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Slightly Sacred Poet

Subhuman Redneck Poems

by Les Murray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 104 pp., $18.00

A treasured Australian legend, which like all legends is best left anonymous though its participants were real enough, relates how two poets of that culturally conservative country decided to show up the pretensions of modernism by inventing a wholly fictitious homegrown poet who wrote in a rich but ridiculous mixture of the style and vocabulary of the moderns (the era being about that of World War II). Since the authors of the hoax were genuine poets they produced some splendidly bizarre effects, and the advent of a new native poet, who wrote with true natural originality in the style of Pound and Eliot and their followers, was hailed in the country’s leading poetry magazine. So successful was the hoax that it backfired, with culture-conscious members of the Australian public refusing to believe that this great new poet did not in fact exist.

And in a sense of course he did exist. Though the authors of the hoax intended to mock as well as to parody modernism’s abandonment of conventional sense and reason, they were themselves the involuntary bearers of its gospel. In the Antipodes modernism could become wry, tough, and comic, not at all a hothouse plant. It could grow on native soil and produce its own original species, of whom in a sense Les Murray is one. Now fifty-nine years old, he is, as a poet, entirely his own man, saluted by Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott as lord of his own language, and one by whom language lives.

But the language of poetry is never absolute or unique. Part of its fascination for the reader is the way in which it can disclose endless new variations of its own ancient possibilities. That can happen when it becomes the instrument of a poet who is as unafraid of its old sly echoes and duplicities as Les Murray has always been. Take the marvelous poem “Corniche,” one of many gems in Subhuman Redneck Poems, his seventeenth collection. Like all completely new poems it is also instantly recognizable: otherwise how would we tell it was so new? Philip Larkin once said something to the effect that writing a new poem was like trying to recapture an old tune, once heard but now tantalizingly forgotten. The tune discovered is so fresh and confident that it can talk to its new reader with total ease about the secret and sacred places it comes from. (Walcott has said of Murray that “there is no poetry in the English language now so rooted in its sacredness…and yet so intimate and conversational.”)

Corniche” opens with a flamboyantly parodic echo from Larkin’s “Aubade,” a poem that clings so desperately to the knowledge that each dawn brings death a little nearer that it ends paradoxically by embracing the fact as if it had become a new gift of language. Murray’s poem takes “Aubade” in the genial grip of fellowship and friendliness, echoing its opening line (“Iwork all day and get half drunk at night”) in a way that shows how things in life—like death, or rather dying—are never quite what they seem, a point that in this context only a truly new poem could make.

I work all day and hardly drink at all.
I can reach down and feel if I’m depressed.
Iadore the Creator because I made myself
and a few times a week a wire jags in my chest.

Such symptoms, though not necessarily imaginary ones, have no connection with the real thing. One charm of this delightful poem is the amused way it reveals how poetry’s dependence on metaphor—the focus and joy of language—transports it as far as possible from the very thing it purports to confront: death as the emptying and negation of all language. The title “Corniche” is itself an elegant metaphor for death as what lies beneath the hazardous road round the cliff edge which we “whimper along in low gear.” And the poet pays his generously casual tribute to those “cliffs of fall, frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” which so memorably characterize the terrors of the mind in the most famous of Hopkins’s “terrible” sonnets. “Hold them cheap/May, who ne’er hung there,” says Hopkins grimly; and Murray, clearly no less a Catholic believer, modifies not the movement of the verse but its metaphor, in his own inimitably jolly fashion.

Laugh, who never shrank around wizened genitals there
or killed themselves to stop dying. The blow that never falls
batters you stupid. Only gradually do
you notice a slight scorn in you for what appals.

A self inside self, cool as conscience, one to be erased
in your final night, or faxed, still knows beneath
all the grand opera and uncaused effect—
that death which can be imagined is not true death.

Shakespeare of course cannot be kept out. In the play he causes his Julius Caesar, echoing the stoic philosophers, to remark that “Cowards die many times before their deaths,” whereas “the valiant never taste of death but once.” Murray has his own comment to make on this self-supportive rhetoric.

The brave die but once? I could go a hundred times a week,
clinging to my pulse with the world’s edge inches away.

Such seemingly unillusioned straightforwardness is, as the poet well knows, equally self-supportive. A poet cannot crawl under the net of poetry’s language. And the poem’s rich energy springs from the ways in which its creator recognizes that fact, and rejoices in it. It makes us laugh, even as we ourselves shudder while we savor its cornucopia of images, echoes, and ideas.

Corniche” in fact is a thoroughly academic poem, full of the sort of learned stuff in which a Renaissance poet and his audience would have taken pleasure. It has hustled modernism, and all its enigmatic fragmentation of images, back into the spacious ages of Chaucer and Ariosto and Donne, as well as forward into the state-of-the-art lifestyle of the Pan-Australian present, which is equally of course an American or a European one. Les Murray is a truly international poet, in the same way that he has always been his own poet, and never seems to have had to “develop” or go through different phases of experience.

As a collection Subhuman Redneck Poems, its title a deliberately heavy-handed joke, is the natural follower and companion of earlier books like The Rabbiter’s Bounty and The Boys Who Stole the Funeral. Wholly indifferent to fashion, the poems exhibit every sort of idea or subject, explored in a multiplicity of ways. Most are also in different ways funny, like “Inside Ayers Rock”—referring to an extraordinary mountain of red stone in central Australia—which is both philosophically good-natured and scathingly comical about the genteelization of the Australian outback.

Inside Ayers Rock is lit
with paired fluorescent lights
on steel pillars supporting the ceiling
of haze-blue marquee cloth
high above the non-slip pavers.
Curving around the cafeteria
throughout vast inner space
is a Milky Way of plastic chairs
in foursomes around tables
all the way to the truck drivers’ enclave.
Dusted coolabah trees grow to the ceiling,
TVs talk in gassy colours, and
round the walls are Outback shop fronts:
the Beehive Bookshop for brochures…
A two-dimensional policeman
discourages shoplifting of gifts
and near the entrance, where
you pay
for fuel, there stands a tribal man
in rib-paint and pubic tassel.
It is all gentle and kind…

In spite of its genial absurdity the vision is extraordinarily powerful, even sinister—as sinister as it is sophisticated. The horror in that summatory line—“It is all gentle and kind”—is as great as in the bland tones in which Swift made his Modest Proposal about the children of Ireland, or imagined the inside of the new St. Paul’s Cathedral as a vast cavern scooped out of a mountain to which the London citizenry resorted for their entertainment and their commercial transactions. The idea of Ayers Rock, which sits in holy solitude in the desolate center of a vast continent, being hollowed out and converted into Disneyland dramatically exemplifies all the dreadfulness of a contemporary situation in which—yes—all is indeed gentle and kind; and satirists as accurate and deadly as Les Murray can be are hard to find.

Like most superb satirists Murray is intensely though unflamboyantly conservative. “The Head-Spider” tells us how

Where I lived once, a roller coaster’s range
of timber hills peaked just by our backyard cliff
and cars undulated scream-drive round its seismograph
and climbed up to us with an indrawn gasp of girls.

Aloof in a Push squat,” the poet found that “Misrule was strict there,” and although “Carol from upstairs came to me in bra and kindness” he soon found that “Push lovers were untrue on principle.” Ahelpful footnote informs us on that. The Push was an Australian bohemia that flourished between the 1940s and 1970s, beginning during the poet’s eager youth. “Nominally libertarian,” he now remarks, “it in fact enforced a fairly pedantic inversion of ordinary norms and practices. Its most famous alumna is Germaine Greer.” The Push was a tyranny in fact, like all revolutionary regimes, and it is deliciously ironical to hear that swinging era of self-proclaimed freedoms mildly described as “fairly pedantic.” How annoyed by that phrase Germaine Greer would still be! And this is the poem’s strange conclusion.

I’ve written a new body that only needs a reader’s touch.
If love is cursed in us, then when God exists, we don’t.

The poet is now a different person. When he was young he didn’t need readers: he was surrounded by a mindless tyranny generating what it thought of as “love.” But the Head-Spider of skepticism that he had refused “to notice or believe” in those days has now given him its own sort of independence, a “new body” dependent not on the unforgiving fellowship of the Push but on an invisible fellowship with the reader for whom his words exist. Love once mocked in us by pseudo-freedoms can be restored by the rigor and the precision of words. They, like the God who is Love, can exist very well in our fallible human absence.

Murray’s innate conservatism is very like Philip Larkin’s, or what revealed itself in his later career to be W.H. Auden’s. Like the other two Auden was probably always like that, though he didn’t admit it, or perhaps know it. Conservatives do not “develop”:they are born and not made. And all three poets share what Dr. Johnson, that arch-conservative, called “a bottom of good sense.” In Les Murray’s case this comes out in poem after wonderful poem—“A Brief History” (that of Australia, needless to say), “Green Rose Tan,” “The Water Column,” “Contested Landscape at Forsayth,” “For the Sydney Jewish Museum”—each seeming to arise out of a pristine aboriginal place where there is neither art nor awareness, and then effortlessly to become a phoenix of a poem: each of them still without apparent knowledge of the others.

It seems worth repeating that Murray’s secret is to know about poetry, and how it performs and behaves, while remaining quite unaffected by self-consciousness about what Marianne Moore referred to as “all this fiddle.” No style seems developed and established from poem to poem to become his trademark and constitute his particular world. At the same time he can abruptly produce, like an airy trill of nonsense, what reveals itself as a small hard stone of meaning, as sleekly polished as anything by Graves or Auden.

Higamus hogamus
Western intellectuals
never praise Auschwitz.
Most ungenerous. Most odd,
when they claim it’s what finally
won them their centuries-
long war against God.

I can imagine that the members of the poetic fraternity who do readings and run magazines would not be pleased by Murray’s insouciance: they would prefer him to be more predictable (which would also mean “serious”)—a loyal, dogged, Down-Under poet. The mild fun poked at such persons in his collection’s title is set off by the air of irresponsibility (“Higamus hogamus”) at the opening of this particularly deadly little poem, which is entitled “The Beneficiaries.” It implies among other things that intellectuals like Adorno and George Steiner, who have suggested that Auschwitz has made poetry irrelevant to the point of obscenity, should also in logic be claiming it as proof that God has ceased to exist. Gods of poetry are, after all, manifestations of the same need.

The simultaneous pounce of eye and word which gives so much pleasure here (in “The Warm Rain,” the “dust that was white pepper…starts pitting and re-knotting into peppercorns”) can also impale the vitals of an idea. “For the Sydney Jewish Museum” explores the perception that

Museums are an external brain
to hold what yours can’t bear
and can’t bear to let go.
Museums are terrible with There,

but mastered, on the walls. Not
still that age, amid the frozen urine,

thirst-wagons and soul-detaching fear.
Museums are numinous with
Before:

the thumbed shawl waistcoats and organdie
that preceded the fall of the air.

There is a drawback however to a museum’s dreadful and ambiguous powers of preservation. The place is also “a fortress/in which you keep alive the Enemy,” and his descendants may come there to be reanimated. Having issued this warning the poem scratches its head with that wacky freedom which is so much a part of Murray’s large world, and recalls, in its final stanza, another point:

Only gone, beyond Pascal’s wager,
is each person just as they are.

Pascal’s wager was denounced by all right-minded theologians for saying that we might as well behave as if the Christian God existed, because if he did we should be saved, and if he didn’t we should lose nothing. This shrewd if cynical view of our situation is left hanging in the air by Murray, who seems to connect it in his own imagination with the residue of humanness saved in a museum, and the reality of that not saved, the all of us who can never be preserved “just as we are,” except, implicitly, at the Last Judgment. But a museum must make in its own way its own bid for survival.

These poems of Murray’s reach down as far into horror as do the poems of Paul Celan, for whom the fatal museum of the past exhibited what had happened to his own mother and father. However distant Murray’s own experience from Celan’s, he has an imagination with something of the same power to move the reader. The poem “Cotton Flannelette” tells a tale that touches intensely with no trace of sentiment. A six-year-old in her nightdress was horribly burned as she waits for bed by the fireside, years ago.

Even their cranky evasive father
is awed to stand watches rocking the bed.
Lids frogged shut, O please shake the bed,
her contour whorls and braille tattoos
from where, in her nightdress, she flared
out of hearth-drowse to a marrow shriek
pedalling full tilt firesleeves in mid-air, are grainier with repair
than when the doctor, crying Dear God, woman!
No one can save that child. Let her go!
Spared her the treatments of the day.
Shake the bed. Like: count phone poles, rhyme,
classify realities, bang the head, any
iteration that will bring, in the brain’s forks,
the melting molecules of relief,
and bring them again. O rock the bed!

Having the bed rocked is the only thing that can momentarily distract the victim from her agony. The poem seems to rock too, in its ponderous conservative way, suited to a disaster so many decades ago, the half-lines (“are grainier with repair”) suggesting not only the bed’s ungainly motion as the family take their turns to shake it, but also an elderly movement in our august poetic tradition: the half-lines used by Cowley, Yeats, and Larkin, in a meter somberly suited to the elegiac. The doctor relents,

   …Salves and wraps you
in dressings that will be the fire again,
ripping anguish off agony
   and will confirm
the ploughland ridges in your woman’s skin
for the sixty more years your family weaves you
on devotion’s loom, rick-racking the bed
as you yourself, six years old, instruct them.

It is wholly characteristic of its place and time that Murray’s poetry should often sound apologetic, even as it moves us most. Old national habits of derision, of implicit contempt for rhetoric, die hard. Who in Australia, he sometimes implies, would guess their pal Les Murray to be a poet, just as who would guess that the wonderfully zany drag of Dame Edna Everage, Australia’s archetypal middle-class queen, conceals the quiet patrician looks of Barrie Humphreys, a man steeped in culture and literature, as well as in the jokey folklore of his native land? In several poems Murray’s reluctance to appear as poet, and even, except in his own very particular way, to be one, is stressed as his own personal brand of joke. “Performance” is his way of talking about what was once called the poet’s sacred fire, the Muses’ visitation which left the poet, as it did Keats, with “lines that had brought blood into his face.” Murray sees such a breathless exaltation with his own kind of amiable amusement, and in the vulgar idiom of the amusement arcade.

I was busters of glitter-bombs expanding
to mantle and aurora from a crown,
I was fouettés, falls of blazing paint,
para-flares spot-welding cloudy heaven,
loose gold off fierce toeholds of white,
a finale red-tongued as a haka leap:
that too was a butt of all right!

As usual after any triumph, I was
of course inconsolable.

Keats would have enjoyed the “butt” pun (“a bit of alright” started life as a Cockney idiom) although he would have been baffled by the transposition of his own divine afflatus into our modern teletechniques. From Murray it all seems to come quite naturally. His kinship with “ordinary people” is a true one, with nothing pious or obligatory about it. Making poems, like making houses, is a normal working activity, though a poet today feels a bit useless beside those others who are

   …still nailing the house’s scansions
and line lengths, the only people
who abash me—Not a working model,
our bloke! No—kept me from bed,
atoning for poetry’s slight
sacredness
and the deep shame of achievement.

Whether poetry today remains slightly sacred or not, there is no doubt about Les Murray’s own kind of achievement.

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