Green Shadows and Other Poems
Gerald Murnane’s insular, self-reflexive and obsessive style of essayistic fiction has attracted special praise of late. However, while The New York Times may have described him as “the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of”, Murnane’s first poetry collection, Green Shadows and Other Poems, is not exactly a heavyweight affair.
For fans of Murnane’s fiction, much will be familiar. There is stylistic repetition, with most poems structured as rhyming quatrains. These reveal a light touch, founded on the impressive use of enjambment. The poems also demonstrate a trademark flatness of affect. Despite this, Murnane self-reflexively identifies his poetry as driven by feeling – or, more specifically, the feeling of being Gerald Murnane. He is, as he writes in “The Darkling Thrush”, “urged / to examine my mood, then to find / its precise cause, and afterwards to try / to explain it in these sorts of words”. Rejecting the excesses of the Romantics, Murnane’s words are prosaic and sometimes colloquial, as suggested by titles such as “Piss-weak”.
Several poems reflect on Murnane’s native and beloved landscape – the Western Plains of Victoria – and on horse racing, another obsession. The most vulnerable, surprising and memorable work, though, relates to his widowhood. There are also some entertaining poems about his interactions with locals. In “Rosalie Isn’t Speaking”, for example, Murnane hopes to recover from “this urge to appease / persons of no importance // to me” after being “strangely unsettled” by a woman’s snubbing.
Murnane often addresses poems to a “Sympathetic Reader”, but my sympathies were sometimes tested. “Political Philosophy” glibly articulates his rejection of political action in favour of his commitment “to purely impractical things”, but admiring a landscape without being concerned about climate change or approaching horse racing from a purely aesthetic viewpoint strike me as stubbornly thoughtless. “Crap-books” bags out other writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ian McEwan, magical realists. Ostensibly a light poem, it reveals little more than random prejudice and comes across as narcissistic, particularly given that it is followed by “Non-travelling”, a poem suggesting the best artists are the “stay-at-homes” – like himself – who write with an eye for “the Real / or the True or the Ultimate”.
I am glad Murnane writes like Murnane. But I’m also glad other writers don’t.
Giramondo, 104pp, $24
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "Gerald Murnane, Green Shadows and Other Poems ". Subscribe here.