His Brilliant Career

The Vernacular Republic: Selected Poems

by Les A. Murray
Persea Books, 102 pp., $16.95; $8.95 (paper)

Australia is still a foreign country for everyone including Australians, most of whom live in the cities and rarely penetrate into the hinterland, although in the last quarter-century or so there has been a determined attempt at cultural self-discovery. But most of the discovering has had to be done in the first instance by artists of various kinds, first mainly the painters and later mainly the writers. Australians, inhabiting a stretch of ancient geology on which modern civilization sits conspicuously even when it does not look awkward, rely on having their surroundings described for them, so that the strangeness can acquire familiarity and the vastness a set of names. The job was done badly before it was done well. In this century it began to be done very well, and by now there are subtleties forming which should interest anybody anywhere. Les A. Murray’s fine book of poems is certainly one of them.

Murray, among the most original of the new generation of Australian poets who came to prominence in the 1960s, brings the landscape into sharp focus, detail by detail, without urgency but with a special fastidiousness, as if his spiritual life depended on it. He takes his city-educated sensibility back out into the countryside. When he writes about the cities, it is with the reinforced self-definition gained by having submitted himself to a geography without history, a panorama in which Aboriginal totems have the status of the Domesday Book and white civilization is only a few generations deep. Confessedly a member of the awkward squad, yet determined to achieve personal equilibrium by getting back to nature, he is like a latter-day, antipodean Leopardi, tubby instead of hunched. But his language has abundant reserves of grace, equal to what it describes. Australia, he suggests, is waiting to be found by anyone with the nerve to stop looking for Europe or America.

His mudguards still wet from mountain cloud, the narrator of “Driving Through Sawmill Towns” drives slowly through a town in New South Wales and listens.

The half-heard radio sings
its song of sidewalks.

For the American reader, the word “sidewalk” will need interpretation, precisely because he understands it. The Australian word for “sidewalk” is “footpath.” So by saying that the radio is singing about sidewalks, the narrator is saying that it is singing an American song. The British reader, for whom the usual word is most likely to be “pavement,” might also get the idea that the Australians use the same word as the Americans. But Murray’s writing elsewhere in the book is too vivid to allow the possibility that he has written a flat line here, so even the American or British reader who knows nothing at all about Australia will be able to guess that something is being implied, although he might not be able, through the barrier of a common language, to tell quite what.

What Murray implies is that Australia is not yet fully in possession of its own culture. He is …

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