New Selected Poems
Les Murray
(Carcanet Press
Alliance House
Manchester M2 7AQ
We'd never heard of him before and Carcanet delivers us a fat one (310 pages) with his name on it and you count the poems and there are about 300 of them (who is this guy?) and you give it a whirl of let's-be-fair,

    A rhyme is a pun that knows where
    to stop. Puns pique us with the glare
    of worlds too coherent to bear
    by any groan person.

Evidently Murray has been hanging out in the outback for the last seventy-five years there with the Patagonian opossum, the pig-footed bandicoot, hairy-nosed wombats, and other marsupials:

    Shadowy kangaroos moved off
    as we drove into the top paddock
    coming home from a wedding
    under a midnightish curd sky

    then his full face cleared:
    Moon man, the first birth ever
    who still massages his mother
    and sends her light, for his having

    been born fully grown.
    His brilliance is in our blood.
    Had earth fully healed from that labour
    no small births could have happened.

Usually, for us, when a poet catches us it's going to be some small image, a subtle cast, a way of lining up things we've never thought much of before.

Take hot-air balloons. All we know is what we've seen in the movies or in the funny-papers, but as the poet sees it, such a machine turns into a "basket-room / under the haunches of a hot-air balloon."

    light-bulbs against the grizzled
    mountain ridge and bare sky,
    vertical yachts, with globe spinnakers.

And then, the fall:

    two, far up, lay overlapping,
    corded and checked as the foresails of a ship
    but tangled, and one collapsing.

    I suppress in my mind
    the long rag unravelling, the mixed
    high voice of its spinning fall.

What Murray has done here is to take the very unexpected, precise image ... and made it into poetry (or horror) (or the two) ... for the rest of us. His writing is dream-like: he writes like a dream, with all those tag-end associations and hints always kicking around in our brains. When he speaks of glass-blowers, for example, those of us who have never been to a glass-blowing factory think little of it, but suddenly we come pure into it, for he paints it artfully: "the crush called cullet,"

    which is fired up again, by a thousand degrees, to a mucilage
    and brings these reddened spearmen bantering on stage

    Each fishes up a blob, smoke-sallow with a tinge of beer
    which begins, at a breath, to distil from weighty to clear ...

We've never been there, but it rings true, and so he has, by his art, put us there.

It can be something as profound as slavery, something as simple as pulling on a spiderweb,

    crepe when cobbed, crap when rubbed,
    stretchily adhere-and-there
    and everyway, nap-snarled or sleek,
    glibly hubbed with grots to tweek.

What Murray is doing for us is the perfect show-and-tell, Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity, with the added virtue of being able to turn a simple object of our lives into another. The common accordion becomes, "A backstrapped family Bible that consoles virtue and sin, / for it opens top and bottom, and harps both out and in ..."

It's no accident that Murray won our hearts so quickly. Turns out --- we checked with Wikipedia --- he has a special, spicy loathing for what the poetasters call "postmodernism." According to one critic, Murray has waged a "campaign for accessibility" in modern poetry. As we wrote recently on these very pages, "The editor says it is poetry. I say it's spinach, and I say to hell with it."

§   §   §

The irony is that Murray can out-postmodern the postmodernists, with their accent on the machinery of contemporary life. This is his riff on that breathless moment when the airplane has "come to a complete stop" and we've stood up, pulling stuff out of the overheads, caught in that breathless moment before the doors open:

    Soon we'll all be standing
    encumbered and forbidding in the aisles
    till the heads of those fartherest forward
    start rocking side to side, leaving,
    and that will spread back:
    we'll all start swaying along as
    people do on planks but not on streets,
    our heads tick-tocking with times
    that are wrong everywhere.

What the poet has managed to merge here is a bag of associations: being weighed down (baggage, life); an ominous rocking or countdown with clocks; a dance maybe, along with pirates (and their planks!); and even (how did he do it?) slipping in a jet lag there at the very end.

We're trying to think of the last time we picked up a fat book of poetry by a single author and got as engrossed as we did with this one. There was, so many years ago Howard Nemerov: I read him through [we wrote] first to last; slept, woke up, read it back to first, marking the pages, wondering "Where has he been all my life?" We also think on the first time we looked into the works of Wislawa Szymborska, the first time we stumbled across Apollinaire (it was about time!), when we ran into Tim Clark in the LRB (writing about Manet and Monet and Marx and Freud for crumb's sakes). Too, there was Quan Berry, and, praise the lord, New Direction's collection of Roberto Bolaño.

Murray is hot. I leave you with one poem that shows him at his best. It's written in none but the simplest language, yet it manages to capture a whole era: understated, awful, precise, sad. It's called "Dog Fox Field."

The test for feeblemindedness was, they had to make up
a sentence using the words
dog, fox and field.
---Judgement at Nuremberg
These were no leaders, but they were first
into the dark on Dog Fox Field:

Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big and yet giggled small,

Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.

Hunted with needles, exposed, unfed,
this time in their thousands they bore sad cuts

for having gaped, and shuttled, and failed
to field the lore of prey and hound

they then had to thump and cry in the vans
that ran while stopped in Dog Fox Field.

Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end,
they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.

--- Sarah Maister, PhD
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