The Australian Year looks like the dreaded coffee table book, yet another gloss on the national ‘identity’, backed by Esso, and fit for export only. Certainly, the cover picture of parroty water gives that impression, as do many familiar ones inside, though the main photographer, Peter Solness, does turn in some good homely details as well. Generally, the photographs stand like an avenue of plane trees, their density and hues changing with the seasons of Les Murray’s fully ripened, free-ranging text – which meets the high expectations we might be forgiven for holding when a major Australian poet, a well-versed country boy and populist by persuasion, an erudite and vernacular singer of the old and new, writes a book on a phenomenon as democratically inclusive and resonant as the seasons.
What is more common than the indicative mood, and what is more uncommon than the way Les Murray uses it? His Christian finger ‘scratches the other cheek’ (‘The Quality of Sprawl’) but more often points out tracks seen from the air, but invisible on the ground: a hibiscus becomes ‘the kleenex flower’ (‘A Retrospect of Humidity’); the shower an ‘inverse bidet,/ sleek vertical coruscating ghost of your inner river’ (‘Shower’); a north-coast punt ‘just a length of country road / afloat between two shores’ (‘Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman’). You see it in his use of the demonstrative pronoun – ‘this blast of trance’ (‘Shower’); the definite article – The man imposing spring here swats with his branch controlling it’(‘The Grassfire Stanzas’)’; the deictic use of ‘I’ and ‘we’ to get his readers looking in the same direction as he points out where we are and where we’ve come from – ‘So we’re sitting over our sick beloved engine / atop a great building of the double century / on the summit that exhilarates cars, the concrete vault on its thousands / of tonnes of height, far above the tidal turnaround’ (‘Fuel Stoppage on Gladesville Road Bridge in the Year 1980’).