My first reaction on picking up Les Murray’s new collection, Waiting for the Past, was to note how handsomely produced it is, in hardback – a rare privilege for any book of poetry these days. The jacket image, a drawing of the portico of a stately house, in sepia tones, will be taken up later in one of the poems. A photograph of the author, also washed in sepia, occupies the back cover. Sepia is a virtual synonym for the past, and the intimations of lost time suggested by it, and by the title, are borne out in at least one strand of the book’s concerns.
A profuse talent for image making and a capacity to fold syntax, sense, and sound into extraordinary verbal forms are two Murray hallmarks. Not that it is entirely possible to separate the visual from the auditory. As Seamus Heaney once said in a lecture: ‘In a poem, words, phrases, cadences and images are linked into systems of affect and signification which elude the précis maker. These under-ear activities … are more a matter of the erotics of language than of the politics and polemics of the moment.’ The erotics of language are here in plenty.
A number of the poems are striking evocations of the natural world, with or without a human presence. The opening poem, ‘Black Beaches’, compresses into four brief quatrains the vast geological process of coal formation, the stanzas themselves laid down like strata. The great forest trees, ‘wood-fired towers’, are already imagined as proleptically converting to coal the afternoon sunshine in which they flourish. ‘Nuclear Family Bees’ describes the hives of little native bees, these ‘gold skinfuls of water’. Since these particular bees live in couples rather than large hives, the nuclear families of the title, they form a ‘vertical black suburb’. The poem’s thin column of tercets itself mimics the tree trunk it portrays. The twelve short lines of ‘Dynamic Rest’, which glancingly brings to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Sandpiper’, call up the shifting patterns of a flock of terns on a windy beach, settling, climbing, hovering. Their feet are described, with a fine touch, as ‘gripping sand’. Why ‘gripping’? Partly to avoid being blown away, no doubt, but there is also the implication that these small packs of anti-gravity would likely fall up into the sky if they let go.
But it is the human presence that dominates. A particularly moving poem is ‘Bench Seats’, in which Murray, crossing Sydney Harbour in a ferry, witnesses the small drama of a girl with Down syndrome attempting to strike up a conversation with a couple of other passengers. She receives no response ‘but a whispered / grimace of mirth’, ‘scrutiny, not politeness’. The poem is the more affecting for being so understated. There is no raised voice of outrage, just low-key observation and presentation of the scene. Murray has written other poems in other books about his own sense of exclusion as a child, and one can read this as a personal poem at one remove. In the last line, ‘the Downs girl wears the remnants of an expression’.
There is a skein of poems running through the book which are more directly, or apparently, autobiographical, and which call up memories from earlier times, the sometimes hard circumstances of rural life: ‘When Two Percent Were Students’ recalls university days, and escape back to the country; ‘Big Rabbit at the Verandah’ summons up the rabbit plagues; ‘Floodtime Night Shelter’ amusingly evokes the makeshift accommodations demanded by flood. ‘Clan-Sized Night Chanting’, a magical memory, recalls camping out while hitching, and how, waking up after sleeping ‘a short tilt / of the Galaxy’, he heard Aboriginal chanting out in the surrounding darkness.
‘A profuse talent for image making and a capacity to fold syntax, sense, and sound into extraordinary verbal forms are two Murray hallmarks’
The poem from which the book’s title is drawn, ‘Growth’, takes us back to Murray’s childhood when his grandmother was dying, ‘accomplishing her hard death’, and his mother was nursing her, forcing the family to leave their own house and stay ‘on that strange farm miles away’. This is territory which lies at the heart of Murray’s personal and poetic world. Murray’s father, we are told, had to stay out there, milking, and would appear sometimes, with his people, who were ‘all waiting for the past’. A curious and elusive expression. What were they waiting for, to go back to normality, to regain what was now beyond recall? Perhaps ‘the past’ here is not exactly temporal, but ideal, and describes a condition coterminous with the present but occluded from it, like those parallel universes we are promised by quantum physics. The poem goes on to describe the child Murray hiding from the grief by going out and walking barefoot through the paddocks in the gathering dark, watching as ‘Bare house lights slowly passed / far out beside me’ – a wonderful image of separateness and isolation.
The poems in this collection are mostly fairly brief, highly compressed, often written in tercets and quatrains with quite short lines. There is considerable use of rhyme and half-rhyme. There are no long poems – no Buladelahs or cattle places. But smallness of scale does not mean smallness of scope. Poems can possess the Tardis-like quality of being larger on the inside than they are on the outside, and the poems in Waiting for the Past have that. Take ‘Radiant Pleats, Mulgoa’, the poem of the cover image. Inside the frame of the first and last stanzas (quatrains again), which describe the house itself, the two central stanzas offer a prospect, as through a window, onto the history of Sydney over the last century or so, from a time when such statelies used to ‘ring / the slopes of Sydney’ to a time when many of them ‘were razed from spite’. Perhaps none offers a larger view than ‘Last World Before the Stars’, an infinitely sad poem, in which days of separation from (I presume) his wife are likened to standing on Pluto, gazing back to Earth across the vastness of space, ‘the Sun a white daystar of squinch / glazing the ground like frozen twilight’.
Murray’s poems can be quite strange (a whale diving is described as ‘bubba dog down’). While he is a man of strong opinions, which appear in his poems from time to time, he also has negative capability, in spades, and is able to submit his consciousness to alien states and beings, inhabit them, and bring forth poems of startling originality in extraordinary language. As Clive James, quoted on the jacket, puts it: ‘No poet has ever travelled like this … Seeing the shape or hearing the sound of one thing in another, he finds forms.’