Les Murray, Waiting for the Past (Black Inc, 2015)
A new book by Les Murray is an event, and Waiting for the Past is as rich a mixture of pontification, playfulness, contrariness, enigma, earthiness, erudition and verbal and visual delights as you could expect. The range of occasions that provide starting points for poems is huge: a flood, a moment on a ferry, children’s complaint about their father, two dogs jumping onto a tractor tray, the death of an octopus, the canonisation of Mary McKillop, his own rustic table manners. The poems themselves range from tiny squibs, through narrative, to combative meditations. Many, perhaps most, are concerned with the relationship between the past and the present – the remembered past, the historical past, and the deep, geological past. The book’s paradoxical title may refer to Murray’s championing of the rural past, but it also hints that almost anything in the present stirs up something from the past: if you let your mind rest you can just wait for the past to make itself felt.
I’m shy about blogging on Murray, partly because of the sheer brilliance of other people’s writing about him, of which ‘Widespeak’, Lisa Gorton’s review of Waiting for the Past in the Sydney Review of Books is a recent example. That essay has very interesting things to say about Murray’s use of sound and his relationship to other poets, but it’s especially brilliant in reading the poetry in the context of Anglo-Saxon riddle poems:
Until [a] riddle is solved, it could mean anything – everything. Only after it is solved does meaning settle into being in the words…
Murray’s descriptions have a riddle ancestry: they effect an estrangement that is perceptual. That is why, for all the force of the poet’s personality and reputation, Murray’s best poems are distinguished by the fact that reading them feels solitary: an encounter not with a personality but with language itself: its work of discovering the world through its patterns of sound. …
Most of Murray’s descriptions could start with that phrase from the riddle: ‘a weird thing I saw’.
There’s much more. If you’re interested in Murray’s poetry, you should read it all.
One thing about riddles that Lisa Gorton doesn’t say is that they are frustrating if you can’t solve them, and give great joy when you do. If you solve them after being frustrated, the joy is all the greater. I could give lots of small examples from this book of such frustration and pleasure. Just one: ‘Grooming with Nail Scissors’ ends with a reference to toenail clippings as ‘grey beetle bix’. I puzzled over that last word. Google and a couple of dictionaries were no help. I decided it must be obscure Celtic lingo, and was about to move on when (I know, I’m slow!) I thought of Weet-Bix, and the words resolved into an image of little grey biscuits just the right size for a beetle’s breakfast. It’s a trivial example, maybe, but Lisa Gorton is right: the pleasure I got from it was all about me and the language.
‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’ gave me similar pleasure. In it, the poet describes a road trip to the mouth of the Murray River. There are several lines describing a reviivified scene on Hindmarsh Island:
the barrages de richesse,
film culture, horseradish farms,
steamboats kneading heron-blue
lake, the river full again.
It’s a straightforward evocation of a thriving place. Then I realised that the scene was covered by the general phrase ‘the Murray mouth’. That would have no resonance in another poet’s work, but here I take delight in recognising a hidden punning reference to the man Murray’s own return from his much-publicised chronic depression, so that his mouth is ‘full again’. George Herbert comes to mind: ‘I once more smell the dew and rain / And relish versing.’
‘I Wrote a Little Haiku‘ breaks the rules of comedy and explains a riddle.
The little haiku ‘The Springfields’ appeared in Taller when Prone (2010), and at least one reviewer found it infuriating, saying it served ‘as a reminder that the urge to baffle, like the urge to shock, is usually best resisted’, so the present poem is responding to something real. In it Murray doesn’t merely explicate the earlier poem. He puts his mind to it in the way he puts his mind to any other subject when making poetry. The defensiveness of ‘Critics didn’t like it’ falls away, the riddling dimension of the ‘haiku’ is unravelled. If a reader in 2010 had googled ‘Springfield, Civil War’ they would have had a fair chance of solving the riddle. I wonder, though, how many would have got the richly poignant image of this poem’s last lines, which remind us to stay open to the possibility of deeper connotations in the riddles.
This whole line of thought makes me much less reluctant to spend time nutting out Murray’s frequent obscurities. I’m more open, too, to poems that seem to enact a kind of belligerent anti-modernism. I would love someone to walk me through ‘Persistence of the Reformation’, which begins with a description of watered landscape, briefly laments the passing of old farming ways, then somehow finds itself giving a cryptic brief history of post-Reformation imperialism and sectarianism, before (I think) celebrating a non-denominational rural ethos:
belief may say Ask Mum
and unpreached help
has long been the message
Les Murray is appearing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on a panel with David Malouf and Ben Okri. Can one room contain all three? I’ll tell you in a couple of days.