Les A. Murray Essay - Critical Essays


Readers of Les A. Murray’s poetry are often attracted by the coherence of the thematic concerns that reappear consistently in his work and that are presented lucidly and imaginatively. Moreover, the stylistic features of his verse, though varied, have themselves cohered into an identifiable style uniquely his own and flexible enough to allow for the wide range of his poetic interests. Broadly, these interests may be grouped under categories of the religious and spiritual, the societal and cultural, the historical and familial, the linguistic and poetic. Murray has strong opinions about many issues facing contemporary society, and his poetry often bespeaks them.

In their most reductive form, these issues would require consideration of such propositions as the following: Western people must rediscover a core of religious values and recover certain traditional modes of being; society should embrace a more democratic egalitarianism, avoiding the twin perils of elitism and false ideology; Aboriginal attitudes regarding nature and the environment need to be better understood by white Australians and to some extent adopted; Australia itself represents an island of hope in the world, as a place where many of the divisive features undermining modern society might be finally reconciled.

“Driving Through Sawmill Towns”

In an early poem, “Driving Through Sawmill Towns,” Murray renders the remoteness and tedium of life in the rural towns, those “bare hamlets built of boards,” where “nothing happens” and “the houses watch each other.” The evocative detail, the careful diction, the sense of quiet control convey both an appreciation of this as a way of life and an acknowledgment that it is a lonely and even desperate existence. A woman gazes at a mountain “in wonderment,/ looking for a city,” and men sit by the stove after tea, “rolling a dead match/ between their fingers/ thinking of the future.” It is a place one only drives through, not a place in which one wishes to live. In that sense, this poem contrasts with others in which the country life appears more salubrious, as in “Noonday Axeman” or “Spring Hail,” where isolation is not necessarily loneliness.

“The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle”

Murray’s most famous poem of rural Australia is also the one most indebted to Aboriginal sources, “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle.” It is a long poem, in thirteen sections, based in part on a translation by R. M. Berndt of “The Moon-Bone Song,” a ritual poem of Arnhem Land Aborigines that Murray claims “may well be the greatest poem ever composed in Australia.” His poem is an attempt to use an Aboriginal mode and structure to “celebrate my own spirit country,” a stretch of land on the north coast between the two towns of Buladelah and Taree, where he grew up and lives as an adult and where many holiday vacationers go in the summer to enjoy the beaches and the countryside.

In the same way that the Aborigines celebrate their unity as a people and their harmony with the land, Murray sees the returning vacationers, many of whom have family ties to the area, as a cyclic affirmation of ancestral values and a joyous communing with nature. In his vision, each new generation rediscovers the spiritual significance of commonplace things, as people come to possess the land imaginatively. Each section of the poem presents an aspect of this summer ritual, from the preparations made by the local inhabitants to the journey from Sydney along the Pacific Highway (represented as a glowing snake) to all the adventures, experiences, and tensions that go with a summer holiday. The poem ends with a linking of the region with the heavens above, as the Southern Cross constellation looks down on “the Holiday.”

The poem is unique in its successful wedding of an Aboriginal poetic structure with the matter of white Australian culture; in particular, Murray’s use of place-names and capitalization seems to give mythic status to the events and locations of the poem, analogous to the Aborigine’s sense of a “spirit of place.”

The Boys Who Stole the Funeral

In 1979, Murray published The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, a verse novel consisting of 140 sonnets of considerable variety. This unusual poem picked up many of the concerns and opinions prevalent in the earlier work and fashioned them into a narrative, both effective as poetry and affective as a story. In this work, two young Sydney men, Kevin Forbutt and Cameron Reeby, steal from a funeral parlor the body of Kevin’s great-uncle, Clarrie Dunn (a “digger,” or World War I veteran), to take him back home to the country where the old man had asked to be buried. Clarrie’s relations having refused to pay for or honor this request, the boys have taken it on themselves. In doing this, they set out on a journey of self-discovery as well.

Such familiar Murray themes as the value of community and respect for the ordinary person are underscored repeatedly in the poem, as when the two boys get to Dark’s Plain, Clarrie’s old home, and are assisted by people there with the burial and with evading the police who have come to arrest them. The novel later culminates with the shooting of Cameron by a police officer. The shocked and distraught Kevin flees into the bush, falls ill, drops into a coma, and has a vision of two figures from Aboriginal legend, Njimbin and Birroogun. In this vision, the central event of the novel, Kevin is put through an initiation where his soul is healed by the symbolic “crystal of Crystals,” and where he is instructed by Njimbin and Birroogun (whose name modulates to Berrigan, connoting a blend of white and black Australians) in the mysteries of the spirit. Kevin is offered the Common Dish from which to eat, the vessel of common human joys and sufferings by which most people in the world are nourished. As an act of solidarity with common humanity, Kevin takes it and eats and then wakes from his comatose vision. Having been in effect reborn, he returns to live at Dark’s Plain, to “keep faith” with the rural “battlers” who are the spiritual inheritors of the land.

The poem as a whole is a virtuoso performance, displaying Murray’s ability to handle the complex interplay of form, narrative, and character. He holds the reader’s attention and, once again, interweaves Aboriginal material in a convincing way.

The Vernacular Republic

One of Murray’s preoccupations is with the notion of the vernacular; indeed, when he titles his selected poems The Vernacular Republic (three separate collections), he is reflecting on the colloquial nature of his language and simultaneously reflecting a passionate concern that the world of his poems addresses: the need for Australia to fuse its three cultures, urban, rural, and Aboriginal. Murray’s vision for Australia is for a...

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