Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Australian poet Les Murray’s poems can be read as reflective of his own life views, his original outlook on social issues such as homelessness, and the importance of rural Australian culture. Natural sacramentalism and the significance of ordinary lives, as shown in An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow and Spring Hail, are common themes throughout his works. Murray also frequently draws upon Aboriginal culture and how their traditions are gradually being degraded by the Americanisation of Australia.
Les Murray uses everyday language in a skilled and sensitive way throughout his poems to reflect the values of Australian society and subsequently open people’s eyes to new ideas and perceptions. Here, An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow serves to reflect on the social construction of masculinity in Australia and the way in which ordinary human experiences can be something sacramental while Inside Ayer’s Rock, on the other hand, serves the ideological purpose of criticising the commodification of Aboriginal culture.
Murray’s latest book has been stitched together to ensure that his latest works are not lost to his reading public. The poem, The Inland Food Bowl, is quite unlike The Mitchells at first glance but proves to be not much different from its better-known predecessor. “A gapped circle of colonies/each staring at the ocean/through a glass plaid of imports” exhibits the same isolated observer taking notes as at a distance as we observed in the earlier poem.
In The Mitchells, “I am seeing” identifies a narrator relating an action as it unfolds before him (and us) in real time. He is detached from the scene, “seeing” from a distance, overhearing, and the later dialogue is largely speculative. In this way, he stands in for the reader, asking us to witness the scene, seeing and (over)hearing what we would, had we passed by at that moment. He is uncertain as to why the men are digging the hole (“I think for wires”). Murray is at pains to present but not interpret the men’s actions in any way. The enjambment of “after dinner”, pauses the line to reflect the break the men take to eat. This is all part of the regular rhythm of their day – no “grabbing a bite on the run” that you might find an urban technician doing. Note also the different time scale here: “dinner” at noon, not lunch.
The Scores, 20th Century is clever commentary but does not break the basic model, one of narration by an impartial observer. The narration is matched to the situation, or more carefully the context. Hence our way of life during 1921 is appropriately matched to the context of the verse. Murray moves a little closer to his subject matter in his choice of flower in the final line of each verse. Although it is not overt, the feeling that we’re watching a cosmic cricket match cannot be averted.
The “Bush ethos” has waxed and waned in significance for the Australian psyche. It has been the source of much doggerel verse by Bush Bards and city bushmen (as Henry Lawson once called them). Murray is at pains to avoid such associations. His Scores is a more sophisticated examination of daily life in Australia. His respect for the way of life and the values Australians embody is evidenced by the trouble he has taken to bring them to life. The language of the poem imitates Australians’ qualities of directness, reticence and humour.
Reports and Management is vintage Murray, told as only Murray can tell it. Headed with a title that is pure government-speak, while the use of repetition in “handguns/ firing, hoary sergeants firing, / girl constables firing” – the chaos of taking down a knife wielder was never so tellingly told. Then to end with the possibility of a long enquiry unless something of greater importance should loom adds to the fun of this particular poem.
Continuous Creation, Last Poems by Les Murray – well worth a read, vintage Murray throughout.
By Les Murray
$24.99; 95 pp