On Les Murray

Colin Burrow

Bunyah is a valley about 300 km north of Sydney in which the Australian poet Les Murray grew up, and to which he returned in 1985 as ‘my refuge and my homeplace’. Over-educated readers might imagine from its title that On Bunyah (Carcanet, £14.99) is a set of philosophical meditations which belongs on the shelves next to, say, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. But Murray’s preface explains that ‘natives and some incomers habitually say “on” Bunyah rather than “at” or “in”.’

These poems are mostly about the history of Bunyah, its inhabitants human and animal, and what it means to Murray to be on, at or in it. There are pigs who fail to flee a forest fire and leave ‘only fuzzy white hoofprints’. There is a lakeside with ‘a stopped-motion shrapnel/of kingparrots. Smithereens when they freaked.’ There is Bingham, Bunyah’s flannel-shirted version of Lord Lucan, who disappears and then reappears amid an aura of ghostly crime: ‘He froze many a rider/and silenced whole carloads of revellers.’ There are funerals, milk lorries, school buses, asphalt roads trying to dissolve themselves into rural dirt ‘where every road dispersing home/abandons its bitumen miles short/of the valley’s wheatbag gravel/to vaporise on rear windscreens’, and quite a few cows, whose world Murray can see from the inside.

Murray’s poems are a curious mix. Some offer sonic delights of a Hopkinsian richness, like ‘Lyrebird’ where liar and lyre mingle to sing poetic truth in sound (‘I ring dim. I alter nothing. Real to real only I sing’.) Others are funny-allusive: he echoes Hopkins in order to praise the ‘Pleasure-craft of the sprung rhythms, bed’. Some go on too long. The poems in this collection are on the whole not exuberant, and many seek not only to describe but to identify themselves with a ramshackle human landscape. ‘The Pole Barns’, first collected in Dog Fox Field (1990), opens by turning agricultural ruin into a visible poem:

Unchinked log cabins, empty now, or stuffed with hay
under later iron. Or else roofless, bare stanzas of timber
with chars in the text. Each line ends in memorial axemanship.

The skeletons of the barns become stanzas, and the chars on their burned timbers create the effect of words and their erasure at once. The love of ruin here is Wordsworthian, but disturbingly transformed: the barns can only be identified with a poem once they have lost their roof and their purpose – and the photographs which intersperse the poems in On Bunyah frequently show corrugated agricultural dereliction, which explains what ‘later iron’ means. ‘The Pole Barns’ goes on to relate how in the old days the barns were roofed with sheets of bark:

Flattened, the sheets strained for a long time to curl again:
the man who slept on one and woke immobilised
in a scroll pipe is a primal pole-barn story.

The lines display Murray’s love of the old yarn, the oral recollection that makes the world spring with fictional energy. But the poem is also a sinister fairy tale about a person living rough in an old world and being caught and held there by its dead animation for so long that he becomes himself just a story (‘the man … is a primal pole-barn story’). It is a sort of allegory of Murray’s later work, which can be wrapped up in his own past to the point of claustrophobia. Murray likes to sound off in interviews against literary critics and the thought police and other agents of intellectual and social conformity, and does not allow his readers (or himself) to escape from his early experiences of extreme rural poverty. Being inside a farming world and a literary culture at the same time is not easy, and some of Murray’s best poems explore that peculiar form of second-order hardship. ‘The Tin Wash Dish’, for instance, captures the psychological poverty trap, in which blame for being poor is evaded and displaced even as the sense of personal responsibility and shame remains:

Lank poverty, dank poverty,
its pants wear through at fork and knee …
It’s never the fault of those you love:
poverty comes down from above.
Let it dance chairs and smash the door,
it arises from all that went before.

There’s something of Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’ about those lines: poverty blames poverty for things that parents do – smash the door, throw chairs. And both parents and poverty fuck you up. The end of the poem imagines someone who escapes, so that he can ‘Shave with toilet soap, run to flesh,/astound the nation, rule the army’, but

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.

‘Home calls itself a shack.’ Well, it doesn’t. Other people with smarter houses call it that. The poem evokes a shame that internalises what others say about the places where you live and which you love, and it then tries to drown out that shame with a delight in the crinkling of the water in the tin wash dish. Verbal energy as well as shame are grounded in material simplicity, and both are consequences of poverty. That generates a cycle from poverty out into the world, and then back to the poor consolations of assonance and alliteration offered by simple living: ‘and hot water crinkles in the tin wash dish.’ Bunyah is a kind of home that drags you back and wraps around you even as you try to get out of it.

On Bunyah has elements of a family album. It’s constructed mostly from earlier poems joined together with scissors and paste, interspersed with photographs, some of which are startlingly bleak. As far as I can work out, only ‘Rest from the Wars’, ‘Bingham’, ‘The Mystery’, ‘The Grief’, ‘The Invention of Pigs’, ‘School Bus Home’, and ‘The Signboards’ are ‘new’ as in ‘haven’t appeared in a collection of Murray’s before’. Other poems are billed as extracts ‘from’ longer poems, and several with new titles are in fact parts of earlier poems. Some are strange hybrids of new and old: ‘Lateral Dimensions’ from The Biplane Houses (2006) is here pared down into ‘Three Observations’ (it originally contained 14 three-line ‘observations’). The whole collection suggests that Murray, who’s approaching eighty, is rolling himself up in his own curl of bark, and slicing up and away some of the exuberant sprawl of his earlier verse. There is little of the love of cities and eating and machines and the energies of destruction and comedy which could draw the earlier work into exuberant length, and many of the poems which appear in On Bunyah but not in the New Selected Poems (2012) come from Murray’s generally more stark and anecdotal later collections.[*] These include ‘Child Logic’ from Waiting for the Past (2015), in which a girl allows her finger to be chopped off in a game by a member of ‘the wild kid’s gang’, and, rather than going home, ‘gripped her gapped hand, afraid/what her family would say/to waste of a finger … She had done wrong some way.’ Pared down and bleeding but afraid to go to a home you want to be at, wounded by someone else but sure you are to blame: that perhaps is what On Bunyah is really about. The most evocative of its photographs directly faces ‘Child Logic’. It’s an image of the ‘Author’s father admonishing his blue dog’. Murray’s father has an admonitory finger raised (even non-Freudians will be struck by the juxtaposition with a poem about the chopping off of a finger), and the dog shrinks behind a post, all against a severe background of corrugated iron.

The psychological depths implied by the simple phrase ‘on Bunyah’ are hinted at in one of the new poems included here, called ‘The Grief’. The poem is autobiographical, and relates to a story about his uncle that Murray is fond of telling in interviews: ‘Grandfather had bullied his younger son into felling a tree Dad had told him was dangerous and not worth felling. Granddad couldn’t allow Dad to be a better bushman than he, and it killed Archie,’ who felled the tree and, in the words of ‘The Blame’, included here, ‘dropped it crooked, into his brain’. That led to a family feud: grandfather made sure that Murray’s dad wouldn’t inherit the farm on Bunyah. So in ‘The Grief’ a boy ‘crouches under the grief/that has wrecked his father’s dignity … Years till the boy grasps/that the blamed man will accept/land nowhere, except on Bunyah’. Being on Bunyah is for Murray at once an act of family atonement and a return home. But it’s also a kind of conquest, proving that he can go back to the place of hurt and do what his finger-wagging dad always wanted to do: buy land on Bunyah.

It’s possible at the moment to purchase nearly four million square metres of land on Bunyah for roughly the price of a semi-detached house in Basingstoke. At a mere 15 quid On Bunyah is a cheaper deal. For people who don’t know Murray’s work it’s the most vivid starting point. But caveat emptor: more than half of its 82 poems are already included in one form or another in New Selected Poems, and the new stuff here works out at more than 10p a line.

[*] New Selected Poems was reviewed by Robert Crawford in the LRB of 7 February 2013.