Books

Les Murray
Waiting for the Past

Les Murray has gone from being seen as the finest of his generation to Australia’s pre-eminent poet, a potential Nobel laureate. His position in Australian literature now seems unshakeable, and while there are a number of poets whose work equals Murray’s in quality, none has engaged Australian readers in such a sustained, palpable way.

Murray’s work has been studied in schools and universities for more than 30 years. Poems such as “Noonday Axeman”, “Spring Hail”, “Evening Alone at Bunyah” and “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow” made regular appearances in year 12 English exams. Many combine a colloquial narrative flourish with lyrical elements that give the work a curious, deeply surprising edge. The best find Murray’s vernacular alongside startling, often funny images and phrases, as in “Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil”, a parody of Dylan Thomas and portrait of mixed cultures in a Welsh curry house:

and never again will I want such illumination
for three days on end concerning my own mortal coil ...

Murray has written extensively of his clinical depression and anxiety. It’s darkly tempting to suggest that the sustained pressure of mental illness has been the catalyst for much of his finest work. Every Les Murray book contains successful and uneven poems – yet it’s the standouts, the poems that demand our closest attention and repeated reading that seem to have the stamp of a high emotional cost all over them. 

Waiting for the Past, his first book since Taller When Prone, contains poems that must surely rank among his finest. Where a number of the latter were overburdened by obsessive fact- and curio-collecting, these new works contain a wide range of subject matter and almost all have been cut back to their essence to reveal an essential core. The book begins with “The Black Beaches”, four quatrains that build tension as they define, with typical Murray image-layering, the wonders of concealment and a slow release of time:

...lagoons in cleared land often
show beaches of velvet black

peat of grass and great trees
that were wood-fired towers
then mines of stary coals
fuming deep in dragon-holes.

Murray’s imagery is typically sharp, often unsettling. The lines have the stamp of his breath running through them. Hearing him read his poems, a potent sense of his compositional style is evident: at once colloquial, lyrical, laconic and finely observed, it’s what makes his poems so uniquely his. He is able to offer seemingly relaxed, quick observations that become, as we read, just right, fixed within the framework of a rich tonality and placement. The first two stanzas of “High Rise” are vintage Murray:

Fawn high rise of Beijing
with wristwatch-shaped
air conditioners on each window

and burglar bars to the tenth
level in each new city,
white-belted cylinders of dwelling...

Waiting for the Past, as for most of his titles, works as a mud-map for what is to come. As a rule his books have no sections, no subtitles, and while the poems might seem to be grouped purely as a miscellany, patterns do emerge, themes are followed, then abandoned. The past is here as connective tissue, not just to the present, but to an emotional sense of time passing. Waiting is given phenomenological emphasis, and even when Murray hasn’t harnessed experience into the first person (he uses second person brilliantly) the scars and still-repairing wounds of his youth are indelibly personal:

   Shamed by bookishness

you puzzled their downcast sons
who thought you might be a poofter,
so you’d hitchhike home to run wild
again where cows made vaccine

and ancient cows discovered aspirin...

Les Murray’s books are dedicated “To the glory of God”, and while the work is rarely overburdened by a prescriptive sense of belief, he can include poems that suffer from being at the mercy of their subject matter. “The Canonisation” is a low point in this book. It is self-indulgent, cloying, and too predictable to be engaging.

Mary MacKillop, born 1842,
what are the clergy giving you
on my birthday, Mother Mary?

Sainthood? So long after God did?
Independence? But you’re your own Scot.
The job of Australian icon?

The best poems in Waiting for the Past are shaped and guided by Murray’s superb ear for the nuances and rhythms of common speech aligned with a master technician’s flair for knowing where and when to hone the line with often simple, yet spell-making images:

Six little terns
feet gripping sand
on a windy beach

six more just above
white with opened wings
busy exchange of feet

reaching down lifting off
terns rising up through terns...

“Terns rising up through terns” takes us to the windy sand-spits and beaches most of us have seen, or been on. The image is exacting, and creates three-dimensional movement with its simplicity. 

Other poems that work to take us into the past with clean-lined music and startling imagery are “Powder of Light”, which revisits going to the movies in a country town; “The Privacy of Typewriters” where the poet fears “a carriage/that doesn’t move or ding”; and “Diabetica”, as tender as it is riddled with apprehension and pain: “A man coughs like a box/and turns on yellow light/to follow his bladder/out over the gunwale/of his bed ...”

Waiting for the Past was five years in the making. We are the grateful beneficiaries of Murray’s patience and loving attention to detail.  DL

Black Inc, 96pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2015 as "Les Murray, Waiting for the Past". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: DL