This suitably plump volume of Les Murray’s poetry, spanning five decades, came wrapped in both delight and concern. The delight is self-evident. The concern … how would I review such a comprehensive collection by a much lauded poet without the nauseating halo of hagiography shining from every paragraph? In an attempt to balance my self-confessed admiration, I sought the thoughts of those who do not share my tastes. There are those who find Les Murray “smug”, and “arrogant”. I bore that in mind.
At 75, Murray is at the top of his game, and that game is not one-sided. Muscular in his use of the Australian vernacular, he is a linguist of note. Deeply rooted in the hard baked soil of Bunyah , he is yet also widely travelled. He works with a variety of poetic forms, but is equally comfortable with free verse and prose. In this collection, well over 200 strong, some poems run to several pages, but there are also haiku … and still smaller works. His verse explores Aboriginal traditions, scores well-targeted swipes at “old country” affectations, but it also looks back on his Scots’ origins with pride, contempt and sometimes lyricism such as in “The Gaelic Long Tunes”.Murray is more than versatile. His sweep records Australia with the same kind of searing witness that Sebastião Salgado’s images gave to Brazil.
Bunyah has been termed his muse, being at least as significant to him as MacCaig’s Assynt, or Hughes’ Yorkshire. Perhaps Clare’s Northamptonshire is closer. For those who like their pastoral pinkly fluffy, Murray will not suit. Nonetheless, he is amongst the most important contemporary practitioners of the genre.
Us all fuckers then. And Big, huh? Tusked
The balls-biting dog and gutsed him wet.
Whether you hear the anguished echo of slave transportations, or simply the hideous cruelty inflicted on the factory farmed is, possibly, unimportant. In the uncompromising, pastoral, proletarian voice of Murray, you will hear the underclass. After all, in Sir William Empson’s terms “good proletarian art is usually Covert Pastoral”
Whatever class is your screen
I’m from several lower.
Bunyah, and its history, is no idyll.
From just on puberty, I lived in funeral:
mother dead of miscarriage, father trying to be dead,
So, we know Murray can do personal pain, pastoral and politics, but, of course, he is also extremely witty. He can rhyme and pun, enjoy ironies, and poke a stick at critics (“I wrote a little haiku”) and more often at himself. The pith of “Sound Bites” and the perfect aim of “In a Time of Cuisine” show the big man does tiny brilliantly.
A rhyme is a pun that knows where
to stop. Puns pique us with the glare
of words too coherent to bear
by any groan person.
(“Black Belt in Marital Arts”)
Now, try that against “Dog Fox Field”, his seismic condemnation of Nazi policy on the learning disabled. This comes particularly close to home for Murray, and his remarkable “It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen” should be required reading for any callow medic with but a checklist understanding of autism.
New Selected Poems showcases the poet in his many modes; one able to tackle his own “black dog”, which has thankfully now faded grey. I heard mastery, in a deservedly confident poetic voice. No, I did not hear smug.