Perhaps only John Shaw Neilson and Judith Wright have brought an equal sense of place to Australian poetry: the sense of place as a fact of consciousness with geographic truth. But in his latest collection, Biplane Houses, Les Murray considers more airy habitations – flights, cliff roads and weather – and the collection has a matching airiness that is only sometimes lightness. Take his sequence, ‘Nostril Songs’, a set of poems about smells and their messages: playful, fluid with small shocks of precision. It is the longest sequence in this collection. That is to say, Biplane Houses has no sequence with the weight of Murray’s 1972 sequence, ‘Walking to the Cattle Place’ or ‘The Idyll Wheel: Cycle of a Year at Bunyah, New South Wales, April 1986–April 1987’; nothing with the reach of his 1992 sequence, ‘Presence: Translations from the Natural World’. All the same, there are poems here to equal any he has written. ‘The Welter’, for instance, which begins:
How deep is the weatherfront of time
that advances, roaring and calm
unendingly between was and will be?
A millisecond? A few hours? All secular life
worldwide, all consequences of past life
travel in it. It’s weird to move ahead of ¼
Here that word ‘weird’ helps define the character of this collection: its light touch and quizzical kind of seriousness; its sprezzatura.
It is an airiness to equal the idea of air in this collection: crowded with smells and weather and all that endures, like the past, out of reach or out of ken but, in effect, momentous:
Tropopause, stratopause, Van Allen –
high floors of the world tower
which spores and points of charge
too minute to age climb off the planet.