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Elizabeth Campbell reviews Les Murray's Taller When Prone

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Taller When Prone is the second collection of poems from Les Murray since the publication of his Collected Poems by Black Inc in 2002 in Australia, and Carcanet in 2003 in the UK. As in the last book, The Biplane Houses, the quality of sprawl seems to have receded somewhat from Murray's lines – both lines and poems themselves are frequently short, with a fragmentary flavour.

Murray loves facts, detail, stuff about the world, and in that way he has always been a poet of witness, who offers things up to the reader's astonishment. Through the clear intention of the dedication to all his books 'for the glory of God,' Murray glorifies God through recording and loving Creation. In a sort of title poem, he investigates love of fact or obsession with fact, by gently sending it up, bringing out the odd arbitrariness of fact out of context:

Your brain can bleed from a sneeze-breath.

A full moon always rises at sunset

and a person is taller when prone.

Donald Duck was once banned in Finland

because he didn't wear trousers,

 

his loins were feather-girt . . .

 

('The Conversations,' p. 7)

This is celebratory, the master praising his materials. But 'prone' suggests powerlessness – someone who has fallen and can't get up – Gregor Samsa on his back. Lying down, but not relaxed in the way that 'recumbent' or 'reclined' might say. Unfortunately, Murray tends to be smaller when prone: when he feels cornered, he fails.

Discussion of Murray is complicated, particularly within Australia, by the looming issue of his politics. Anxiety about Murray's views seems to rest on fundamental disagreement between him and his critics about his speaking position. Critics of his apparent ideologies count him among the strong: male, white, pastoralist, Christian, an established writer willing to work (on the aborted preamble to the constitution) with a reviled conservative government. But Murray has always, in poems such as 'Dog Fox Field,' and 'Demo,' identified himself among the silenced hosts of the weak: 'whatever class is your screen,/ I'm from several lower.' ('Demo,' Collected Poems, p. 444). This apparently perverse self-conception has roots in personal history, the 'black dog' of depression and a self-diagnosis of something along the spectrum of Asperger's Syndrome, all of which Murray has written about in poetry and prose. To him, his defences of religion, white settlement and farming and other sensitive topics are exactly that: defences. He sees these things as embattled, his critics see them as hegemonic, and never the twain shall meet.

This impasse has the unfortunate consequence that reading Murray is distinctly unfashionable in Australia. During my education in the 90s, like many other undergraduates, I picked up by some kind of osmosis, a basic disapproval of Murray, without knowing the poems. Many educated Australians of my generation know little about Murray other than vague outlines of his association with the Howard government. They have heard he is 'right-wing' and therefore they don't read him. This is exactly the kind of intellectual conformity which Murray has so often, sometimes tiresomely, derided.

Much valuable work has been done in recent decades to critically and crucially revise Australian history's white triumphalist orthodoxies. Much more needs to be done practically, but Australians needn't be so insecure in our conception of our cultural possibilities as to exclude Murray. The squeamishness of those who ignore him gives credence to Murray's bonnet-bee about political correctness. And he himself is frustratingly inconsistent, sideways, unexpected in the things he champions, blending aphoristic reaction with moments of deep empathy and self-knowledge. His oblique-thinking coinings can suddenly and startlingly illuminate a certain discourse, if not describe fact, as Murray presents them as doing. Throughout his oeuvre, particularly his essays, there are points on which I could launch a full and angry repudiation, and other places which reveal a compassionate profundity. If only he were a simple reactionary. It seems better for all concerned when he just describes things.

He does this well in many poems in Taller When Prone. Murray's observation is utterly energetic – communicating surprise and invitation to the reader. If his assertions can be rebarbative, his observations are welcoming. From 'The Cowladder Stanzas':


Not from a weather direction

black cockatoos come crying over

unflapping as Bleriot monoplanes

to crash in pine tops for the cones.

 

Young dogs, neighbours' dogs

across the creek, bark, chained

off the cows, choked off play, bark

untiring as a nightsick baby, yap

milking times to dark, plead,

ute-dancing dope-eyed dogs.

 

(p. 46)

In several poems in Taller When Prone, Murray seems to blame 'Ideology' for the bushfires which devastated Victoria in 2009, killing 276 people. From 'The 41st Year of 1968':

 

Settler-style clear-felling must stay gone

despite what hill-country gumtrees

wreak on settlements at least one summer

in every human generation.

 

so families were burned alive

along steep narrow roads

strung high on the mountains

through spindly second growth.

 

In deep 1968, one then

simply changed the subject.

 

(p. 69)

There's a move there at the end to a private significance – '1968' is shorthand for an entire and apparently hegemonic world-view. A huge amount of debate, custom, law and science around the management of the Australian environment is conflated here, and causal links are, to me at least, unclear. The poem doesn't work. In 'Hesiod on Fire' he tells us: 'Ideology is fire' – this is Murray at his assertive silliest.

Silly in the way that many poems from 1996's Subhuman Redneck Poems were silly – by attempting to shock and defy his enemies, Murray neither takes seriously the complexity of what he loves: land, farmers, rural communities, underdogs, nor engages seriously with what he seems to hate: 'western intellectuals,' urban elites, mobs, and bullies. He fails to see that his own rhetoric is sometimes bullying. Anger is his worst mode, and is not the Murray that posterity will keep.

In Taller When Prone, Murray's heroes are again the weak, the poor, the disabled in 'Rugby Wheels,' the demented in 'Nursing Home,' the grief-stricken in 'Winding Up at the Bootmaker's', the blind in the wonderful 'Phone Canvass':

 

Chatting, after the donation part,

the Blind Society's caller

answered my shy questions:

 

'. . . and I love it on the street,

all the echo and air pressure,

people in my forehead and

metal stone brick, the buildings

passing in one side of my head . . .

 

I can hear you smiling.'

 

(p. 23)

This is the Murray I treasure; the insatiably curious poet of synaesthesia, the compassionate celebrant of the weird in the everyday, of hidden experience, the magpie hoarder and bowerbird flaunter of fact and information. This is the poet who interacts, rather than pronouncing: whether chatting with the phone canvasser or gently handling a 'window-struck kingfisher' where:

 

For maybe twenty minutes

we sat together, one on one,

as if staring back or

forward into prehistory.

 

 

('High-speed bird' p. 45)

There are many such beautiful, small poems in Taller When Prone: small for Murray, but still larger than most. The highlights here, 'The Cowladder Stanzas,' 'Midwinter Kangaroo Nests,' 'Wrecked Birds,' 'The Blame,' 'Cherries from Young,' are not in the artistic stratosphere of 'Walking to the Cattle Place,' 'Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle,' 'Cycling in the Lake Country,' 'Once in a Lifetime, Snow' 'The Last Hellos,' - I could go on – but having written great poems in the past does not disqualify a poet from writing good ones later.

It's time for a re-assessment, in Australia, of our attitudes toward Murray. On the back cover of Murray's Black Inc Collected, Joseph Brodsky paraphrases Auden's elegy for Yeats: 'Time . . . worships language and forgives/everyone by whom it lives.' It's easier gain perspective, to 'forgive' the bad poems and misguided ideas, and pick selectively amongst the work, once the poet has left the room, as admirers have done for Yeats and for Auden. Murray will be taller when finally prone.

 

Les Murray, Taller When Prone, Carcanet Press, 2010. £9.95.  978-1-847771-23-0

© Elizabeth Campbell, 2011
The views expressed by contributors to the reviews section of Poetry Matters are not those of Tower Poetry, or of Christ Church, Oxford, and are solely those of the reviewers.