I felt so tired this morning that I promised myself an early night tonight. Why is it not possible to get more done? I am making progress but I wish it were quicker.
I am working on my Les Murray chapter. I like his work very much. I’m not sure my chapter will do him justice. Actually, ‘like’ is not the right word at all. I adore his poems. He is a genius. His politics are also terribly problematic and unfortunately I have to deal with them in the chapter. But they don’t make me adore his poetry any less. (Not every single poem, but a lot of them.) I came across this beautiful review by Clive James that sums up one of the things so brilliant about him. He says Murray is an example of the way poets are ‘ unfairly interesting, as if they didn’t deserve to get so much said in such a short space’:
‘The severed trunk
slips off its stump and drops along its shadow.’
Not only do you wonder how he thought of that, you imagine him wondering too…
There is another good example in ‘The Power-line Incarnation’, a poem about how it feels to clear fallen power-lines off the roof of your house and find them to be still transmitting their full load of electricity.
‘When I ran to snatch the wires off our roof
hands bloomed teeth shouted I was almost seized held back from this life
O flumes O chariot reins
you cover me with lurids deck me with gaudies…’
The non-Australian reader need not think that there are outback Australians who call wires flumes. ‘Flume’, meaning an artificial channel, is Middle English following Old French, and comes out of the dictionary, not out of colonial usage. But the flumes, lurids, and gaudies seem appropriate here because the shock has sent the narrator back to the roots, of language as of life; the voltage has impelled a Jungian power-dive into the collective unconscious.
Isn’t ‘flume’ a lovely word? It sums up for me the electric shiver I get like get from moments like this in Murray’s poetry. Instead of writing my chapter I would like to write pages and pages about these incredible phrases. His bat poem for example. And oh, there are millions and millions. (If you click over to James’s review he discusses a few more.)
But these magic phrases are not the only thing that is wonderful about Murray’s poetry. He has all these elaborate theories about Australian identity, involving fusions of Aboriginal poetry, and Catholicism, and Gaelic poetry, and the Middle Ages, and the poor farmers, and about how he experiences belonging in the country the same way the Aboriginals do but also in the same way his Scottish ancestors did. Which of course is terribly problematic and you can’t really do that, and in designating certain groups as truly ‘Australian’ he’s alienating a huge proportion of the population.
But – I don’t think his poetry is brilliant simply in spite of his weird politics and his intense spiritual visions. I think they’re bound up together somehow, they come from the same place. So while I can unpick the unsettling way he aligns the Middle Ages with Australia, in some ways I don’t want to, because his vision is compelling and marvelous. It is a myth, yes, and there are real problems with some of the things he implies, but what he gives outweighs by far anything we can objectively say is problematic about his poetry.
And I was going to talk about how reading his ‘The Idyll Wheel’ – a suite of poems based around the Australian seasons – while holed up in my study listening to The Magic Flute in a snowy Norwegian February made me cry. But I have to go to bed now otherwise my new curfew will count for nothing and I will be a slow writer tomorrow morning. But the poem reminded me of how some weird woman on TV in England said she’d hate to have a Christmas in Australia because you’d know winter was just around the corner, and I thought – she knows nothing, winter is the least of their problems right now. Winter is unimaginable right now. As Les knows well:
Weedy drymouth Feb, first cousin of scorched creek stones,
of barbed wire across gaunt gullies, bringer of soldered
death-freckles to the backs of farmer’s hands. . .
. . .
. . . needy Feb, who waits for the raw eel-perfume
of the first real rain’s pheromones, the magic rain-on-dust
sexual scent of Time itself, philtre of all native beings