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Les Murray, The Biplane Houses, Carcanet

Les Murray was born in 1938 in New South Wales, in one of the remote farmsteads alluded to in his new collection’s title. Poor roads and immense distances meant that reaching these territories quickly from the nearest city could only be achieved by an aeroplane, hence the romantic-sounding phrase.

In Bunyah, Murray’s father kept a dairy. Doing things quickly was not necessarily an everyday concept: fast things happened, but only once in a while and then catastrophically. The Scottish settlers that often feature in Murray’s poems had experienced the Highland Clearances before emigrating, and they were quick to enact their own cruel version of it on the Aborigines they found in Australia. They had a misplaced sense of superiority, not just because the native Australians were so much better at living with this kind of land than they were, but because the growth of an urban elite elsewhere on the continent meant the settlers were soon in turn mocked, blamed, and even dispossessed. Village evil only moves at the speed of gloat; metropolitan interest at the speed of lust. And, as Murray says in “Gentrifical Force”, “From the high ground we now tell our blood / that they are scum, living on stolen salt land.”

There are often spiky lessons like these in Murray’s poems. Although he can be a touching elegist of the personal, as in several sketch portraits here, he is strikingly a public poet, unabashed at a kind of teacherly polemic and determined to tell Australians (and others) his versions of their history. He is more garrulous than his more cautious contemporary, Seamus Heaney, though similar in drawing morals from agricultural sources. Brought up as a member of the Free Church, he converted to Roman Catholicism later in life and a religious sensibility underlies his poetry.. He shares Heaney’s view of seeing all things as sacred: not euphemistically so, but as actually, God-givenly, sacred. Sometimes this takes him into areas of stunning empathy, as with his earlier collection Translations from the Natural World, in which animals are brilliantly evoked through their own voices in all their ‘animalness’.

A similar performance is given in the smaller-scale fantasia in this volume, “The Nostril Songs”, which imagines life experienced where the primary mode of perception, rather than sight, is the sense of smell. In “A Levitation of Land” even the land itself receives imaginative resurrection. Perhaps based on a real dust storm, in this poem the whole surface of Australia appears to take to the air, coming alive over the Pacific, “an echo-Australia gathered out on the ocean / having once more scattered itself from its urn”. It’s to be hoped that the metaphoric ashes won’t bury neighbouring New Zealand, but the image is clearly meant to be one of Australia reaching up and out of itself, triumphantly evading rumours of its own death.

Les Murray is broadly a political poet. Though he is less arcane than Geoffrey Hill can be, he has Hill’s urgent sense that globalisation is running hand in hand with a crisis in contemporary political discourse (which perhaps they both see as a crisis in the continuity of historical knowledge and of ritual). “How did money capture life / away from poetry, ideology, religion?” he asks in his poem about the glamour of cash, “The Cool Green.” Not one to leave anything too open-ended, he quickly tells us the answer: “It didn’t want our souls.”

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