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The Angry Genius of Les Murray

The versifying in Fredy Neptune is consistently lively, and there are plenty of striking incidents, but Murray’s skills as a storyteller are limited, and what may be intended as picaresque quickly degenerates into just one thing after another. Murray himself has hinted that the novel is best read side by side with the Redneck poems, that is to say, as a cathartic exercise in getting a weight of resentful rage off his chest.

None of the poems I have singled out as among Murray’s best dates from later than 1992. Since that date he has—aside from the Collected Poems of 2002—published five collections of—in my view—lesser work, the newest of them entitled Taller When Prone.

Murray is not a poet of the inner life. Instead he relies on an acute sensitivity to sensory impressions and an extraordinary capacity to articulate them. Taller When Prone proves that he has lost none of this power. Thus we read of “the appalling/caustic and thistlehead bite” of the waters of the Dead Sea, of a police cruiser “[lying] in cover like a long-jawed/flat dog beside the traffic stream,” of eucalypts in California that “explode the mansions of Malibu/because to be eucalypts/they have to shower sometimes in Hell.”

The new poems are not, in themselves, ambitious. Some are simply snapshots, records of sights that have arrested the poet in his travels. Others note, in a tone more graceful than doleful, the passing of old country ways. Tribute is paid to Hesiod, Murray’s admired ancestor among the shades; John Calvin, patron saint of Presbyterianism, is frostily recognized. The lethal bushfires in Victoria in 2009 are blamed on the ecological legacy of the detested 1960s. Witty remarks are passed on Wall Street and the global financial crisis; some fun is had with Queen Sexburga of Kent (AD 636–700), after whom Murray proposes that London’s newest airport be named.

High-speed Bird,” recounting a cross-species encounter with a bird that knocks itself out against a windowpane, is the best piece in the collection, but suffers by comparison with “The Emerald Dove,” a poem with a similar starting point written twenty years ago. Overall, the new poems have the feel less of urgent utterances than of demonstration exercises in how a poet’s gaze works, transforming things into likenesses.

Killing the Black Dog reprints a 1997 memoir of Murray’s long struggle with depression. His most devastating spell was triggered when at a public event in 1988 he bumped into one of his childhood persecutors, who pronounced the cursed schoolyard nickname and thereby called forth all the devils of the past, precipitating him into bouts of helpless weeping, panic attacks, morbid suspiciousness, compulsive eating, and bottomless sadness that went on for eight years, until a new generation of antidepressants and the unstinting support of his wife brought him back to himself.

The memoir comes with a combative afterword, dated 2009, in which Murray rehashes old but evidently not forgotten quarrels with “official” Australian culture, condemned for orchestrating media campaigns against him and more generally for being out of touch with public sentiment. The book concludes with twenty-five previously published poems, selected to chronicle the course of his illness from the 1960s to the present.

The time has perhaps come for Les Murray to let go of old grudges. Now in his seventies, he has received many public honors and is widely acknowledged to be the leading Australian poet of his generation. His poems are “taught” in schools and universities; scholars write learned articles about them. He claims that he is read more abroad than at home. This may or may not be so. But even if it were true, he would not be the first writer to suffer such a fate; and it’s a better fate than not being read at all. If there are a handful of purists who for political reasons will have nothing to do with him or his works, so much the worse for them—the loss is theirs.

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