence via abecedarian dramatic monologue. “We shell down on the sleeping-branch. All night / the limitless Up digests its meats of light”, announces “Eagle Pair”. In “Honey Cycle”, “when we its advance / beyond wings, or water, light gutters in our sight-lattice”. In “The Snake’s Heat Organ”:

Earth after sun is slow burn
as eye scales darken.
                                   Water’s no-burn.
Smaller sunlives all dim slowly
to predawn invisibility
but self-digesters constantly glow-burn.

What poet has ever seen – described – light quite like this? The headlong ambition of these poems creates its own logic: each comprises a linguistic “heterocosm” – an alternative world, a second nature – in which Murray can somehow translate non-human presence into intelligible plangency. It’s impossible to read “Pigs” or “The Cows on Killing Day” without feeling, as a human, a stricken species-shame.

What happens, then, when humans are present? Here’s a goodly snippet from “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle”:

Dogs are running around disjointedly; water

                        escapes from their mouths, 

confused emotions from their eyes; humans snarl

                        at them Gwanout and Hereboy, not varying

                        their tone much;
the impoverished dog people, suddenly sitting

                        down to nuzzle themselves; toddlers side

                        with them:
toddlers, running away purposefully at random,

                        among cars, into big drownie water (come

                        back, Cheryl-Ann!).
They rise up as charioteers, leaning back on the

                        tow-bar; all their attributes bulge at once:
swapping swash shoulder-wings for the

                        white-sheeted shoes that bear them,
they are skidding over the flat glitter, stiff with

                        grace, for once not travelling to arrive.

The song cycle is a paean to the natural world (one whole song is dedicated to the mosquito) but also, this time, to the people in it. In long, serpentine lines, Murray works his convergence of place and peoples – Aboriginal, rural, and urban – and their ways of being, of being with the land. The presiding attitude is love, not passionate eros (never that with Murray) but insouciant agape, casual caritas. A holiday park is made, through sacral incantation, no less sacred a site than anything around or before it; this is done in diction inspired in part by R.M. Berndt’s translation of the Wonguri-Mandjigai “Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone” but also from the headiest bits of the Book of Job (as voiced by God). Never have I read an Australian poetry that so naturally, easefully, unselfconsciously and unironically builds the condition of myth. As long as we’re making grand claims, here’s mine: “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle” is the seminal poem of modern Australia. And, poetry being a game of neither stamina nor averages, if it had been the only poem Les Murray wrote, whatever chapbook or pamphlet it was published in would nonetheless be, yes, one of the great books of the modern world.

Of course, he wrote a few more poems. Reading through them, we mark some trends of concern (old age, success), some trimming of capacity (he’s moved away, ever since 1996’s Subhuman Redneck Poems, from these prodigious, freewheeling sequences). We note the much-noted post-Subhuman tempering of rage. (This the collection that brought us “Sex is a Nazi” and “Most Culture has been an East German plastic bag / pulled over our heads”.) What stands out for me, however, is that, across half a century, the architecture beneath the rage remains fixed. Mature Murray still works around the first broad beams of his self-myth, which were all founded upon the same juvenile substructure: his sense of relegation.

The early death of his mother by miscarriage he blames on a doctor’s class-based snobbery (and his father’s class-based reticence). The destruction of his sexual morale, or self-coined “erocide”, he blames on bullying at school on account of his weight and smarts. (Disturbingly, there are more than a few psychosocial parallels between Murray’s “erocide” and the modern “incel” movement.) I’m oversimplifying what is an idiosyncratically complex politics. But throughout his poetry – and prose – Murray can be relied upon to sketch a life as underdog, a life of second-class treatment on the grounds of being rural, provincial, poor, white, fat, mentally ill, working class, traditional, self-employed, non-­academic, nationalist, Christian, Catholic. And this picture never really changes. From this view, Murray’s work is less a river than a lake – and one gone slightly whiffy from lack of circulation.

In “Satis Passio”, Murray states that “Art is what can’t be summarised”. But his polemical poetry does just that: the poems and contiguous prose comprise a CliffsNotes of semiotic summary. No doubt is admitted: Murray even invents a personal jargon (wholespeak, narrowspeak, poeme, interest, erocide, embodiment, presence, groover, Enlightenment, Sinless, Action, Ascendancy) that operates to almost fully squash negative capability. My earlier statement that Murray’s work speaks for itself doesn’t entirely apply to these polemics. That they’re offered with vim and verve doesn’t mean they don’t sacrifice valencies: the result is less Murray’s “wholespeak” – the language of the soul – than the language of student politics from the class of 1968.

Take “The Great Hall of Chlorine” (a post-Subhuman poem):

It is the great hall of Chlorine,
the Aquatic Centre. Light shaking all over the
people of bleach and biscuit pad on raw feet
and children splat diamante. Many intently surge
out of deep trampolines of wavering.
Women adjust harness, some karate-chop at speed;
men exude their inner showers on the sauna’s
        wooden shelves.
Heads are calm in the laundry-boiling of the spa
And a rare drip falls bling!
from the loose leaves of the ceiling.

This first stanza, to me, is classic ex cathedra Murray in its harmonising of rightness and surprise of image, rhythm, abstraction, perspective, emotion. It is beautifully perceived, almost more affective because of its distance.

Then “A nonwhite family comes in”. What ensues over the next four stanzas is classic “narrowspeak” Murray: a polemic about “Race”, indicting “Intellectuals” who invented it as weapon for the “Modern” to exploit “Primitives”. As a result: “Anything these brown folk say, any hurt in their eyes / may be used against us.” Who is “us”? Ordinary white people, of course, whom Murray typically centres as victims – of elites and immigrants alike.

I don’t object to the poem having politics; I object to its politics hijacking its poetry. In a Paris Review interview, Murray objects to T.S. Eliot’s politics but nevertheless concedes, “He won me with his poetry.” Ultimately, even at its narrowest, Murray’s poetry is a thing of energy and skill. At its broadest, it is a new way of seeing, and it is the living thing that needs to be seen, and it is enlivening to see.

There he sits, grinning, in great humour. The two other times he’s been on the covers of his own books, his expression has been detached, mildly dissentious. To read too much into too little, maybe things are finally different now. He must have a say, you’d think, in his covers. Maybe he’s finally putting relegation behind him. After all, the subhuman redneck has come a long way. He’s the Bard of his own Adamic vernacular republic. He’s been invited to rewrite the national Constitution, to consult for the national dictionary, edit national anthologies. He’s surely published more Selecteds and Collecteds than any other Australian poet. Even running his “export business” out of his room in Bunyah, he’s managed to agglomerate prizes and premios and medals from all around the world. If he began at the margins, he has, in the way of all great artists, created his own gravity, constituted his own centre. There he sits, in that famous ribbed jumper, flecked and pilled, neck stretched out of shape from all the times the great head has been through it, almost formal atop the two shyly peeking collar points. Not a hint of scunge, of wearing shorts forever. Here is sprawl but it’s checked and camoed, incog. Underdog? He’s top dog now, and he’s fine with it.

Les Murray’s ‘Collected Poems’ is published by Black Inc.

Nam Le

Nam Le is a writer based in Melbourne.

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