Les Murray’s On Bunyah (2015)

When I was at school I loved the poetry of Judith Wright. Later, when I went to live on the Tablelands of New England, I felt that I already knew them:

South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter.

And her evocation of an old man telling stories has remained with me:

Oh, they slide and they vanish
as he shuffles the years like a pack of conjuror’s cards.

Another favourite was Kenneth Slessor, whose Five Bells moved me greatly:

[I] tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat’s whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds’ voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.
Five bells.

But Australian poetry has moved on, and for years now I’ve been turning to the work of Les Murray.  His poetry is attractive simply because of the intelligence of his verbal wit:

A fact the gourmet euphemism can’t silence

Vegetarians eat sex, carnivores violence.

Some of his poems express the point of view of animals with great power and, for all I know, accuracy. But Murray goes far beyond such things. His upbringing in rural New South Wales was one of poverty, personal tragedy and heavy work on the land. He lost his mother at an early age, sat through sermons at the Calvinist Free Church that was central to his émigré Scottish community, was belittled at school, and had an awkward career as an undergraduate. (The biography by the late Peter Alexander is very good at integrating Murray’s life with his poetry.) It’s been a life of more intensity than most of us have experienced, and his latest book of poems collects some written over a long period that bear on the area in which he grew up and the people who lived there. Many are worth quoting from, among them Two Rains:

Our farms are in the patched blue overlap

between Queensland rain and Victorian rain…

the tropical weather disgorges its lot

in days of developing floodtime blast

towering and warm as a Papuan forest,

a rain you can sweat in, it steams in the sun

like a hard-ridden horse, while southern rain’s absorbed

like a cool, fake-colloquial drawn out lesson.

 

Some of the poems convey a sense of loss with the passing of older figures:

Now they, who were cool midday East

to my childhood, have moved on into

the poem that can’t be read

till you yourself are in it.

 

These words can stand for a greater mourning. Murray is a man with a broad smile (readers of Alexander’s book see it captured in photos of him standing next to Kenneth Slessor and Manning Clark, among others) that suggests a capacity for unguarded and generous friendship. Pre-eminently the poet of vernacular rural Australia, distant from the metropolitan centres that have come to generate public culture, he writes for a rural culture now passing beyond our view. Let us never forget that some of our most serious writing comes from the edges.

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