Les Murray has always been a sort of enigmatic double-headed eagle: one profiled eye looking into the past, the other staring into the future.
Of course, we know, or think we know, about the backward-looking Murray, the so-called bard of Bunyah with his rural childhood and Scottish ancestry, the pastoral dreamer obsessed with drawing out a quasi-mythical settler history with odes on clan and creed and family. And, too, there’s his fascination with the Indigenous Dreaming and what he calls the vast map of song-poetry that existed before European contact and which persists still.
It’s the voice of cosmic reverie we hear in such celebrated poems as “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle” from Ethnic Radio in 1977 with its scenes tied to an elevated but precise vision of preterite places:
The Fathers and the Great-grandfathers, they are out in the paddocks all the time, they live out there,
at the place of the Rail Fence, of the Furrows Under Grass, at the place of the Slab Chimney.
Who hasn’t seen a solitary stone chimney standing with mute patience in a dry paddock and felt the strange attraction of disappeared ways of life? The instant familiarity of such imagery has led some critics to suggest that nostalgia is at the heart of Murray’s oeuvre, as if he were simply a mystic remembrancer. But then what of this short poem from Conscious and Verbal:
Things were not better
when I was young:
things were poorer and harsher,
drought dust on the crockery,
and I was young.
More than the dust or the harshness, that self-accusatory last line should scotch any lingering suspicion that Murray dreams of returning to some half-real Boeotian youth of Aussie parochialism.
And in any case, the clarity of Murray’s vision is inimical to the blurry sentimentalism of nostalgia’s old-time ballads. That remarkable gift of phrasing, that boundless talent to invigorate the language, has always given Murray a sure means of escape from the loops and snares of mere recapitulation. Few poets – ever – have had Murray’s instinct for metaphor and comparison.
And few poets have understood the persuasive power of the detail selected with maximum care. Of course, a touch of nature makes the whole world kin and Murray is a kind of nature poet, but his details defamiliarise and make new the kinships he translates in his bravura way.
In any case, it’s striking to notice while reading this new Collected Poems how often he directly invokes the future. Indeed, so many of his greatest poems begin as essays in search of lost time only to culminate in an accelerated dramatic movement towards what is to come, as in his “Elegy for Angus Macdonald of Cnoclinn”:
but my fathers were Highlanders long ago
then Borderers, before this landfall
– “savages” once, now we are “settlers”
in the mouth of the deathless enemy –
but I am seized of this future now.
Yes, there are contradictions in Murray’s work and his politics and world outlook, but I don’t think his relationship with the past is anything so starkly paradoxical as a love–hate relationship.
His project, and it constitutes the fundamental characteristic of his work in all its monumental consistency, consists in tracing over connections between then and now, following trajectories out of that which is historical, whether personal or national, into new possibilities for the future. He is looking for those secret interfaces between what has been, what is and what may be.
All of which is made more or less explicit in “Post Mortem”, originally published in The Biplane Houses and unfortunately not included in this new Collected Poems:
Unsatisfied to go as a detective
to the past. I want the past live
with the body we have in the promise,
that book which opens when the story ends.
(A late omission, perhaps, as cryptically it’s listed in both the index of first lines and the index of titles.)
Murray is forever speculating on where the past in its various cultural and social manifestations might carry us. Think of the last stanza of “The Quality of Sprawl”, one of the truly great comic poems as well as a statement on the power and generosity implicit in a distinctly Australian way of walking and talking and hearing:
Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
Reprimanded and dismissed
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
and thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.
It’s been 12 years since Murray’s previous Collected Poems. This new edition includes work from The Biplane Houses, Taller When Prone and his most recent volume Waiting for the Past. He is now in his 80s and we shouldn’t be surprised if the weight of the past makes him look back more to the whilom ways.
And yet what is most remarkable about these later poems is how well he has retained that equilibrium between the past and the future and the imaginative space between that he has made his own. Indeed, that last title seems to encapsulate his relationship with the shadow of history that lies across the future.
The rail of possibility is getting shorter for him, as for all of us, but his boot still rests as surely and as lightly as it always has. It cannot be repeated too often that Collected Poems is an utterly remarkable book and the work of the most prodigiously talented writer in any field this country has produced.
It is a collection of the first magnitude and a mature vision of what is past, passing and to come that should have a place on every bookshelf. JR
Black Inc, 736pp, $59.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 10, 2018 as "Les Murray, Collected Poems ".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.