I lived in funeral
- New Selected Poems by Les Murray
Carcanet, 310 pp, £14.95, April 2012, ISBN 978 1 84777 167 4
Now in his mid-seventies, Les Murray has written some of the most astounding poems of our era. The opening words of several – ‘All me are standing on feed’ or ‘Eye-and-eye eye an eye’ or ‘Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing’ – announce a talent for reconfiguring the English language. In a lesser writer this would be mannerism, but Murray combines relentless technical adroitness with the courage to draw deeply on aspects of his own experience, some of them very dark indeed. Murray’s life – emblematically, almost mythologically – sets out challenges faced by many writers. Peter Alexander’s biography, Les Murray: A Life in Progress (2000), is a volume every poet and aspiring poet should buy, filch or borrow. Having first met Murray in 1985, I filched it almost as soon as it was published (and draw on it here). The most arresting photographs in Alexander’s book show the infant Murray riding past a chicken-wire enclosure in a tiny wooden cart pulled by his pet goat, and then the poet in his early twenties wearing nothing but a loincloth. The caption reads: ‘March 1961: On a hike down the Woronora River, Murray bet that he could spend the weekend without shoes or trousers – and won.’
Murray grew up in rural New South Wales in a two-room, earth-floored wooden shack roofed with shingles and later corrugated iron. The walls and roof leaked; the house had no running water or electricity. It was very hot. Some windows were glazed, others covered with cardboard. Mains power only reached the area when Murray was 22. This was a brutally harsh, smelly, idyllic childhood, of the sort few children in the Western world now experience. Before he was one, Murray came close to being burned alive along with his family in a bushfire. Life on the dairy farm was unforgiving, sometimes comically so. One of the few treasured family heirlooms, a watch handed down from Murray’s grandmother to his father, was swallowed whole by a cow.
Murray spent his early years reading and roaming the countryside. When he first tried to wander off as a small child, he was lashed to a chair, which roused him to frantic rage. Misdemeanours brought paternal beatings and floggings – as had happened to his father himself. Before he started school at the age of nine, Murray had memorised much of his mother’s eight-volume Cassell’s Encyclopedia. He was prodigious and wild; he relished ‘mouth-farting profanities’, but also scored 1200 out of 1200 for knowledge of scripture at the Free Presbyterian kirk the family attended. Walking the four miles or so to school, Murray and two of his cousins killed rabbits and caught other creatures. The boys fought: Murray types his poems with a crooked finger, broken in a childhood struggle with his cousin George.
As Murray’s depressed mother suffered successive miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy, she grew increasingly stern towards her only son, who was sent to live in a boarding house at Taree, New South Wales, where he went to secondary school. He was there when she died after another miscarriage, ‘haemorrhaging like all hell’, at the age of 35. Neither the boy nor his father could cope with Miriam Murray’s death. It was more than forty years before Murray wrote, in Subhuman Redneck Poems, of how
From just on puberty, I lived in funeral:
mother dead of miscarriage, father trying to be dead,
we’d boil sweat-brown cloth; cows repossessed the garden.
Lovemaking brought death, was the unuttered principle.
This poem, ‘Burning Want’, reprinted halfway through Murray’s New Selected Poems, draws on an acute consciousness of exclusion he seems to have carried with him from childhood. His isolation was heightened when he was bullied at school. Torments in these years included having his genitals covered in boot polish by fellow boarders and being taunted by 16-year-old girls who pretended to come on to him then recoiled in horror and mockery. At high school and at Sydney University – when he slept rough on building sites and would wake coated in cement dust – his way of coping was to play along with those who made him feel subhuman while at the same time making himself appear superhuman in disconcerting ways. Strong physically as well as intellectually, he was probably the only poet in the world who for a good deal of his life could park a car by lifting it into place.
Subhuman Redneck Poems displays a tormented sense of being sneered at, relegated or regarded (by himself and others) as unfit for the rest of humanity. This corkscrews through a lot of Murray’s verse, sometimes defacing it but also leading in his best work both to a sense of human sympathy and to a desperate, dazzling wish to get beyond what it means to be human. The anxiety surfaces, drilled into rational verse, in ‘The Tin Wash Dish’, whose clanking vernacular rhymes (‘Lank poverty, dank poverty’) come from Murray’s early soundscape of Burns and Banjo Paterson, and lead to a conclusion that broods:
still you wait for the day you’ll be sent back
where books or toys on the floor are rubbish
and no one’s allowed to come and play
because home calls itself a shack
and hot water crinkles in the tin wash dish.
The vivid imaginative documenting of the feared humiliation, and not least sexual humiliation (‘Sex is a Nazi’), of the stigmatised outsider at the hands of the assured Beautiful People, is one of Murray’s preoccupations. He has an instinctive detestation of systems of regulation – from the police to academia – which threaten to relegate, curb or exclude those deemed weak or unsuccessful:
The beautiful Nazis, why are they so cruel?
Why, to castrate the aberrant, the original, the wounded
who might change our species and make obsolete
the true race. Which is those who never leave school.
Murray’s poems often take the voice of a victim who fights back, or elegise victims who could not do so adequately. Even when they draw on his own most traumatic experiences, Murray’s poems tend to avoid direct autobiography. One of his finest early works, written in Britain in 1967, ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’, begins by mentioning Sydney’s coffee shops. The word ‘fellow’ near the start – ‘There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can’t stop him’ – is surely Australian: it should be pronounced not in the style of ‘a fellow of Balliol’, but ‘feller’ or ‘fella’. The poem is set in the everyday world but is about not being settled in that world and seeing beyond or outside it. A man has broken down and is weeping in the busy city street:
The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly – yet the dignity of his weeping
holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.
Like many of Murray’s poems it is daring in several ways, not least in terms of gender: I don’t suppose there was much enthusiasm for male public weeping in 1960s Sydney. It’s a religious poem but not exclusively so; signing himself ‘Your Canting Calvinist Comrade’ in his student days, Murray had converted to Catholicism by the early 1960s. The poem mixes aspects of traditional rhetoric (anaphora, hyperbole, the trailing syntax of the ten-line sentence just quoted) with an easy vernacular slouch (‘There’s a fellow crying’) and some combinations of words unusual, to say the least, for poetry, like the mouth that is covered with a hand, ‘as if it uttered vomit’.
That phrase heralds the verbal dexterity that powers some of Murray’s later great poems. It’s also almost involuntarily unsettling. His gift for moving outside the norms of what was considered acceptable in the Australia he grew up in led him not just towards public weeping, towards the abused and abusive yet resilient rural poor, and towards places hitherto unknown to poetry, but also towards Aboriginal culture. His New Oxford Book of Australian Verse, published in 1986, was the first general anthology to include Aboriginal poems translated into English. He presented them not as anthropological specimens but as poetry. Though there are always questions to be asked when English-language poets draw on minority-language culture, whether in British Columbia, Scotland or Australia, I think Murray was right to assert in this way the width and depth of Australian poetry. In his early years he had planned to edit an entire anthology of Aboriginal verse but had to abandon it after funding problems. Drawing, surely, on Whitman as well as on Ronald Berndt’s translations of the Wonguri-Mandjikai Moon-Bone Cycle of poems from Arnhem Land, Murray sought to fuse Aboriginal, rural and urban Australia in what became in 1976 ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’:
lights are lit in the house; the storm veers
mightily on its stem, above the roof; the hills uphold it;
the stony hills guide its dissolution; gullies
opening and crumbling down, wrenching tussocks and rolling them;
the storm carries a greenish-grey bag;
perhaps it will find hail and send it down, starring cars, flattening tomatoes,
in the time of the Washaways, of the dead
trunks braiding water, and of the Hailstone Yarns.
Though the Jindyworobak poets of the 1940s (white authors who sought to draw on precolonial Australian cultures) had tried to invoke Aboriginal material, Murray was the first to accomplish a fusion of modern and ancient Australias, presenting the aboriginal as modern, rather than simply trying to make the modern aboriginal.
Murray has worked at many jobs – he has been a janitor for BBC Wales, an outback cook and an official in the Australian prime minister’s office. He has been sacked or resigned from them all. He has always detested the work that gets in the way of the poet’s work. His exemplary and exasperating refusal to toe lines other than those of verse can be summed up in an anecdote about his time in 1960s suburban Canberra. There, despite never having completed his degree, Murray put his knowledge of twenty or so languages to work as an official translator at the Australian National University. After he had let his garden run wild, letters kept coming from the city council, threatening eviction if he didn’t neaten things up like his neighbours. Eventually, his biographer records, Murray, true to his farming background, ‘went out, hired a back-hoe, and … ploughed the entire garden under, a process he would repeat once or twice a year’. Canberra, Murray wrote to a friend in 1963, was full of ‘dull streets of decorous homes in which uniform people, or so it seems, live according to some extension of the Public Service Act, with rules for dress, for untidiness at weekends, for duty, for spontaneity and for, God knows, maybe even copulation’. It was, he decided, ‘without the least fragment of a doubt … the deadest, dullest, most worthless, ephemeral, baseless, pretentious, pathetic, artificial, over-planned shithouse of a town I’ve ever laid eyes on’.
Wrestling with depression, as well as with Canberra, Murray soon left. ‘There’s no such thing as a job that will give you enough time to write,’ he girned. His resolute opposition to employment, not least academic employment, makes him a beacon for poets in an era when, for so many, the academy is both patron and padded cell. ‘An academic-led literature is a gentrified suburb,’ he has written. Murray’s flytings with academia, with arts bureaucracies and with other policing bodies are the stuff of legend. They are also what has allowed him to maintain in the face of outside pressures, as well as recurring depression, an absolute fidelity to the demands of his work. Without the tolerance of other people, especially his wife, Valerie, Murray’s fidelity would have killed him. As things stand, though, despite at least one near fatal collapse, he has remained – as he put it, quoting a hospital spokesperson’s account of his health – ‘conscious and verbal’. And he has taken language as far as, for the moment, it will go.
The most conclusive evidence for this is the stunning sequence of creature poems that first appeared in book form in 1992 in Translations from the Natural World. These poems seem to spring from ‘The Cows on Killing Day’, from his previous collection, Dog Fox Field, published in the UK in 1991. In this poem Murray achieves a herd-voice; he writes as ‘translator’ of an alien consciousness, letting the reader sense what it might be like to be another species:
All me are standing on feed. The sky is shining.
All me have just been milked. Teats all tingling still
from that dry toothless sucking by the chilly mouths
that gasp loudly in in in, and never breathe out.
All me standing on feed, move the feed inside me.
One me smells of needing the bull, that heavy urgent me,
the back-climber, who leaves me humped, straining, but light
and peaceful again, with crystalline moving inside me.
Drawing on a traditional Welsh poetic form (englyn), Murray had tried a ‘herd-voice’ even earlier, in ‘Bats’ Ultrasound’, but in the 1990s this poet so preoccupied with exclusion from humanity succeeded in writing verse that seems voiced by a disconcertingly inclusive non-human speaker, one not singular but many. An interest in autism (Murray has an autistic child and has sometimes considered himself to meet some of the diagnostic criteria) as well as an upbringing on a farm where he killed and observed nature close-up may have contributed to this breakthrough; but it was possible only because of his astonishingly pliant play with language. ‘Pigs’ contains the lines ‘Us back in cool god-shit. We ate crisp./We nosed up good rank in the tunnelled bush./Us all fuckers then. And Big, huh?’ Another poem, ‘Eagle Pair’, achieves a perception based on aerial sweep: ‘Meat is light, it is power and Up, as we free it from load/and our mainstay, the cunningest hunter, is the human road’. This is a rhyming couplet, but like no other; demanding perceptual effort, it takes us into a world of soarings and ‘rebound heat ribbing up vertical rivers of air’. He has translated the creatures so that we can hear them and can seem to inhabit their consciousness, but his rechannellings of language mean that his readers too are involved in translation. Murray is one of the very few poets with whose best work you feel that having read it you won’t, can’t, be quite the same again.
‘Migratory’ migrates its lines to the right-hand side of the page, leaving a ragged left-hand margin:
I am the wrongness of here, when it
is true to fly along the feeling
the length of its great rightness, while days
burn from vast to a gold gill in the dark
to vast again, for many feeds
The effect of sunrise and sunset, and of magnetically strong migratory instincts, is here dreamed and plotted with exactitude. Theorists may come to such work clutching the speculations of Giorgio Agamben on what differentiates human from animal, or swaddled in layers of eco-theory; but the liberating shake Murray has given to the perceptive power of language is what makes this poetry so rewarding.
Not all Murray’s verse has such uncanny intensity, but the New Selected Poems shows his range well, extending from religious lyric to social satire to the show-offy one-liner (‘No stench is infra dog’). I gravitate towards those creaturely poems which achieve a sense of zestful being: a sense not just of the stallion’s ‘progeny’ that ‘drop in the grass/like little loose bagpipes’ but also of the way ‘they nuzzle their mothers’ groin/for the yoghurt that makes girth’. There are an awful lot of poems in this book; often more than one per page. I’d have sacrificed a few of the recent pieces for ‘The Quality of Sprawl’ and ‘Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands’, a poem that holds its own beside Hopkins’s ‘Inversnaid’ or Clough’s The Bothie of Tober-Na-Vuolich:
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 …
I remember first seeing that poem in Murray’s 1985 book, The Australian Year, where it appeared next to a colour photograph of a waterfall. But, whatever its omissions, the New Selected Poems does contain poems such as ‘Science Fiction’, which is as telling and unherdlike as can be:
I can travel
faster than light
so can you
the speed of thought
the only trouble
is at destinations
our thought balloons
are coated invisible
no one there sees us
and we can’t get out
to be real or present
phone and videophone
are almost worse
we don’t see a journey
but stay in our space
just talking and joking
with those we reach
but can never touch
the nothing that can hurt us
how lovely and terrible
and lonely is this.