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REASONS (Annotated) FOR NOT1 READING LES MURRAY’S NEW COLLECTED POEMS


                                    with acknowledgements to Andy Brown 2

1.    The cover. Which is not to say I have anything against the bird, which I
       think is a pelican and it’s quite beautiful. But as covers of books of poetry
       go, the only one I can think of at the moment that begins to compare is that
       one of Gillian Clarke’s where a pig stares out from behind a metal gate.

2. This is for spring and hail, that you may remember:
for a boy long ago, and a pony that could fly.
               (from “Spring Hail”)3

3.    My father, widowed, fifty-six years old,
       sits washing his feet.4
               (from “Evening Alone at Bunyah”)

4.    AN ABSOLUTELY ORDINARY RAINBOW5

5.    as, camped under tin like rabbiters in death’s gully,
       they stemmed the endless weather of grey men and steel
       and, first of all armies, stormed into great fields.
               (from “Lament for the Country Soldiers”)6

6.    I go into the earth near the feed shed for thousands of years.7
               (from “Thinking About Aboriginal Land Rights,
               I Visit the Farm I Will Not Inherit”)

7.    Beanstalks, in any breeze, are a slack church parade8
               (from “The Broad Bean Sermon”)

8.    hens peck glimmerings and uptilt
       their heads to shape the quickness down9
               (from “Rainwater Tank”)

9.    Nests of golden porridge10
               (from “Equanimity”)

10.   Dense undergrowths that were always underbrush
       expand in the light, beside bulldozers’
       imprinted machine-gun belts of spoor.11
               (from “The Forest Hit By Modern Use”)

11. THE QUALITY OF SPRAWL12

12.   The neither state of Neverwhere
       is hard to place as near or far
       since all things that didn’t take place are there
       and things that have lost the place they took:

       Herr Hitler’s buildings, King James’ cigar,
       the happiness of Armenia,
       the Abelard children, the Manchus’ return
       are there with the Pictish Grammar Book.
               (from “The Chimes of Neverwhere”)13

13.   It is time perhaps to cherish the culture of shorts,

      
to moderate grim vigour
       with the knobble of bare knees14
               (from “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever”)

14.   Hearing loss? Yes, loss is what we hear
       who are starting to go deaf. Loss
       trails a lot of weird puns in its wake, viz.
       Dad’s a real prism of the Left –
       you’d like me to repeat that?
               (“Hearing Impairment” complete)15

15.   A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
       may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night
       to die and live by. But that is small religion.

       Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
       like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
       with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?16
               (from “Poetry and Religion”)

16.   Whether other hands reached out to Marion, or didn’t,
       at nineteen in her training ward she had a fatal accident
       alone, at night, they said, with a lethal injection17
               (from “Burning Want”)

17.   Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing18
               (from “Bats’ Ultrasound”)

18.   The knob found in his head19
       was duck-egg size.
               (from “The Last Hellos”)

19.   I could not sit, or lie down,
       or stand, in Casualty.
       Stomach-calming clay caked my lips,
       I turned yellow as the moon

       and slid inside a CAT-scan wheel
       in a hospital where I met no-one
       so much was my liver now my dire
       preoccupation.20
               (from “Travels with John Hunter”)

20. 55421
               (from the last page of poems in the book)



NOTES:

1.    I would like to say at this point that I am naturally uneasy about saying so bluntly that you
       should not read this book. This didactic “not” is, of course, dangerous territory for any reviewer.
       But I’m not that
uneasy.

2.    Andy Brown’s “25 Reasons To Read Tom Raworth”, which recently appeared on the Stride site, is
       one of the best reviews I’ve read for ages. Seriously. Brilliant stuff. I’ve unreservedly ripped off
       his idea, but I called a halt to the proceedings at 20 instead of 25, because I was getting fed

       up. Let’s face it, pulling 25 quotes out of Tom Raworth is fun and invigorating. I had Les
       Murray! And I’ve appended these notes. I was kind of hoping the quotes would do for
       themselves, but then I couldn’t resist adding my occasional two penn’orth.

3.    From an imaginary “Rules of Poetry”: you were a kid. You had a pony. Don’t write a poem about
       it.

4.    These are the first lines of the poem. An old man is washing his feet. That’s as far as I want to
       go.

5.    By which I mean, the whole poem.

6.    This is an antiwar poem, I think. And you can’t really disagree with the sentiments. War is bad:
       all those grey men storming into great fields.

7.    If only.

8.    No they’re not. But I don’t want you to think I am wholly against metaphor. Metaphor can be
       good. Really, it can.

9.    Les Murray, man of the people, he turns up to read his poems in a cap with his books in a
       plastic bag, and he writes this shit.

10. T       hese are the first four words of the poem. “Porridge” describes the entire poem.

11.   There is a term for this kind of poetic language, where to use the image of the machine gun
       weighs so heavily and so obviously. I’m not sure what the term is. Probably there are several.
       But it’s the kind of poetry that is good for essays in school, for one thing. And garners nods of
       approval from those for whom, let’s face it, this is what poetry is.

12.   I think people think this poem is very important in Les Murray’s poetry career. He has a book of
       essays of the same title, so they might be right. Whatever.

13.   I hate this poem. I am beyond explaining.

14.   Need I explain?

15.   Need I?

16.   If the poet really believes this, how come this book contains so many poems that fail to meet
       such high standards?

17.   I’m sorry, but I laughed when I read this.

18.   Another example provoking the question “Did you know that some people think this is what
       poetry is?”

19.   There’s an easy joke to be made here, but I’m resisting it.

20.   I’m a reasonably intelligent man. Let me out of here!

21.   This little number, the page number, sits lonely at the bottom of the last page of poems. You
       then get an index of first lines and an index of titles that takes it up to 576. The book is about
       an inch and a half thick and in the right hands and wielded correctly it’s heavy enough to stun
       an ox. Or a poet.22

22.   Coincidentally, the day after I finished (or thought I had finished) this (for want of a better
       word) review, I bumped into my friend Jez on the way home from work and, over a glass of
       wine, our conversation landed, as it often does, on poetry. And somehow or other, I’m not sure
       how, Les Murray’s name came up. I expect it was because he was fresh in my mind, and I
       dragged him in to make some kind of point about something or other. Jez immediately said
       that he really liked Les Murray, and in particular the poem “Driving Through Sawmill Towns”
       which, it turns out, he more or less always has somewhere about his person, among all the
       other bits of paper he carries around. Jez said he thinks this is a cracking poem, evoking as it
       does quite brilliantly the world of, well, sawmill towns. Back woods. Edge of the world life.
       That kind of thing. I’m sort of paraphrasing him, because I can’t remember his exact words. But
       it’s roughly right. Anyway, I’d not read this particular poem, and said I would, as soon as I got
       home. Two days later, I did. In the 5th line of the poem, a “windscreen parts the forest”, and
       from that point on I was lost. Later, near the end, you get this:
               Sometimes a woman, sweeping her front step,
               or a plain young wife at a tankstand fetching water
               in a metal bucket will turn round and gaze
               at the mountains in wonderment,
               looking for a city.
       and I realised, not for the first time, that I really hate poems that do this kind of thing. It’s
       like walking around Kwik-Save and looking at some girl with three kids in tow and thinking
       Wow, she’s wishing she was footloose and fancy free and in Sainsbury’s. And then going home
       and putting her in a poem because you’re so wise and “a poet”.


               © Martin Stannard 2003