I lived in funeral

Robert Crawford

  • 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.

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