Les Murray, by far today’s most famous Australian poet worldwide, has produced a volume replete with many of his characteristic strengths. Indeed, it is remarkable that, in a relatively short volume, so many of Murray’s favored modes are sampled. The volume takes its title from a poem in the middle of the book. This poem shows the vernacular architect as craftsman. Unstoried, using local forms, the local architect nonetheless produces a house that can provide solid shelter as well as incarnate the soaring aspirations of art and hope. “The Kitchen Grammars” is similar in emphasizing the jerry-built yet adhesive durability of cultural forms that are conceived locally and lived out bodily. Parts of speech are compared to ingredients in a recipe; a sentence with noun and verb is like a meat loaf with meat centered by an egg. “The Nostril Songs” also braids together language and physicality, a point fortified at the level of enunciation by the often ingenious puns that stud the volume.
Many reviewers have remarked on the relative difficulty of the book. Indeed, The Biplane Houses may mark the point where the genuine demands this poet makes on the reader are foregrounded, instead of being buried by a focus on Murray’s equally genuine empathy for the common man. The reality that even committed students of contemporary poetry find Murray’s poetry at times difficult yields a more complex and ramified sense of his poetry. The volume is about equally divided between poems that can be understood at first glance and those which require far more scrutiny and study. Murray is surely saying something about the multidimensionality of his own response to experience here.
“The Cool Green” whimsically if also savagely looks at the role money plays in American society. It has no intrinsic value, does not call forth any of the great human aspirations, butespecially, Murray implies, in the current socioeconomic orderhas attained an unseemly position in the collective psyche. Murray writes with polemicism here, but also with panache; he is never merely a crusader, but a scintillating one. “The Domain of the Octopus” both describes the octopus as a physical creature and as a figurative trope of resistance to straightforward acts of construction and clearance, epitomized in the poem by the figure of the ax. In its squishiness and sheer, insensate physicality, the octopus represents the flexibility and resilience of nature, which may be altered by human settlement but never entirely displaced by it.
“The Newcastle Rounds” is set in the industrial city of Newcastle, which in Murray’s youth was the de facto metropolitan reference point for his region of northern New South Wales, although it was hundreds of miles away. Murray gives a compelling tribute to Novocastrians, as the citizens of the city are called, and their unique history, from early settlement to its prime as a steel-manufacturing town to its present prominence as a postindustrial city that is the outlet for much of the Hunter Valley wine industry and has a premier surfing site on its famed beach, Nobby’s. For any other poet, this would be a slight occasional poem; Murray’s sense of felt, durable loyalty to his place adds to his unfettered delight in the panoply of human diversity. Murray also shows here that, although he is most often associated with rural settings, he can also write convincingly about cities. “The Newcastle Rounds” in fact is reminiscent of the Australian poet Judith Wright, who, though similarly specializing in nature poetry, wrote several compelling late poems about Australia’s capital, Canberra. Yet Murray celebrates the common man on a more individual level with “Barker Unchained,” about a rural postman who faithfully delivers the mail in the most unadvantageous of circumstances. After a career of performing his duty, he retires, in a way free from a regimen as confining to him as making the mailbags has been for the prisoners who have done so; but the postman can take credit for getting mail to scores upon scores of people. The poem’s dedication to a professor of English implies that the poem concerns any kind of work, even more overtly mental work.
A very different model of work is solicited in “Lifestyle,” in which Murray addresses people who work in large cities in coffeehouse chains such as Starbucks. Murray, who has continually satirized the pretensions of the urban intelligentsia to be up-to-date, sees the sort of work performed in such an establishment as transient and based on no enduring source or value. In this poem, Murray evidences his dislike of gentrification, an animadversion...
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