Les Murray
Taller when Prone

Book Reviews

Published by Carcanet

Incarnations of the Wild

Taller When Prone is Les Murray’s first volume of new poems since 2006’s The Biplane Houses. There is a jaunty playfulness about this collection that belies the news of a relapse into the depression described in his memoir, Killing the Black Dog. The volume is dedicated to ‘the glory of God’ and, indeed, there is a Whitmanesque inclusiveness here, the sort of expansive delight in the natural world that can be found in Hopkins.

Murray has perfect pitch when it comes to Australian vernacular. To read these poems is like looking through a kaleidoscope in which glimpses of rural (and sometimes urban) landscapes, and the characters that inhabit them, swirl into view. The tone is often incidental and throwaway, the rhythms and meters deliberately broken, often wrong footing the reader with their apparent artlessness, as if to avoid the pomposity that the very notion of a poem might engender, Subjects range from the toppled head of a statue, a traveller’s tale From a Tourist Journal where the Taj Mahal is described as “liver stone” “held aloft with liverwurst mortar” to a Lunar Eclipse, for which Murray searches for the appropriate simile only to find that:

… two Tongan bouncers found the word:
foi’atelolo, a baked pig’s liver
fat with oil, a chief’s portion .

There are poems on snoring and childhood, and a fanciful little four liner about a police car “with a checkered seam of blue and white teeth along its side”, lying beside a stream of traffic like a submerged ‘croc.’ Some of my favourite images come from The Conversations with its plethora of strange facts such as: “Chinese eunuchs kept their testes in spirit” and “Donald Duck was once banned in Finland / because he didn’t wear trousers”. In another four line poem At the Opera the rhyming of lorgnette with ‘born yet’ conjures something of the humorous word play of Ogden Nash. Employed by the Macquarie Dictionary to collect and define neologisms, Murray celebrates “single word poets” in his Infinite Anthology as “by far the largest class of poets”. Among his entries are:

“Irish town – a Soweto of old-time Catholic labour
bunny boiler – one who kills her offspring
dandruff acting – the stiffest kind of Thespian art
blackout – Aboriginal party of picnic, whites not invited
butternut – homespun cloth dyed with hickory juice
shart – a non-dry fart
Baptist Boilermaker – coffee and soda (an imagined Puritan cocktail).”

Les Murray has become something of a ‘national treasure’ both here and in Australia, the Seamus Heaney of the antipodes, and it is in observations “Like all its kind/ Python has a hare lip” that he constantly shows us the world afresh. Yet I have to agree with the potential heresy uttered by the Australian poet and reviewer Robert Gray who wrote of Murrays’ poetry in The Australian that “opacity…has become a settled feature of it, making whole poems mystifying at times. His poetry, more and more has acquired a riddling quality: the language can become so dense that no light escapes from it.” As an example he cites is three line The Springfields:

“Lead drips out of
a burning farm rail.
Their Civil War.”

I am afraid that I, too, find this hopelessly gnomic and, like Gray, am not sure that I am sufficiently lured in to care what it means. At his best Murray is a quirky inventive narrator and story teller and we sit with him, captivated, as he nurses a window-struck kingfisher. His more direct poems, such as The Filo Soles about children dipping their feet into new-laid tar to cross a hot road, are often the ones that pack the most emotional punch.

“Kids learned to dip
their feet in the black
and quench with dust,
dip again, and back
in the dust, to form
a dark layered crust
and carry quick soles
over the worst.”

With this evocative image Murray reminds us that he still has a Blakian capacity “To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower.”

David Morley

Published by Carcanet

When I was a child one of my favourite poems was The Raggle Taggle Gypsies, a Scottish Border ballad written around 1720. It seemed to suggest a parallel, unregulated world that sat alongside my own, rather constrained, suburban existence. The words spoke of the unfettered pleasures of an alternative life close to nature; exotic, sensual, dangerous even. Something of this atmosphere is evoked in David Morley’s new collection, Enchantment. That it begins with an unconventional sonnet-sequence in memory of his friend Nicholas Hughes, a distinguished professor of fisheries and ocean sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes who tragically hanged himself at the age of 46, not only flags up Morley’s own role as an ecologist and naturalist but links him to the poetry and imagery of Ted Hughes, whose mythic relationship with the natural world hovers behind these poems.

The Wordsworthian epithet at the beginning of the book: “with rocks and stones and trees” also suggests a connection with the elemental. The close observation of a Water Measurer – that spindly insect which can be seen slowly walking around on the surface of ditches and ponds, apparently pacing out the distances between points – reveals a specialist knowledge of fauna that avoids the trap of much over romanticised nature poetry. Dragonflies, mayflies and Alaskan salmon are all, here, closely observed. In Proserpina Morley refuses the easy bien-pensants of environmentalism “I could write a cliché about conversation here / but I won’t and I won’t because I can’t”. For he understands that the mess of the external world, all too often, mirrors a deeper internal disquiet:

“It is true
that what we waste bends back to grind us. My rubbish
is also here in me, and I shove and shovel it around
everyday, sometimes alert to its weight and stench
but most of the time too busy or bored to see or scent
the wealth and ruin of evidence, its blowflies, the extended
families of vermin.”

But it is the second section of the book that takes me back to that childhood excitement of The Raggle Taggle Gypsies. It begins with Hedgehurst, a poem based on a traditional Romany story taken from Duncan Williamson’s Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children, about a creature that is half hedgehog and half human. Spoken in the voice of the Hedgehurst the tone is incantatory, ancient and pagan. “What weather rouses me / to lag my limbs with lichen, /to fold fresh thatch around me?” Like some John Barlycorn or Green Man from a medieval mystery play the Hedgehurst appears like the incarnation of the wild:

“I had kenned from my wrens
how to cave-mine my call,
to speak through soil, make
speech slither through a hill”

In the later, more obviously, narrative sequence A Lit Circle, Morley creates a series of monologues spoken by various circus folk, including the ringmaster, clown and strongman. Fizzing with Romany and Parlari (the unwritten language of fairgrounds and gay subculture) he conveys a sense of what it means to live on the margins of mainstream society. As Demelza-Do-It-All, who has an act as a barrel-walker says, “down in the industrial estate with my sister for small animal food, /the vet for the dogs”, she saw “swastikas scratched on every circus poster.” Romany traditions and superstitions, along with a fierce pride in their itinerant way of life, are graphically drawn in Songs of Papusza:

The straw on which a Romany gives birth is burnt. A gipsy dies;
the caravan with all goods and clothes is flashed into flames.

They’re unclean.

In these strangely evocative poems where a blacksmith creates a girl from fire and a mother slides her fairy baby into a waterfall, David Morley taps into myths and folklore to weave a series of spells reinventing the oral tradition of poetry and returning it to fireside and hearth.

Lynne Hjelmgaard
The Ring

Published by Shearsman Books

Born in New York City in 1951 Lynne Hjelmgaard moved to Denmark in 1971. There she studied art and taught Creative Art to children before becoming a fulltime sailor. As a result of crossing the Atlantic with her husband she wrote her first chapbook in 2002 Distance Through the Water (I want Press, France). Now her new book-length sequence of poems, The Ring, follows the wanderings of a young widow as she moves from city to city in an attempt at to achieve emotional reparation.

There is a lightness of touch to these itinerant poems filled with smells and sounds, particularly of the sea: “the howl in the rigging”, the smell of “a sea dried sheet”. Nostalgia is conjured through an intense concentration on things:

“You bought woven saddle bags from Afghanistan
Containing one pair of pants, a toothbrush,
Two hard bound diaries with pages coming out and one pair of
There was an Afghan coat you sold in the desert
And the dirty pots you threw out of your kitchen window.
(They were too hard to clean)”
(When we first met)

Other dreamlike poems evoke something of the monochromatic northern tones of a Vilehlm Hammershøi painted interior.

“the easiest path
to the sea
is through the wild roses
the peeling lounge chairs
on the terrace, lavender
where the deer sleeps in the morning.”

Essentially meditations on how loss changes love, these poems move from the lyrical: “Now I turn my pillow/to face the sliced moon” and” I remember you were/in Denmark hanging laundry up / I hear your clogs in the hall” to pragmatic instructions on how to avoid morbid self-pity: “You shall not think that you are special. / Join a group.” (Copenhagen Widow)

Throughout the voice is colloquial and spare avoiding the traps of emotional hysteria that all too often overwhelms the poems of loss by Sharon Olds. A restless peripatetic motion runs through the sequence constantly questioning what constitutes belonging and home. It is as if to stay too long in anyone place would involve facing too much reality, too great a confrontation with grief. Poems list things to do in each city visited: “Attend local poetic events./ Schmooze incessantly” (London). “Walk until tiredness and / hunger overwhelm you.” (Rome). “Go back / to get in touch / with familiar street smells: / the bread moist / fruit, him.” (Paris) “get a tattoo?” (Berlin). Grief, we are told, is the price we pay for love but ideas about love and life gradually shift and change as the protagonist observes an older widow friend who “cycles around Paris / in high heels, has a Cuban Tango partner / who comes up to her chin.”

“In the end is my beginning”. Finally, through her physical and emotional wanderings, the poet is able to see the world differently, embrace change and ask honestly and poignantly that most fundamental of questions as she finally takes off her wedding ring: “What do I want?”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.