Essay by Felicity Plunkett
A poem…can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the – not always greatly hopeful – belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something.
– Paul Celan, Selected Poetry and Prose
Edward Hirsch begins his beautiful How to Read a Poem (Harcourt Brace, 1999) in Celan’s heartland. Imagine yourself on the shore, he writes, foraging among ‘seaweed and rotten wood, the crushed cans and dead fish’, finding an ‘unlikely looking bottle from the past’. The message inside has been making its way towards someone for a long time, and now ‘that someone turns out to be you’. He quotes ‘On the Interlocutor’, Osip Mandelstam’s 1913 essay about a similar wave-dumped poem: ‘The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means, I have become its secret addressee.’ Poems, for Mandelstam, are composed for ‘a reader in posterity’; for Celan, perhaps for a reader he refers to as the ‘addressable thou’.
Les Murray’s Collected Poems keeps the ‘reader in posterity’ in mind. It contains ‘all the poems he wants to preserve, apart from his verse-novel Fredy Neptune’. Its whimsical cover image depicts a child and elephant looking out across a field. The child leans in to the elephant’s hip, one arm stretched to embrace her companion, her small palm spread in an affectionate gesture.
Together they suggest that, though small alongside the body of the work, the reader shares in its gentle reflection: she is – I am – its secret addressee.
A ‘collected work’ is all about size, scale and vantage point. For a poet as prolific as Murray, and given his continuing productivity, it is also provisional. This edition first appeared in 2002 and encompasses work up to and including Poems the Size of Photographs (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2002). Its reach cannot stretch to include his subsequent books of poetry, including The Biplane Houses (Black Inc., 2006), Taller When Prone (Black Inc., 2010) and, this year, Waiting For the Past (Black Inc.), a title suggestive of the sense of posterity and reflection permeating Murray’s work.
Collected Poems begins with a handful of poems from The Ilex Tree (ANU Press), co-published in 1965 with Geoffrey Lehmann. That book’s epigraph from Virgil’s Eclogues VII has Daphnis – the mythological Sicilian shepherd said to have invented pastoral poetry – settling under the ilex tree where he is visited by colleagues Thyrsis and Corydon:
Two youths in their prime, Arcadian singers both of them,
And equally keen to make up a verse, or match one.
The Ilex Tree, which was enthusiastically received and won the Grace Leven Award, seeds ideas that Murray’s work continues to explore, re-imagining pastoral terrain of still sky and land, of a ‘moveless’ cloud of fragrant leaves and childhood under dappled light (p. 3). The first line in Collected Poems, ‘It began at dawn’, carries a sense of the biblical, and the poems later open into a wider contemplation of the divine, often bound up with ideas of what poetry might be, and how it might affect a life.
Murray has started each selection of his work with this, his first published poem. Originally appearing in 1962 in the Bulletin and inspired by air raids on the Australian mainland during the Second World War, ‘The Burning Truck’ imagines a truck set alight by bombs hurtling through a town, its ‘canopy-frame a cage/ torn by gorillas of flame’ The vast destructive capacity of the truck, which functions as an image of war itself, is luminously terrifying.
Beyond the quiet beauty at the centre of these early poems, destruction hovers, and soft light gives way to harsh epiphany. A naive youth wonders in ‘The Trainee, 1914’: ‘Is war very big? As big as New South Wales?’ Troops return home by train, waiting at the siding ‘till the red clicks green’, their ‘old terrors’ dozing (p. 19). In ‘Noonday Axeman’, workers build cities ‘against silence’ and the speaker is just one to articulate an antipathy to the urban that counterpoints Murray’s bucolic poetics: ‘the city will never quite hold me’.
One recurrent violence Murray explores is the killing of animals. In ‘The Abomination’ the speaker checks traps, ‘killing each rabbit with a practised chop’. After this ‘winding course of unhurried killings’ he burns a rabbit, exhilarated by this ‘ancient thing’ but caught by guilt’s trip-wire, from which he looks away. This motif of not looking prefigures another in which his own moral ‘evasions’ close in like a trap, as he tramps ‘the smoking crust’ of the burned creature. The violence depicted in ‘Blood’ is imagined as beautiful – the ‘tulip of slow blood’ blossoming on a dying pig’s chest part of a killing ‘according to the Law’. Only the pigs, cognisant of their fate and ‘screaming’, are described as ‘greedy’. If ‘squeamishness’ inhibits the speaker momentarily it is simply the result of ‘all that smart city life’. The poem’s conclusion marks the killing as almost sacramental, a motif that recurs in the sequence ‘Walking to the Cattle Place’, though this time it is haunted by ‘the blood-moan/ straight out of earth’s marrow’ of cattle mourning.
Exemplifying another strand of Murray’s work, the striking early sequence ‘Evening Alone at Bunyah’ works from autobiographical origins to consider the formation of self and the subtler violence that thwarts it. It follows on from ‘The Widower in the Country’, an interior monologue published in The Ilex Tree evoking widower-speaker’s lonely tenacity, where he sees in the ‘Christmas paddocks aching in the heat’ something of his own parched suffering. ‘Evening Alone at Bunyah’ crafts an oblique elegy to the poet’s mother through its focus on his father. This in turn is oblique as the widowed father, whom the speaker is visiting in Bunyah, leaves, apologetically, to go out dancing. The son, whose only dance is ‘on bits of paper’ reflects on ‘the plot from which we transplants sprang’.
The poem traces fleeting shapes of ghosts and intruders, remembering the absent wife and mother. The father quips ‘if/ any ghosts come calling, don’t let ’em eat my cake’, while the house creaks, ‘making one more adjustment’. The speaker remembers ‘the long wrecked body’ of a snake that appeared once inside the house, and a childhood fear of walking alone at night:
lest I should hear
the barking of dogs from a clearing where no house
While retrospect crafts any collection, it is a force in Murray’s poems from the start, returning as they do to the places and shapes of childhood, and to the death of Murray’s mother when her son was twelve. ‘Three Poems in Memory of My Mother, Miriam Murray née Arnall’, from The People’s Otherworld (Angus & Robertson, 1983), is a magnificent triptych that moves from the mystery of ‘Weights’, in which the speaker’s mother, for all her ‘straightness and her clarity’, is not allowed by her husband to carry anything heavy. The spare last stanza moves towards a disclosure framed by silence:
I did not know back then
nor for many years what it was,
after me, she could not carry.
‘The Steel’ begins with the speaker’s birth. The ‘cold steel’ that ‘hurried me from her womb’ foreshadows the more devastating separation of her death. The poem describes a time when the loss of a child to stillbirth or miscarriage was swaddled in silence. The inability of her husband to use the words ‘miscarriage’ and ‘haemorrhage’ results in the delay of help, and her death. The poem’s spare form breaks into address, to the speaker’s lost siblings ‘little blood brother, blood sister’ whom the speaker cannot blame, and the doctor, whom he can: ‘Did you often do/ diagnosis by telephone?’ Perhaps, he adds, in a dark negation, ‘there was no stain/ of class in your decision’. Finally, he addresses his mother, declaring her ‘thirty-five years on earth’ to be ‘short…/ as the lives cut off by war// and the lives of spilt children are short.’
Like the image in ‘Midsummer Ice’ of a child ‘off balance’ but never falling as he carries ice from the road to the ice chest, the poem keeps its poise though its lines teeter over jagged breaks. Its repetitions (‘remember…remember…remember’) thrum like the child’s anxious pulse. The uncomfortable words his father cannot utter – ‘haemorrhage,/ miscarriage’ – stand out among the pared diction, Latinate, awkward and disturbing the quiet surrounding words, more discordant for the slant rhyme that yokes and amplifies them.
Much about this poem evokes the currents of the Collected – its retrospective epiphanies and the spare cut of its lines (reminiscent of Judith Wright’s image of ‘the blaze of light along the blade’), the sharp narrative bones (like the mother’s good facial bones, which her son says he has not inherited) and the return to iconic images and autobiographical impetus. The images curl around a motif of injustice while an occasional flare of emotive diction and slash of rage release emotion kept in check by the poem’s formal reticence. The poem plaits the languages Lisa Gorton’s acute essay on Waiting for the Past identifies in Murray’s work, ‘compressed thought, close-worked sound patterns, and a child’s direct and sudden phrasing’.
‘Travels with John Hunter’, from Conscious and Verbal (Carcanet, 1999), returns to emergencies. This vivid, startling poem finds its origins in Murray’s own ‘prone/ still voyage beyond flesh and bone’, a miraculous recovery to marvel at ‘dry roseate’ scars and the excision of depression’s ‘Black Dog’ locked in the speaker for decades. Religious imagery is stitched through the stanzas, as the speaker imagines his rush towards ‘the three persons of God’ halted by ‘the three persons of John Hunter/ Hospital’. Awe is undercut by self-lacerating wit, and the poem’s images register the medical world with its precision and shock; its occupation of the liminal space where the living witness the dying.
The poem’s prayer of gratitude – for devotion, for pethidine, and for a prompt ambulance this time; for ‘this face of deity’ and a renewed life without depression; for being a poet – gathers strands of the catechetical fabric of Murray’s work.
Elsewhere, a group of poems clusters to form a kind of loose ars poetica. In ‘Opening in England’, poets’ low pay reflects an ‘ancient shame, to pay for love or the sacred’ and the speaker asks for:
Wage justice for poets, a living
like that of all who live off our words
Yet in another poem the speaker feels compelled to potter around doing chores when a tradesman works there: ‘I still can’t/ do privilege’ (p. 435). Shame stings poetry, which is variously misunderstood by a self-important editor (‘Literary Editor’), skimmed ‘for bouquets/ and magic trump cards’ by examinees, lovers and intellectuals, and taught at schools in a way that immunizes students against it (‘The Instrument’). An academic makes a point of name-dropping to shame the speaker in ‘Writer in Residence’. Poetry has about it a ‘slight sacredness’ for which the poet must ‘atone’.
And yet, throughout the Collected the poetry finds a shameless sacredness in the natural world, its early trace of pantheism replaced by a dedication of the books ‘to the glory of God’. From the start there are images of startling beauty: ‘the metal sea’s too bright to walk upon’ (‘Tableau in January’); ‘mauve trees’ that ‘scab to cream’ (‘The Warm Rain’); stars ‘filtering through a tree/ outside in the moon’s silent era’ (‘Predawn in Health’). ‘Religions are big slow poems, while most poems are short, fast religions’, says Murray in ‘A Defence of Poetry’, a lecture he presented at the 1998 Poetry International Festival.
The book’s shapes suggests a mandala, starting with the small selection from The Ilex Tree and expanding book by book until the final section, ninety poems from Poems the Size of Photographs. This structure captures a centrifugal energy, as seeds of the poems’ experiments expand and flower. A collection allows the reader to witness a compressed career, to watch poetic seedlings grow as if through time-lapse photography. At the same time the poetry itself moves from a wider spectrum of forms and explorations to a more honed and spare practice. Poems the Size of Photographs contains numerous aphoristic poems, poems with the steady brevity of haiku yet without its formal qualifications, as in the book’s earlier haiku and senryu.
The pulse of this expansion and contraction powers the book’s heart, one capable both of recalling trauma and celebrating a particular vantage point and an Australian landscape compiled from what Ivor Indyk calls his ‘vernacular icons’. Writing, Edward Hirsch says, ‘allows for revision, for rethinking, for rereading…for self-interrogation, for second thoughts’. It is in the light of this reflection that this Collected is made, and from the churn of retrospect that it washes up on land.
Celan, P 2001, ‘Speech on the Occasion of receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen’, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, trans. John Felstiner, WW Norton & Company, New York.
Gorton, L 2015, ‘Widespeak’, review of Waiting for the Past, Sydney Review of Books, viewed at <http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/waiting-for-the-past-les-murray/>.
Hirsch, E 1999, How to Read a Poem (and fall in love with poetry), Harcourt Brace, San Diego.
Indyk, I 1998, ‘The Awkward Grace of John Forbes’, Heat, vol. 8.
Murray, L 1998, ‘A Defence of Poetry’, viewed at <http://www.lesmurray.org/defence.htm>.
© Copyright Felicity Plunkett 2015