As a poet who often courts the epithet, “a poet for the people”, one would think this phrase would perhaps daunt an artist as far into his career as the 77-year-old Les Murray. This is not the case, as can be seen clearly in Waiting for the Past, the prolific poet’s fourth full-length collection in this century alone. Here, Murray delivers 64 lyric poems, without any chapter divisions. Dedicated to “The glory of God” (as are all his collections), Murray’s purpose is to ponder the modern world from his position as poet, as he waits for what he feels is a world undone to return to a simpler, more honest time. Arguably, such a task will necessarily be complex, but add to the mix – age, experience, the focused consideration of this veteran poetic questioner – the reader will find much that is worthwhile in this collection
To take on the world is a broad enterprise, but Murray’s long-honed wisdom enables him to navigate with confidence. Direct examples, such as “The Privacy of Typewriters” outline his own poetic practice in contrast with more modern methods of writing. Trusting the scent of botched ink, Murray writes patiently and with a real pen, all too aware of the dangers and the sterile, pre-published look that comes with contemporary word processing software:
I fear the lore
of that misstruck key
that fills a whiskered screen
with a writhe of child pornography.
This concern broadens in “Beasts of the City”, one of the collections most potent, current and biting poems. The poet observes that we, in the building of architectonic superstructures and tourist attractions, have forced animals to become “urbanised”. Animals can adapt; but sadly, corralled also by an impressive rhyme-scheme, Murray laments that creatures have been backed up against a wall of human creation:
[…], abandoning outdoors for towers,
spent glassed-in hours
combatting monstrous intestine
jag-toothed of maw and spine
while factory protein spiced with clones
grew beef or mutton, milk or bones
and the founts of these grazed free lifelong
lawnmowing, and drinking the billabong.
This farmer-bard of Bunyah’s outcry at the injustices and cruelty of factory farming is timely, informed and heartfelt.
However, Murray is far from all gloom. In poems such as the nostalgic “Clan-Sized Night Chanting”, he celebrates the beauty in modest, quiet and honest living, and enjoyment of the land:
Best sleeps hitching through
desert country were always
just out beyond dust-throw
of the road, deep enough in
grass to block rare headlights.
What emerges from Waiting for the Past is a world made uncertain and undone as a result of our own carelessness. “High Rise” is a stunning poem wherein Murray looks at the limitations of mankind and its attempts to recover the planet:
Latest theory is, the billions
will slow their over breeding
only when consuming in the sky.
Balconious kung fu of Shanghai.
A nineteenth-floor lover
heroic among consumer goods
slips off the heights of desire
down the going-home high wire-
above all the only children.
Rather as those farm towers that are homes to dying species in “Beasts of the City”, we have had to build structures to control and store ourselves, we have needed to implement population control to curb our natural desires and processes, and most notably in the vast Chinese cities Shanghai and Beijing where the poem is framed.
Line-by-line in the muscular poems of Waiting for the Past, in typically spare punctuation and carefree doling of oxymoron, Murray demands that we take the time, as he has, to consider the modern world as it currently stands. His lines break in odd places, unlocking new shifts in emphasis, and this rewards patient re-readings. It would be a sad mistake to assume this collection is only personal, as many of the poems’ first-person perspectives would seem to suggest. We must remember, it is not only the poet who is speaking here; Murray speaks to a world where, if you can’t keep up, “people hurry you, or wait, quiet.”