Tag Archives: Les Murray

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.

November verse 11: On hearing a magpie

One lovely thing about poetry is the way lines will pop into your head years after you’ve read them. When I worked at The School Magazine we’d receive a letter or phone call every month or so from someone trying to locate the source of a line of poetry, or even sometimes the author of a whole poem remembered verbatim. It was gratifying to be able to help most of the time.

The first line from James Macauley’s short poem ‘Magpie‘ often pops into my head when I hear a magpie singing. The smell of earth after rain makes me think of Les Murray’s Monthly article ‘Infinite Anthology‘ (not his poem by the same name – I looked them both up); and of a line from George Herbert’s poem ‘The Flower‘ likewise makes itself known when the sky clears after rain. Today’s stanza steals from all three, plus a bonus word from Macbeth.

November verse 11: On hearing a magpie after rain
The magpie's mood is never surly,
never glum is petrichor.
My first line comes from James McAuley –
took time out from culture wars
to sing the praise of liquid squabbles.
Line two: Les A Murray's bauble
lent to us from his great hoard
when he was in non-surly mood. 
For when the hurlyburly's over,
when the mud has all been slung
and all the war songs have been sung,
the bees still bumble in the clover,
once more we smell the dew and rain
and relish verses once again.

Vale Les Murray

Les Murray died yesterday. On the ABC News last night, David Malouf said,

He could be very funny. He could be very harsh. But we all listened to him, and we all needed to hear what he had to say.

Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog has posted an excellent summary of his life and career, and I expect that over the next couple of days there will be many learned accounts of his vast contribution to the culture of Australia and the world.

I was going to write a brief personal piece, but then I found in my old blog, Family Life, a 2006 review of the collection of his poetry intended to introduce him to US readers, and realised it said everything I’d want to say now, except how crushingly sad it is that he has died, and that as literary editor of Quadrant he first rejected a poem I submitted with generous marginal comments, and then, also in 2006, accepted a revised version, informing me of the acceptance in a handwritten note on a postcard of a bush shack.

Here’s a slightly altered version of what I wrote in 2006 about Learning Human, beginning with a reference to a review in the New York Times.

The review sees him as aspiring to be the poetic voice of Australia. In so far as he seeks to speak for anyone, I don’t think it’s any nation, but a class, the rural poor, and perhaps another constituency – the non-human world.

Some of Les’s descriptions of the natural world are extraordinary: it’s like walking beneath the trees, sitting and watching the birds, strolling among the cattle. But he’s an incredibly uncomfortable read. You never know when he’s going to lash out at some aspect of the modern world, and I for one often feel I’m being unfairly attacked. I found this time – I’d read most of these poems before – that it helped to take him at his word and think of him as writing from the point of view of someone on the autism spectrum. There’s an odd sense of alienation from other people, of not quite being part of the human race, that underlies his conservative contrarianism: ‘Demo’ comes close to identifying its disdain for political rallies as a neurotic consequence of having been bullied at school; in what can be read as an acknowledgement of his own lack of empathy, the narrator of ‘Suspended Vessels’ turns away from a hot-air-balloon accident where 13 people had a ‘hideous’ death to mutter what seems to be a big-abstract-word equivalent of ‘Serves them right, the spoiled rich kids.’

That is to say, even though I suspect Les Murray, at least when in his poet state, wouldn’t be sorry to see me and my kind wiped from the face of the earth, I am still grateful for what he gives me in his poems. I do feel a personal affection for him. I met him at a Sydney Push party in the 1970s. He was a big man then, and wore a badge, ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it.’ We were talking about Taoism, and he said to me, words I should have taken to heart, ‘There is no tao for stumbling in the dark. If you had the tao you’d walk.’

I’ve just remembered another part of that conversation. It was early days of the Women’s Liberation movement. Les said, ‘Mine is the only profession where men and women are truly equal.’ Obtuse as ever, I said, ‘You mean translators?’ (He was working as a translator in Canberra at the time.) ‘I mean poets,’ he said and that was prabably the end of the conversation.

Australian Poetry Journal 6:2

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2 (2016)

APJ62.jpgThis is Michael Sharkey’s sixth and final issue as editor of Australian Poetry Journal. I’m missing him already.

The whole journal – a wonderful variety of poems, four articles, two reviews and a handful of photographs – is a pleasure.

It feels almost mean to single any poems out, but I will. In Jane Williams’s ‘Show and Tell’ a sea eagle’s appearance quells a group of tourists’ ‘compulsion to frame / the endless, abridged version of us’. Carol Jenkins’s seven-poem sequence ‘A History of Zero’ revels in the metaphorical possibilities of  paradox that the invention of the zero – of nothing – had vast consequences. Les Murray’s ‘The Scores’ is a characteristically abrasive account of Australian social history, beginning with 2001, then skipping ahead 20 years in each of the remaining five stanzas. Ron Pretty’s ‘Parks & Wildlife’ is a country pub conversation full of sly puns and genial observation. There are a couple of villanelles (and who doesn’t love a villanelle) of which Sarah Day’s ‘Sea Ice’ is seriously splendid. Jules Leigh Koch’s ‘Monastery’ describes a monastery somewhere in Asia, the kitchen full of backpackers about to head off to distant places,

while outside a monk walks along
The Path
chanting a mantra
journeying from one end if his world
to the other

As in previous issues, there are articles on small-scale publishers of poetry and translation, two each.

The presses are Ralph Wessman’s Walleah Press (article by Chris Ringrose) and Kent MacCarter’s Cordite Books (article by Greg McLaren). Reading about these enterprises, I’m impressed all over again by the generosity of spirit and financial daring of these cultural stalwarts. The big surprise for me is Ralph Wessman’s reply when asked how many copies he prints for the first run of a volume of poetry. ‘As few as necessary,’ he says, andgoes on to say that that usually  means 150 copies. That’s not much bigger than my self-published glorified Christmas cards!

The essays on translation are both excellent introductions to the poets being translated: Carol Hayes on the contemporary Japanese poets Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata and Takako Arai, and Zeina Issa on on the Kurdish poet Khalid Kaki. They both quote generously from the translated poet and give fascinating insights into the specifics of translation from Japanese and Arabic respectively.

The next issue will be edited by fabulous  Aboriginal poets Aly Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven. That makes the missing of Michael Sharkey a lot easier to bear.

Membership of Australian Poetry Ltd gets you a subscription to the journal, and individual issues can be bought via the web site.

Antigone Kefala’s Fragments, and my Verse 11

Antigone Kefala, Fragments (Giramondo 2016)

frag.jpg

The final issue of Ivor Indyk’s literary journal Heat, published an astonishing 6 years ago, included an interview of Antigone Kefala by Amanda Simons. The conversation ranges widely, from Kefala’s ‘scribbling’ in her childhood home in Romania before World War 2, over the role her mother played in her creative life, to the critical isolation that comes from being classified as an ‘ethnic’ writer. She says this about poetry:

It is a medium that has its own directions. It comes when it wants to come, doesn’t come when it doesn’t want to come. You can never force it, you have to wait for it.

Fragments is a collection of 61 poems that feel absolutely unforced in that way, almost as if each poem catches an unbidden thought, or dream, or observation, or burst of emotion, and finds a precise form of words for it. If they are fragments of some greater unity, the book is not concerned to find that unity, or to explain contexts, but invites us to focus on each fragment in its own right. Take the first poem:

The Voice
At the sound
I turned
my veins full of ice
that travelled
at high speed
releasing fire.

This return
the past attacking
unexpectedly
in the familiar streets.

The speaker hears a voice from her past. Perhaps it’s associated with a terrible memory, or it might remind her of the voice of a loved one who has died. The poem isn’t interested in the specifics, nor in what happened next. Did the speaker approach the owner of the voice, did she go about her day as if nothing had happened or was she shaken to the core? The poem doesn’t go anywhere near these questions. It focuses tightly on the moment of hearing, and renders it with wonderful precision and complexity: there are the explicit images of ice and fire, and possibly an implied reference to the kinds of warfare that turns city streets into war zones. It’s not ‘difficult’ poetry, but it rewards you for time spent in its company.

The poems, only a handful of them much longer than the first, are divided into five sections. Here’s my guess at their organising principles:

  1. a thematic introduction: poems of memory and loss, dream renderings, observations of social life, dark love poems
  2. evocations of places, mainly Australian, including a scene from the movie Wake in Fright
  3. poems of grief, loss and impending loss
  4. dreams and visions, surrealism and metaphysics
  5. social poems – quick character sketches, satirical jabs, laments, a little politics.

In the Heat interview, Antigone Kefala observes that ‘we ethnics are constantly being compared to other ethnics, but not to Australian writers’, and asks if her interviewer has ever seen a comparison between her work and that of Les Murray. Well, perhaps with that quote working at the back of my mind, I found myself making just such a comparison. Here’s her poem ‘Weapons’ – I hope it’s OK to quote it in full:

Weapons
Ruins
corpses in the sun
men moving cautiously
in the abandoned streets
close to the scarred walls.
Men on top of houses, hills,
coming from dark undergrounds,
men holding on, hugging
these metal erections
firing them
a spray of semen
rushing with velocity
to breed another race of killers.

The evocation of the battle-zone is followed by what at first looks like crude, even trite feminist anti-war rhetoric – the gun as phallic symbol – which becomes almost shockingly explicit with the ‘spray of semen’, and then is brought home in the powerful last line: this isn’t just emotive rhetoric, there’s a strong idea here.

The poem reminded me of Les Murray’s ‘I wrote a Little Haiku‘, which similarly compares bullets to semen. In Murray’s poem, the molten bullets drip from a burning farm rail, and he sees the drip as ‘the size of wasted semen / it had annulled before’. It’s the visual image that counts: one’s response is to admire the poet’s mental agility in seeing such a comparison: the notion that the bullets had ‘annulled’ real semen when they were fired in the past – that is, they had killed young men and so prevented them from fathering children – is almost a melancholy afterthought. In Kefala, the visual image matters, but the force of the poem is in its idea. We’re not invited to admire her cleverness, so much as to dwell on what she has unearthed.

Oddly, the comparisons that came to mind most strongly as I read this book are with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, both of whom have grappled with ageing in their recent work – Dylan’s ‘Mississippi’ for example, or Cohen’s heartbreaking ‘I’m Leaving the Table’. Kefala too brings a ruthless eye to the experience of ageing, and at the same time, like those two writers (in other ways very different from her), conveys a deep joy in living and creating. I love the bitter-sweet final lines of the book’s last poem, ‘Metro Cellist’:

we were floating on sound.
The earth was singing,
singing in an exuberance
of youth.

AWW2016Fragments is the thirteenth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my free copy.
—–
As my regular readers will know, I have a self-imposed task of writing fourteen 14-line verses each November and putting them up on my blog. I was going to let this post go by to avoid putting any of my verse on the same page as Antigone Kefala’s infinitely superior work, but then I read her saying in the Heat interview that she could not write a sonnet: ‘You know how writers do exercises in terms of poetic forms; I have never been able to do that.’ Perhaps one day I’ll outgrow my attachment to the form of the Onegin stanza, but for now, here’s one more, an attempt to explain the joys of this attachment:

November Verse 11: 
A turn of phrase, a half idea:
that’s enough for my first lines.
The path ahead is far from clear
but through mind’s muddle somehow shines
an argument. Then, as I’m seeking
rhymes and scans, the sense starts leaking
into somewhere unforeseen
and who knows what line eight will mean?
Six lines to go, and now I’m counting.
So much that I wish I’d said,
not on the page, still in my head!
Its all a mess. The panic’s mounting.
With luck I end my little song
as if I meant it all along.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Inside My Mother

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside My Mother (Giramondo 2015)

1imm

If you haven’t read anything by Ali Cobby Eckermann, you’re not keeping up. In the last five years or so, in three books of poetry, two verse novels and a memoir, she has made a huge contribution to our general understanding of what Australia is. She was taken from her Aboriginal family when she was a small child, and brought up by a white, German heritage family. Her writing is largely animated by the charge from her reunion as an adult with her mother and with  her Yankunytjatjara and Kokatha relatives and heritage.

The memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, tells her story and is on my reading list. The poetry in Inside My Mother touches on it in many ways – on her relationship with her mother, and the pain of her death soon after renewing contact; and also on her rediscovery of Aboriginal culture, as in the first poem in the book:

Bird Song
 our birds fly
 –––––on elongated wings
 ––––––––––they fly forever
 –––––––––––––––they are our Spirit

–––––––––––––––our bird song
 ––––––––––is so ancient
 –––––we gifted it
 to the church

This kind of assertion of the power of Aboriginal culture is hard to pull off without coming across as defensive or preachy, but Cobby Eckermann manages it here, and throughout the book, with grace and a faint satirical edge.

The poetry here is wonderfully varied: love lyrics, fables, autobiographical narrative, polemic, surrealism and some silly humour.

As I’ve been ruminating about this book over the last couple of weeks, my mind keeps returning to ‘Hindmarsh Island’, not because it stands out as excellent, but because it cries out to be read alongside Les Murray’s ‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’ in his most recent book, Waiting for the Past.

Les Murray’s fine poem can be read online here. It celebrates the renewal of the mouth of the Murray River, in particular the prosperity and vitality that has come to Hindmarsh Island thanks to the bridge that has recently joined it to the mainland. It has Murray’s characteristic joy in linguistic display, the wonderful image of the bridge throwing houses onto the island, and the joyful underlying pun on ‘Murray mouth’.

Then along comes Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Hindmarsh Island’:

hindmarsh Island 

Cars drive over the babies!

And we realise that for all his emphasis on the importance of the past, Les Murray as a non-Indigenous poet can glide over some elements of our history. The Signal Point café is part of the thriving scene celebrated in ‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’, but from an Aboriginal perspective, we don’t have the luxury of forgetting that the bridge was built over the prolonged protests of a group of women who asserted that it meant the destruction of a significant cultural site. It’s possible that Cobby Eckermann had read the Murray poem (which was first published in Quadrant in September 2010), but I doubt if it’s a deliberate response: this is just a different take on the same phenomenon, one that demonstrates how important Aboriginal voices are if our national conversation is to have integrity.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s previous books of poetry are Kami (a Vagabond Press Rare Objects chapbook, 2010) and little bit long time (Australian Poetry Centre’s New Poets Series, also 2010) and love dreaming and other poems (Vagabond 2012). Her two verse novels are His Father’s Eyes (OUP 2011) and Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books 2012). Her memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, was published by Ilura Press in 2013.

aww-badge-2015

Inside My Mother is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 2

My Friday at the Festival was a long day. Also wet. Anticipating queues, I arrived early for my first event, and turned out to be one of three people sheltering under the long marquee for a good half hour. Sadly, attendance was pretty sparse for an excellent session:

10 am: Australia in Verse
As is often the case, this event’s title was irrelevant. With poetry events at the SWF, it’s the who that counts rather than the what.

Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckerman were in conversation with Ivor Indyk. Jennifer Maiden’s name was in the program but back trouble kept her away, that and her wish that the two Indigenous poets should have the floor. I was sorry not to see her, but it was wonderful that we got so much of the two who were there.

The poets spoke about their backgrounds. Sam’s south-east Queensland childhood was full of story-tellers, writers and artists, solidly Aboriginal though not in denial about European heritage as well. He described himself as a child of popular culture. Ali’s mother was taken from her family when very young; Ali herself was taken; and she relinquished her own baby son. Their paths to becoming poets were vastly different, as is their poetry.

Both read a number of poems, and spoke about what their poetry meant to them. Ivor Indyk was wonderful in the chair. When Sam said something about his early poems being well received, Ivor said that was because they were good: ‘And I’ll say what was good about them in a minute.’

There was a lot of laughter, and some tears.

And on to:

11.30: Writers on Writers: Rilke
I know very little about Rilke. I read his Letters to a Young Poet when I was a young non-poet, and I love this passage from Etty Hillesum‘s diaries, written on her way to Auschwitz, which makes me want to know more:

I always return to Rilke.
It is strange to think that someone so frail did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live. […] In peaceful times and under favourable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions, a response they are unable to formulate for themselves, since all their energies are taken up in looking after the bare necessities.

So I was interested.

There was a lot to absorb. All four panelists knew an awful lot about Rilke, which they were enthusiastic to share: much more than could possibly fit into an hour. Luke Fischer, enthusiastic young scholar–poet, fell over his own words as he gave us three trains of thought at once. Lesley Chamberlain, a learned Englishwoman in jeans, made sure we knew how to pronounce Brancusi properly. Peter Morgan, from Sydney University’s German department, was in the chair and had interesting things to say about translating Rilke. Elder poet Robert Gray seemed to rise every now and then from the depths of abstract thought to make a brief contribution. It was fascinating theatre, and pretty good as an impressionistic introduction to a poet who, they said, sits at the beginning of modernism.

Not that it was like a fish and chip shop, but I had three takeaways:

  • Rilke is the one who ended a short poem describing an ancient sculpture with a phrase that seemed to come from nowhere and go everywhere, ‘You must change your life.’
  • He regarded his letters as part of his literary output. (This was a relief, because if the Letters to a Young Poet were dashed off there’s no hope for the rest of us.)
  • Something that came up in response to a question at the very end, that seems relevant to to Etty Hillesum quote is Rilke’s concept of the reversal. As far as I could understand, the idea is that if you set out to experience any pain and painful emotion fully rather than numbing them out or seeking distraction from them, then at some point a reversal happens, and the pain is in some way transcended.

Time for lunch, in what was now a beautiful sunny day by the Harbour, and then:

1.30: The World in Three Poets

3 poets

This was a wonderful session. Kate Fagan (not pictured), herself no mean poet, did an amazing job of introducing poets Ben Okri, David Malouf and Les Murray. That is, she said just a few extraordinarily well crafted words about each of them, leaving most of the hour for them to read to us, followed by a short question time. It was an almost overwhelming combination of talents.

The woman sitting next to me said she was there mainly for Ben Okri – she’d read some of his novels (‘if you can call them novels’) and hoped that hearing him read in person would help to understand them. As if he’d heard her, his final reading was from his current novel, which he introduced by saying that his novels had often been described as poetic. My transitory companion was pleased.

Les Murray read nothing from his most recent book, which of course was because he had a whole session on that book – Waiting for the Past – the next day. What he did read was marvellous. And when David Malouf read, Les was a picture of concentration – as if he was in training for an Olympic event in Listening to Poetry.

David began with his ‘Seven Last Word of the Emperor Hadrian’. Heard in the context of the previous day’s session on the classics, this revealed itself more clearly: the speaker, anticipating death, bids a tender farewell to his soul, the reverse of what we would expect in the Judaeo-Christian mindset, and there is something deeply moving about that.

All three of these extraordinary poets shone in the question time.

3  pm: Australia’s Oldest Stories: Indigenous Storytelling with Glen Miller
It’s 51 years since Jacaranda Press published a children’s book, The Legends of Moonie Jarl by Moonie Jarl (Wilf Reeves) and Wandi (Olga Miller), which has been described as the first book written by Aboriginal people. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation have re-published it this year. Glen Miller, nephew and son respectively of the authors, talked to Lydia Miller about his own very interesting life – as very young worker in the coal mines, public servant, cultural tourism entrepreneur, and now as elder and activist in the Maryborough Aboriginal community – and about the origins of the book as he remembered them. He was very good value, but I can’t have been the only person in the audience who was hanging out to be read to. Eventually, he did read us one story – almost apologetically, as if an audience full of adults wouldn’t want to be read a children’s story. There were no complaints.

It being Friday, I was joined by the Art Student for:

4.30: The Big Read
The Big Read is where a big theatre full of people, mainly adults, sits back to be read to. This event used to be for ninety minutes, but it’s sadly been cut back to just an hour, and that hour has to accommodate the presentation of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Awards.

This year the awards presentation featured some unscheduled theatre. The set-up has always been a little awkward, as one by one the young novelists stand silently off to the side of the stage while their novels are described, and then again while the others have their turns. This year, the first recipient, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, clearly feeling the awkwardness acutely, sat down in a spare chair while his book (The Tribe) was being described. When he was shepherded away from that chair after receiving his award, he looked around and saw that there wasn’t a chair (Beatles reference intended), so sat on the floor. His successors – Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen van Neerven and Omar Musa (Alice Pung, the fifth recipient, was in Melbourne with a small baby) – each made the decision to join him. Linda Morris from the SMH said it was like a sit-in. Perhaps next year there will be chairs, and the young novelists may even have a moment each at the microphone.

On to the show itself: Camilla Nelson read from Alice Pung’s book; Kate Grenville read from One Life, a kind of biography of her mother; Steven Carroll read an extended passage about a guitar from his novel, Forever Young; Damian Barr gave us a snippet of Glaswegian childhood from his memoir Maggie and Me. Annette Shun Wah was as always a warm and charming host.

It’s probably telling that when we went to Gleebooks on our way to dinner to buy Damian Barr’s book it was sold out. After a dinner up the hill at the Hero of Waterloo, we uncharacteristically returned to the Festival for an evening session:

8.00 Drafts Unleashed + Slam
MCd by Miles Merrill, mover and shaker on the Australian spoken word scene, this featured an open mic plus a number of featured guests, all of whom were invited to read something completely new. Benjamin Law read us the opening scene of the TV series currently in production based on his memoir The Family Law. He did the voices and the accents, and it was a wondrous thing to see this slight, mild man transformed before our eyes into a big, loud, wildly inappropriate woman. The rest was fun too, but we were weary and left before the show was over, walking back to Circular Quay through the spectacle and crush of the Vivid festival.

Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past

Les Murray, Waiting for the Past (Black Inc, 2015)

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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.

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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.

Ngurrumbang update and some very old news

It can now be revealed that Melburnians will have a chance to see Ngurrumbang on their home turf in May. No need this time to travel to Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide or central Spain, just head off to the Australian Shorts session of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image 7.30 pm on 9 May.  The whole program looks fabulous. (Sadly, that set of films won’t be part of the Festival as it travels around the country in the next three months.)

And other news: I was interviewed yesterday for a project about resistance to conscription at the time of the Vietnam War. Gulliver Media’s Hell No! We Won’t Go, which may one day become a film, is shaping up at present as a collection of interviews with draft resisters and conscientious objectors. I was a conscientious objector and happy to delve into memory as part of this project to preserve part of our history that is threatened with occlusion.

I also delved into a diary that I kept at the time (my CO hearing was either late 1970 or early 1971), which prompts me to offer the following unsolicited advice to anyone in their early 20s who is keeping a diary: no one, including yourself, is going to be interested in your half-baked witticisms and introspective anxieties in 40 years time; what they’ll want is NAMES, and DATES, and PLACES.

While finding very little to help my recollections of the court case, and shrivelling with embarrassment at the angst and pomposity of 23-year-old me (which makes me look even more kindly on Lena Dunham’s Girls),  I did find one or two entertaining snippets. On Les Murray:

I met Les Murray at Dianne’s party last Saturday night, a man who is not shy about quoting from his own someday-to-be-written ‘Table Talk’. Among other things he said wh I found interesting: ‘There is no Tao for stumbling in the dark. If you had the Tao, you’d walk.’

On David Malouf, perhaps from conversation in the English Department common rooms, which I’d forgotten I ever shared with him:

Dave Malouf  ‘don’t think Polanski’s any good’, but when pressed likes all except Rosemary’s baby, on the grounds that it moves away from the class vision wh MUST be part of his Communist framed sensibility – and WILL NOT see Fearless V Ks.

Having recently read the script of Rosemary’s Baby, I think he was right about that. But I hope he relented and saw The Fearless Vampire Killers, which I hope is as funny as I remember.

Les Murray’s Boys who Stole the Funeral

Les Murray, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral: A novel sequence (Angus & Robertson 1980, Minerva 1993)

Here’s Laurie Duggan’s ‘translation’ of Martial’s epigram VIII lxxv, written less than a decade after The Boys Who Stole the Funeral was published:

After reading at the Lions Club
the Bard slipped and sprawled
on Taree shopping plaza's
_____crazy paving. His weedy acolytes
couldn't shift the bugger an inch.

Luckily for him, a hearse stopped
and two burly undertakers
winched and crammed the great man
______into the back,
splintering the neighbour coffin.

Was he taken home to Bunyah, you ask?
Or was he stolen by the funeral?

I like the way this capitalises on the serendipitous resonance between Martial’s scenario of the ingens dominus (huge master) who is heaved onto a funeral bier and the fact that bulky Les Murray wrote a ‘novel sequence’ about a funeral. I also like the way Martial is transposed into an Australian vernacular  But there’s something else: if there’s malice in Duggan’s image of the ‘Bard’s double humiliation, it’s a pallid thing compared to this book’s savage caricaturing of intellectuals, city people, socialists, feminists and their multitudinous ilk. When I read Duggan’s poem a fortnight ago, before I’d read The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, I thought it was a bit of mischievous fun; I now read it as a tiny piece of retaliation against a massive attack.

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A story outline would lead you to expect a great yarn with a thread of dark humour running through it. Two young men, university drop-outs, steal the corpse of an old soldier friend and take him to the country town where he has said he wanted to be buried, but where none of his family could afford to take his body. His funeral is the occasion for a great coming together of country folk, but the consequences for the boys are greater than they could have imagined – one dies a violent death and the other finds spiritual wholeness in a new, profound connection with country.

It should have been a great yarn, but alas, for all Les Murray’s greatness as a poet, he is a lousy story teller. None of the characters emerges as more than a type. A number of the barely distinguishable country folk seem to represent different aspects of salt-of-the-earth people that Murray approves of, and at the other extreme a rabid feminist–pacifist character is spectacularly implausible. Implausibility is a strong feature (reaching a peak in the boy’s killing). There’s quite a lot of dialogue, but it’s often all but impossible to tell who is supposed to be speaking. The narrative, such as it is, progresses with little regard for pacing, or motivation, or sense of place. The latter is particularly odd, given that Murray’s poetry elsewhere can evoke place with powerful specificity. Everything seems to be in the service of a weird anti-modernism. Perhaps the intention was to put forward a spiritual vision of some sort, but the vision is lost in the welter of negativity that accompanies it, so that the effect is of a mean-spirited nastiness about human beings.

I found this book deeply horrible, and also not much good. Some reviews I’ve read seem to think its wonderful – one US reviewer said that Murray’s skill made Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate look amateurish. We live on different planets. Maybe the book really is up there with the great and I’m an idiot.