Les Murray’s Continuous Creation

Les Murray, Continuous Creation: Last Poems (Black Inc 2022)

This beautifully designed book is a fitting way to honour the 2019 passing of a poet who loomed large in the Australian cultural landscape. The cover photograph is an inspired choice. Les Murray, seen in profile and lit from behind as if about to disappear from view, is alert and seems to be preparing to stand up. We see him through glass, so that the bookshelves, family photographs and artworks in the room blend with the bright green reflections of the outside world. Scholarship, engagement with the non-human natural world, his particular breathiness are all suggested. The photograph was taken by Murdoch press journalist Amos Aikman, while the book is published by Black Inc: Murray’s affiliation with political reaction hasn’t stopped the left-of-centre literary establishment from honouring him with this publication.

The poems are preceded by a Note on the Text by Jamie Grant: some time before he died, Murray told Grant that he had about two thirds of a book ready to go. After his death (longer than it would have been in the absence of a pandemic), Grant visited Murray’s home to find a folder of poems that had been typed by Murray’s wife Valerie, and a box filled with a jumble of handwritten poems, some of them in many versions. The contents of that folder and box, with some judicious choosing among versions in the latter, have become the contents of this book.

I’ve loved some of Murray’s poems since first hearing him read them in (I think) the early 1970s – ‘A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’, ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’, the one about blowing up trees as young men, or the one about eating curry somewhere in Britain. I’m also a bit of a hater, starting with the ‘humorous’ homophobic quatrain he regularly read along with the ‘Rainbow’. I found much to love and hate in this book as well, though ‘love’ and ‘hate’ may be too strong in both cases. There’s nothing as brilliant as his most brilliant poems, and nothing as terrible as his most anti-modern barbs.

There are aphorisms (including the title poem), odd moments of Australian history and autobiography, pronouncements on culture and politics, descriptions of natural phenomena and works of art – all conveyed with Murray’s characteristic love of wordplay, often with elements of puzzle, and his terrific ability to make us see things. ‘A Friendship’ stands out as a straightforwardly affectionate elegy for Bob Ellis.

Here’s ‘Dateline’, one of the poems from the jumble in the box. (As always, I’m assuming permission to show the poem here, even in this poor quality phone photo, and will happily remove it if the copyright owners ask me to):

The first three stanzas include examples of Murray’s gift for visual metaphor. At different stages and from different points of view, the floodwaters are like old-time washerwomen, like a mirror, like windribbed parchment. Reading these, we know that the poet has looked with fresh eyes, and invite us to do likewise.

The opening stanza is strongly visual: trees and shrubs are dumped in the creek and swirled around like laundry, letting wrack dribble downstream like dirty suds. But the words bring more than the visual. Washerwomen, especially ‘old-time’ washerwomen, belong in Dickens or Wind in the Willows (Toad disguising himself is probably the first time I heard the word). That and the verb ‘souse’ identify the poem as ‘literary’, in the English tradition. This is worth saying because Murray has been called ‘the last of the Jindyworobaks’, meaning that he sets out to write in continuity with First Nations song and story. The label is at best only partly correct. (Incidentally, I expect if he’d had a chance to revise the poem further, Murray might have changed the second line to ‘floodwaters are sousing trees and shrubs’ so that the ‘their’ in line 4 would work syntactically.)

Paradoxically perhaps, the second stanza brings us closer to the action by pulling back from description. Watching the floods, who could avoid remembering the drought? Then, another visual effect: the rain isn’t just ‘refilling the land’ (what a lovely phrase). It sits on the roads, reflecting the sky.

Human effort gets its pages turned

This is the poem’s key line. In the short term, it means that effort earlier put towards dealing with drought must now be directed towards flood mitigation, relief and recovery: the humans aren’t the ones who determine where their effort needs to go. Before any wider implication can be absorbed, the stanza moves on to the striking image of towns blanked (not blanketed) in water. I’m pretty sure ‘windribbed’ is one of Murray’s inventions – beautifully capturing a metaphorical link between agitated floodwaters and ribbed fabric, which is then further complicated by calling it parchment.

Murray’s fascination with linguistics now swings into action:

We are hearing Tornado and Tsunami

at home, words unknown in teapot times.
Downpour and Inferno are states
that people drive between

‘Teapot times’: in the olden days when people around here (‘at home’) drank tea rather than coffee, and brewed it in pots, before teabags became all but universal. Back then, people in Murray country didn’t use words like ‘tornado’ or ‘tsunami’; now they are part of the language, and have assumed enough presence to require initial capital letters. The language has changed. And so has the reality: ‘Downpour’ and ‘Inferno’ may not be new words in quite the same way, but they too have taken on initial caps – they have grown from occasional events to states.

I read the reference to senators as one of Murray’s kneejerks attacks on politicians: the floods mean people lose their whitegoods, and somehow, by Murray’s anti-politician logic, they cast aside their political representatives as well.

The next lines are the reason I chose this poem to talk about:

Global warming's chiller winters
rule both hemispheres. Arizona snow golf,
Siberian wheat, English vineyards
stricken by blizzard in their chardonnay.

I may be confusing Murray with Clive James here, but I’m pretty sure both of them have been climate change deniers. Murray has certainly echoed some right-wing talking points about environmental issues. It may be of course that the oxymoronic ‘global warming’s chiller winters’ is meant to sound a note of scepticism, but that’s not how I read it. By the logic of this poem, we move from a page being turned on human effort, to new language being needed for new circumstances, to the naming of a general cause. Climate change is real, it rules the planet. The floodwaters in Murray country are part of the same general phenomenon as weather events in the US, Asia and Europe. Human effort is getting its pages turned in a big way: humans may see themselves as dominating the planet, but ultimately we are not calling the shots.

It’s hard not to read the final word of this stanza as carrying the ‘anti-elitist’ tone of much right-wing rhetoric: you know, the inner city types who drink their lattes and sip their chardonnays. Is there a slight hint that the arrogant are getting their comeuppance in these events? If so, does the opening image of the floodwater as washerwomen take on a deeper resonance? Is global warming a case of abused and despised nature rising up against human entitlement and privilege? And where does that leave the poet, that he can say ‘their’ rather than ‘our’?

If that was the end of the poem, it would be a satisfyingly unsettling whole, implicating the poem’s speaker in the current global disaster, while holding up to the light one of the ways we avoid facing the reality.

I’m not convinced that the last six lines, which fall after the page is turned, are part of the same poem. But it certainly reads as if Jamie Grant and the editors thought so. In that case, the poem veers off in a new direction, justified perhaps by the title ‘Dateline’: this is the kind of piling together of disparate issues that happens in a news bulletin. Climate warming is the main story, but meanwhile class discrimination continues, in sports and the arts, something curious happens in the Sahara, and there’s a snippet of good news involving a baby (something cute to end the bulletin with), even if it is against the background of that AIDS epidemic. And if the last couplet isn’t an alternative, preferable version of the preceding one, which would have been my editorial guess, it reiterates the exotic and good news – this time perhaps, thanks to the repetition, conveying a glimmer of hope.

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