Now for the Hills

Stephanie Burt

  • Collected Poems by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 476 pp, £12.95, May 1988, ISBN 1 85754 369 6
  • Fredy Neptune by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 256 pp, £19.95, May 1999, ISBN 1 85754 433 1
  • Conscious and Verbal by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 89 pp, £6.95, October 1999, ISBN 1 85754 453 6

Prodigious and frustrating, welcoming and cantankerous, Les Murray’s body of work has made him both Australia’s best-known poet and its most powerful. Full of Australian history, places and things, his poetry also displays the more abstract qualities Murray likes to think of as Australian. Chief among these is ‘sprawl’, defined as ease, cheerful excess, unbuttonedness and unsnobbish self-confidence: ‘Sprawl is really classless ... Sprawl is loose-limbed in its mind.’ Murray’s verse really does sprawl, and there’s a lot of it: some is blustery, sloppy or hard to listen to. His work flaunts its roughness, its male friendliness, its ‘defiance of taste’, its provincial or Boeotian identifications, its ethical doctrines and its Catholic ideals. His attitudes can be difficult to take, but his accomplishments are difficult to ignore. Among them are spectacular feats of description; character-studies with real moral force; sharp storytelling; and, now, the best very long poem in English for some time.

Born in 1938, Murray grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Bunyah, New South Wales: by his own telling, he seems to have been an isolated child, and then an exceptionally unhappy adolescent: ‘all my names were fat-names, at my new town school.’ Murray went to university in Sydney, married in 1962, entered the Roman Catholic Church the following year, and published his first book of poems (a split volume with Geoff Lehmann) in 1965. In 1975 Murray bought the farm in Bunyah, succeeding where his father had failed; he, his wife and their children made it their full-time home in 1986. Murray’s involvement with farm life has made him a master of poetry about it; his youthful exclusion (‘I was never a teenager’) has fuelled his anger against in-crowds, élites and urban centres. ‘I hate people being left out,’ he is quoted as having said. ‘Of course, that I suppose has been the main drama of my life – coming from the left-out people into the accepted people and being worried about the relegated who are still relegated. I don’t want there to be any pockets of relegation left.’

Murray’s often defensive rhetoric champions the unsexy and the inarticulate; and unlike most poets who claim to do this, he has developed a real (and articulate) style for this purpose. ‘Ill Music’, one of Murray’s most memorable early poems, begins with slashing, deliberate unsubtlety:

My cousin loved the violin
and played it gracefully in tune
except when, touching certain chords,
he fell down, shrieked and bit at boards
till blood and froth stood on his chin.

The froth stands when the cousin falls, and even the laws of gravity seem upset. ‘Jim said little when his kin/found a place to place him in’.: the original shock of witnessing the seizures compounds Murray’s horror at a family which could simply institutionalise Jim, which fell down where it should have stood up for him. Solidarity with people like Jim requires that Murray’s poems, too, make ‘ill music’: they should not sound well-made nor pretend all is well.

Murray extends his solidarity to those whose disadvantages are not only social or physical but cognitive. The volume Dog Fox Field (1990) took its title from a Nazi test for mental function; the title poem is an angry elegy for the ‘feebleminded’:

These were no leaders but they were first
into the dark on Dog Fox Field:

Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big and yet giggled small,

Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.

Insisting that the dignity of persons is not based on intellect or achievement, Murray can be astonishingly good at expressing bodily feelings – physical disgust, or hunger, or jocular satiety: ‘Pie spiced like islands, dissolving in cream, is now/dissolving in us. We’ve reached the teapot of calm.’ His ‘quality of sprawl’ extends from the political to the simply sensual: against other people’s exclusive hierarchies, Murray’s verse stretches out to let everything in.

Such attitudes have broad formal consequences; one is a distrust of artfulness. His bad poems mostly seem ungainly and formless; the good ones tend to justify their forms by analogy with people’s deeds, with artisanal work, or with shapes and events in the non-human world. He especially enjoys mimesis of action – lines emulate ‘motoring down the main roads’, riding a horse, wielding a hammer, lying in bed. He relishes onomatopoeia:

The channel-billed cuckoo
shouts, flying, and the drug-squad helicopter
comes singing I’ll spot it, your pot plot.

Murray avoids a consistent level of diction as he avoids regular iambics, riding with tractor treads over the contours of individual words. His jaunty or angry rhymed poems can recall Kipling’s: an accordion ‘can conjure Paris up, or home, unclench a chinstrap jaw/but it never sang for a nob’s baton, or lured the boys to war.’

Though Murray believes in principle that people have souls and that poems describe them, in practice his work consistently makes clear its roots and references in the material and social world: he remains deeply uncomfortable with lyric’s tendencies towards abstraction, its drive to represent not men and women in particular places but, as Rilke has it, a ‘soul in space’. All Murray’s characteristic effects suit the non-lyric genres in which he excels: narrative, travelogue, topical ballad, verse-letter, scenic description, moralised anecdote and georgic. In one early sequence ‘The Georgic furrow lengthens’; a few books later ‘Laconics’ contemplates the purchase of a farm: ‘Where we burn the heaps/we’ll plant kikuyu grass.//Ecology? Sure./But also husbandry.’ ‘Unsecured farm doors, open/verandahs, separate houses’, some comfortable trimeters from Conscious and Verbal conclude, are Murray’s ‘emblems of a good society’. His attachment to rural life means that his work on this subject shows him at his most moving. The wrenching ‘Cowyard Gates’ seems to describe the house from which his cousin evicted his father. That cousin

     didn’t want an untidy widower ageing on his new farm.
I’ll want the timber for cowyard gates, he said.

The floor joists will persist awhile
and the fireplace, that pack-ice of concrete, stained

with the last spilt fat.
I didn’t go look.

Shame and its inverse, comfort, which these curt lines remember and contrast, combine to make one of Murray’s central subjects. One harsh poem in Conscious and Verbal describes a young Murray desperately embarrassed in Sydney, ‘feeling abashed by proper people’: the feeling, like the poem, Murray calls ‘Big Shame’. Sometimes I wish he were more easily embarrassed by his own phrases, and less so by the life against which they defend him. All his books include clumsiness and redundancy, masses of lines it’s hard to take seriously: ‘the is-ful ah!-nesses of things’; ‘the human gamut/leaping cheerfully or in heavy earnest’; ‘Love never gave up rhyme:/its utter re-casting surprises never found a kindlier mine.’ Murray’s potential readers in the Northern Hemisphere would benefit greatly from a thin Selected; but even his slackest failures may be the sorts of thing a poet has to risk to become as original a writer as he now is.

He also writes strongly felt verse-essays, expository or polemical: their titles name their genre and topic (‘Second Essay on Interest: The Emu’). These poems often rely on special senses of common words, which make up an ideology and an idiolect, whose key terms include ‘sprawl’; ‘action’; ‘other-world’ and ‘dreamworld’; ‘interest’; ‘police’ (always very bad); and ‘poem’, the latter denoting an aesthetic construction, realised or unrealised – psychoanalysis is ‘Freud’s poem’. As a verse-essay from Conscious and Verbal has it, ‘Only completed art ... can pirouette you/through and athwart the larger poems you are in.’ This idiolect generates some of Murray’s worst lines, and some of his most complex effects. Here he presents both oil-shimmer on water and the interplay between cognition and imaginative commitment:

The daylight oil, the heavier grade of Reason,
reverie’s clear water, that of the dreamworld ocean
agitate us and are shaken, forming the emulsion

without which we make nothing much ...

Like half-formed notions, the half-rhymes in -on pool and dissolve as we read.

Some of Murray’s most striking short poems are tightly symbolic moral anecdotes. ‘The New Moreton Bay’ celebrates another poet’s reception into the Catholic Church:

A grog-primed overseer, who later died,
snapped at twenty convicts gasping in a line
That pole ain’t heavy! Two men stand aside!
and then two more, And you, pop-eyes! And you!
– until the dozen left, with a terrible cry,
broke and were broken
beneath the tons of log they had stemmed aloft desperately.

Because there is no peace in this world’s peace
the timber is to carry. Many hands heave customarily,
some step aside, detained by the Happiness Police
or despair’s boutiques; it is a continual sway –
but when grace and intent
recruit a fresh shoulder, then we’re in the other testament
and the innocent wood lifts line-long, with its leaves and libraries.

The first seven lines imagine their scene to perfection; the broad swipe at ‘Happiness Police’ is the sort of thing readers of Murray have to put up with; and the unexpected depths in words like ‘sway’ and ‘testament’ are rewards for putting up with it. For Murray the world is a great press-gang, its convicts required to stand together, and anyone who would become a boss deeply guilty.

He is at his best in patient, enthusiastic immersions in working landscapes: he can describe almost anything so as to make it entirely new. Here is Tasmanian mountain run-off, which Murray calls instead ‘Bent Water’:

Flashy wrists out of buttoned grass cuffs,
            feral whisky burning gravels,
jazzy knuckles ajitter on soakages, peaty
          cupfuls, soft pots overflowing,
setting out along the great curve, migrating
                    mouse-quivering water,
mountain-driven winter water, in the high
      tweed, stripping of fits mountains
to run faster in its skin ...

‘Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman’ applies the same descriptive and mimetic skills to a bulldozer, an electric knife strop and ‘the space shuttle’s Ground Transporter Vehicle’.

Murray virtually invented another genre, using nonce forms to emulate particular animals’ modes of perception. He has written such poems off and on since the 1970s, and presented a group of new ones in 1992’s Translations from the Natural World. ‘Bats’ Ultrasound’ gives us the prayers of the bats, with their minimal range of consonants: ‘A rare ear, our aery Yahweh’. ‘Two Dogs’ sound like this:

Bark! I water for it. Her eyes go binocular, as in pawed
hop frog snack play. Come ploughed, she
            jumps, ground. Bark tractor,
white bitterhead grub and pull scarecrow.
                  Me! assents his urine.

Based on a tribal oral form, ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ (1977) is a perfect vehicle for Murray’s zoological, loco-descriptive and narrative talents. Its sections concern Australian families’ arriving in holiday country; the car journey that brings them there; the families’ ancestors; a barbecue; the holidaymakers’ children; mosquitoes; service-industry employees; the ibis; fruit trees; the daytime sky; night and stars. These are the mosquitoes, humming across four extremely long lines (the extended verse line echoes the oral tradition on which this ‘song cycle’ draws):

they find the possum’s face, they drift up the
        ponderous pleats of the fig tree, way up into its rigging,
the high camp of the fruit bats; they feed on
      the membranes and ears of bats; tired wings cuff air at them;
their eggs burning inside them, they alight on the muzzles of cattle,
the half-wild bush cattle, there at the place
       of the Sleeper Dump, at the place of the Tallowwoods

The pace, and the energy, suit the brandished coinings.

Little, if any, of Conscious and Verbal belongs in that thin Selected Poems I’ve wished for. The first poem in the book, ‘Amanda’s Painting’, describes a portrait of Murray himself, ‘seated in a shield,/coming home in it up a shadowy river’, ready ‘to relax, to speak European’. His newly relaxed self-confidence comes across as a consequence of, and a counterpoint to, a recent near-fatal illness, whose course he describes in ‘Travels with John Hunter’. (John Hunter is the name of a hospital.) Though Murray’s poem about his time in hospital seems meant as the book’s serious centrepiece, its stanzas keep veering off into nervous, dull jokes: ‘The only poet whose liver//damage hadn’t been self-inflicted,/grinned my agent.’ Such asides do more damage here than they have in Murray’s previous books. Far too many poems now seem content to name, record, greet, praise and commemorate, making garrulity stand in for craft. To give another egregious example, in ‘Music to Me Is like Days’, the modern

      world reverberates with Muzak
and Prozac. As it doesn’t with poe-zac
(I did meet a Miss Universe named Verstak).

Some poems work better: an entertainingly bizarre jeu d’esprit personifies the days of the week as French aristocrats (Baron Samedi, Countess von Dredy), and a fantasia on the oyster rises to real comedy: ‘you make even the non-sexy/think of a reliable wet/machine of pleasure’. ‘The Ice Indigene’ depicts a memorable animal totem, a polar bear prepared to ‘drive on water/or canter the tilting platforms/amassed on the dome of ocean’. And ‘The Early Dark’ continues Murray’s series of serious, jaunty, attentive poems about driving: ‘A turn past this rollicking prewar bridge marks an end to tar./Now for the hills, balancing on the tyres’ running shoes.’

The ideal introduction to Murray’s work is not his new book but a sequence of short poems in the Collected: ‘The Idyll Wheel’ (1987) is a contemporary Shepherd’s Calendar, recording the life of the Bunyah farm month by month throughout the first year of the Murrays’ full-time life there. The sequence includes all his genuine modes. ‘December’ has a neat modern nativity scene (in a real manger); ‘May’ yields mimetic description:

wood coughs at the axe
and splinters hurt worse,
barbed wire pulls through
every post in reverse,

old horses grow shaggy
and flies hunker down
on curtains, like sequins
on a dead girl’s ball gown.

‘August’ provides Australian and local language: ‘Here, where thin is poor, and fat is condition,/“homely” is praise and warmth, spoken gratefully.’ And ‘June’ hoards compact narratives, like this one:

The garden was all she had: the parrots were at it
and she came out and said to them, quite serious
like as if to reasonable people They are my peas.
And do you know? They flew off and never come back.

Fredy Neptune, Murray’s new novel in verse, is so compulsively readable, and so consistently good, as to make all his previous work – even a highlight like ‘The Idyll Wheel’ – seem mere preparation. It is a first-person narrative, in a thousand or so eight-line stanzas, about the globe-spanning misadventures of Freddy Boettcher, a bilingual German-Australian seaman, between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second. Uneducated, compassionate and hardworking, Freddy (who spells his name with two d’s, except when German-speakers say it) gets drafted into the German Navy aboard a freighter in Turkey, sees Armenian women burnt alive, and magically contracts leprosy from the trauma. He finds, on recovering, that he has lost his senses of touch, pain and proprioception, and has gained superhuman strength: ‘My body’s mad. It’s turned its back on me.’

Freddy spends most of the rest of the book as a sort of democratic superhero, hoping ‘to find out, without killing, among the killing,/what my human worth would be’. He is swept into battle outside Jerusalem; hijacks a British military plane; falls and stays in love with Laura, a lively New South Wales war widow; travels to America on a zeppelin (‘Like a windjammer with its sails inside it’); works as a circus strongman, a steelworker, a log-pilot on a Queensland river, a fisherman, a dredger and a lion-tamer; and finally, in Berlin, encounters Hans, a mentally disabled young man about to be castrated in accordance with Nazi eugenics laws. Freddy spends the last third of the book taking care of Hans, first trying to smuggle him back to Australia, and then trying to protect him there: ‘the simple ones need us decent. Some do rise to them.’

The book incorporates everything Murray’s verse does well, and almost all his thematic obsessions: masculinity, locale, Catholicism, an unsophisticated persona, Australian identity, ‘translation’, anti-élitism and the major terms of his idiolect – ‘police’, ‘poem’, ‘presence’, ‘testament’. Its stanzas adapt themselves superbly to action – not just to the ups and downs of plot but to pace, physical movement, and the management of attention in a crisis. Here Freddy rides with ‘a couple of French Greek girls’ in a car with a drunk British officer, who

                 drove too quick
on loose corners. The car yawed, climbed a brick-stack
and turned turtle. Steel bit at me. I flew, swam in gravel
with Gia, the lively one. Steam and dust were pouring up
with screaming inside them. I staggered up. I reefed, I
wrenched the car up, off them. Held it up,
walked it to the side. The one boy was
       busted. Bubbling and dying.
The wistful girl, Sophie, had a new black knee in her arm.

Murray’s filmic quick cuts, long pans, variable pace, and use of stanzas as if they were frames will make some readers think about film. (Freddy does more than think about it: he spends several stanzas in Hollywood, playing Germans in war movies.) Other readers will think (appropriately, too) of moralised adventure novels, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s; of comics, with their arrangements of panels and captions; and of photography. Freddy begins the poem by showing us snapshots, tokens of the domestic life he spends most of the poem longing for:

That was sausage day
on our farm outside Dungog.
There’s my father Reinhard Boettcher,
my mother Agnes. There is brother Frank
who died of the brain-burn, meningitis.
There I am having my turn
at the mincer. Cooked meat with parsley and salt
winding out, smooth as gruel, for the weisswurst.

These photographic ekphrases are the first of many inset genres. Murray also works in Turkish religious praise poetry; dream-visions; Scottish ballads (with fiddle accompaniment); prayers; apothegms; and even a new English version of Rilke’s ‘The Panther’, which Marlene Dietrich reads to Freddy on a movie set (though she ‘really’ reads to him in German). Freddy enjoys that first encounter with Rilke – he isn’t familiar with high culture, though he is always running across its symbols. Rather than literary language, Freddy grows proficient in alien dialects, like the nob-English of officers ‘who didn’t mean a coward when they said cocktail’. (Later Murray renders Swiss-German as Scots: ‘Yon Hitler’s a coof.’)

For all his activity, Freddy seems deeper and easier to get to know than most of the characters in other poems and novels wholly given to introspection. This scene from Book Two takes place just after World War One; newly returned to Australia, Freddy stands outside his old home:

I started seeing changes around, and untidiness.
Then out comes a man. Not my Dad, but acting the boss.
Good day, he says, not smiling. Good day.
                     What can I do for you? –
Well, I live here, or my family do. Where are they?
Gone, he spits out. Where all you Hun bastards belong.

I was clean hopeless.
King-hit from inside, I stood with my mouth open there.
His woman came out, and looked frightened in the door.
You got it through your head? he snapped. You’re out.
Get off the place before I sool the dogs on you,
and he hitched his trousers up. I remember
                     he hitched his strides.
The pole barn, the pepper tree,
the trenched tracks down to the cattle
                     crossing. His belt.

Other characters don’t have Freddy’s reality, but they’re charming enough: Laura, who we know right away he will marry; the dramatically camp gender-swapping Lula Golightly; the gruff river-pilot Matt Garland, who hides a repellent secret; and ‘Sam Mundine the Jewish Aboriginal/bait-layer from backblocks Queensland’. Murray has less success with characters of higher station, like the aesthete Basil Thoroblood, who keeps a team of strongmen in his private insane asylum.

Freddy acts out all Murray’s favourite (putatively Australian) virtues: endurance, fellowship, folk-democracy and antipathy to organised violence. A pair of Australian expats declare forthrightly: ‘the Yank story is ... bringing things to a head/and settling them by killing. – Ours was the opposite, and new;/that violent death’s pretentious, that only police natures need it.’ His story also embodies the Australian propensity for round-the-world journeys – from Cairo to ‘Versayles, Kentucky’ to Hollywood to Paris to Shanghai. Here is our hero leprous and begging in Turkey:

It was chilly at night, about like home
but there were always trash fires to sleep
                       near. I’d wake up
and sit around, half there,
with the carts and dogs and arguments
                         criss-crossing
as if not around but through me. I was at the bottom
of wavery air, the birds’ sea-floor, my head
                         alight and notices
with their running writing saying jilliby
                         and poll-willow.

‘Jilliby’ is Freddy’s version of Arabic script – one of many devices by which Murray gets us to see what Freddy sees.

Freddy manages to be present at dozens of famous violent occasions, and in the middle of two wars, without losing his mind or his moral compass: this, and not his prowess, is the superstrength Murray wants us to admire. ‘Never do the impossible near where you like living,’ Freddy advises: whenever he uses his physical superpower he gets fired or run out of town. Comic books have long explored the way exceptional abilities stigmatise their bearers; in the most striking of Murray’s many in-jokes, Freddy becomes the real-life model for Superman when he meets the Kryptonian’s future creators:

Jerry Siegel, sir, and this is Joe, Joe Shuster
We heard you lifted a flatcar off of a man?

They were nice boys in their diamondy
                  sleeveless sweaters
and their ties, and I’m afraid I had them on a bit:
Yes, I’d lifted the flatcar. I was from Dungog.
                       Which was a planet.
We were all strong there. I was under
                average, if anything.
We Goggans dressed like so: I showed them
                a photo from my wallet
of me from the Golightlys’ show, trunks
                outside my tights.

The next stanza finds Freddy feeling guilty:

I’d brought two boys amusement
and forgot to ask how the man fared.

Freddy’s strongman act goes down well in Germany in 1932: ‘the customers were just happy to see heaviness get heaved/up where they might still walk out from under it.’ This remark makes the act one of many Big Symbols. There is another when Freddy displays his leprosy to scare off the German police: ‘I opened my clothes and showed my islands and countries,/white, with red crust borders.’ Risking persecution when Australians take him for German, when Germans consider him a British subject, and whenever anyone discovers his powers, Freddy Boettcher becomes an incarnation, an enfleshment, of the bleeding and border-plagued world.

This, of course, also makes him a type of Christ. The book’s Christian aspect takes over near the end, as Freddy’s experience intersects more often with Murray’s theology. Christ and the Church are for Murray guarantors of human worth and equal dignity. When everyone else considers Freddy either super or sub-human, only the Church treats him as ‘just another person, among the Saturday confessors./It put gravity back under me.’ (Murray’s earlier verse-novel, The Boys who Stole the Funeral, linked its religious ideas to a resentful and slapdash antifeminism; Fredy involves no such potential headaches.) The Christianity here is expressed through acts of earthly sacrifice and in glimpses of dreamlike other or after-worlds. Freddy becomes an admirable secret saviour, with Basil Thoroblood a St John figure. One of Basil’s strongmen tells Freddy, ‘You’re the one Thoroblood was waiting for: the body’s word.’

Murray’s aesthetics are so tightly tied to his polemical stances that it can be trying for a non-Australian, secular city-lover to remain of one mind about his work: over and over the Collected Poems places clumsy or merely doctrinaire work right next to some of the best descriptive poetry in English. I am, however, certain that this verse-novel – traumatic, versatile, eventful and finally wise – has in every sense been worth the wait.