I have spent decades tussling with the poetry of Les Murray, just as I did in my friendly but contending and disputing personal interactions with him. This book of “last poems”, based on “three-quarter’s of a book’s worth” of poems respectfully consolidated and added to from other uncollected material by poet Jamie Grant, throws up many familiar issues for me.
If few of these poems reach the linguistic heights of his great poems, a number compact and impact the familiar jaunting wordplay – fluctuating between irony and seriousness – enough to be comfortably added to his life’s work, and in doing so to augment its range. And a poem such as “Weebill” is among his finest.
Many of the poems in Continuous Creation pin Murray’s musings, observations, conversation, recounting and interjection of opinion around a specific image or images, and some of these images are as stunning as anything he ever wrote. For example, a phone lightning strike causes “A black cloud imprinted round the phone”.
But there are poems in this collection that are only echoes of his best work and a number that are just squibs. Not that there’s anything wrong with a poetry collection being leavened by such squibs, especially within the context of a colloquial voice that plays with inversions, coinages and elisions of speech and written expression. To the end, Murray was a conjurer of terms that in their snappy brevity were designed to capture eras, epochs, big thoughts and popular opinion, and this is thoroughly evident in Continuous Creation. Murray’s vigorous, irascible but ultimately conservative sense of humour has always given reassurance to those who believe in a nationalistic bardic version of “Australian literature”.
One of the markers of this collection as a collection – rather than an incomplete book augmented with unpublished material found in “a large cardboard box” by his desk after he died – is the consistency of Murray’s rendering of the world into lozenges, blocks and slices of speech. A process of distillation, of rendering events and experience into memorable, absorbable mementos of encounter, are characteristics of Murray’s later work in general, but particularly so here. Content is always effectively managed within the poem and inevitably stylistically rigorous. My issues rather come with what Murray works into this model, this way of processing “the world”.
Some things, to my mind, are not for a white Australian poet to intervene in and, whatever the intent behind trying to “process”, can only offend people whose stories they are or who are affected by their telling. I am thinking particularly of the poem “A Juncture”, which makes disturbing allusions to cannibalism that are hard to pin down, and the book’s final poem “The Mystery”, which seems to contain a story that should be told by those whose story it is. There is never complete clarity around Murray’s purpose in such writing, but these poems discomfort me enough to feel they will also disturb other readers.
The ancestor poem entitled “Frederick Arnall” embodies the Murray crisis over claims of colonial sovereignty with his “half hoped”-for Koori DNA. Is this an affirmation of Indigeneity, or is there some other motive at work? The weighting seems more about authority of the colonial than the colonised. Is there enough ambiguity in the poem to possibly read against the colonial, if you’ve a mind to? The concern only grows when taken in the broader context of other Murray poems, interviews and statements.
I note two “lightning poems” as among my favourites. This is because they are fascinating poems, but also because I am obsessed with lightning. I read and write a lot about lightning, and the real test for me when I come to something I am very familiar with is that it helps me see in a different way. Murray always challenges my perceptions, partly because I so often disagree with him; but in these poems that’s not the issue.
The first of these is “The Estuary Walk”, a poem of old age that reminds me of a late-modern version of “Widower in the Country”, except that his/the speaker’s wife is in hospital and he is on his own. Lightning affects television reception, so he goes to bed and dreams an estuary that merges with various archetypes/experience and the reality of finding his way into his car and visiting his “dear one” the next day. Lightning is almost incidental to the poem, but it opens the translation from one state of being to another, from the empirical to the imaginary and back again. A truly existential poem.
The second poem, “Lightning Strike by Phone” is familiar to many of us as subject, but Murray merges his tension over the lightning strike with his concerns about technology and the artifice of knowledge: “... came snorting and strumming / to the door, and sucked inside / straight into the video ...”
These poems, along with a number of bird poems (“Weebill” is a restorative splendour) and a deft tactile image-description poem such “Azolla”, shine in a book that is about creating and about “creation”, and they make the book live for me. It’s not a great Murray book, but it has its shining moments, just as it has its disturbing ones.
That Murray was a poet of keen sensitivity to the natural world – however he reconfigured it to bring it into communion with his spiritual, historical and sociopolitical concerns – cannot be denied, and the memory of this book and of Murray I wish to carry with me springs into life through passages such as this from “Swallows Returning”: “swallows, now tremulous, / now whipping over glass”.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "Continuous Creation, Les Murray".
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