The Daylight Moon and Other Poems
Americans seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for all things Australian, especially Australian films—and film stars. While Les Murray must certainly be accounted a major poet of the English language, whose poetry is universal enough to transcend his native roots, his work is nevertheless Australian in subject matter, attitude, and language. For the American reader, this easily accessible world, marked by its slightly exotic speech, is all the more interesting because of Murray’s outlook.
Murray is no mere cataloger of the flora and fauna of the Australian outback, or a superficial poet aiming for easy effects by quoting bits of “Aussie” dialect. As these poems reveal, he is a profoundly complex man who happens to have grown up on a dairy farm in Bunyah, Australia, but who is also a scientifically precise observer of mechanical and technological devices as well as a thinker with deep philosophical and theological concerns. He is a sophisticated manipulator of the language who would have written fine poetry had he been born in Santa Fe or Toronto or Canterbury. He delights in puns and clever plays on words, and he displays a high degree of literary sophistication, as shown by his range of rhythms and his impressive powers of invention (Murray makes metaphors out of the most unpromising subjects).
The American edition The Daylight Moon and Other Poems is a compilation of the best poems to appear in Murray’s Australian editions titled The Peoples’ Otherworld (1983) and The Daylight Moon (1987), both published by Angus and Robertson Publishers of Sydney, Australia. At the core of The Daylight Moon and Other Poems is a group of what might be called genre poems, that is, poems about everyday life and common occupations. Murray can write persuasively about children, clouds, trees, short pants, boats, grass, and kitchens—an inventory of items familiar to virtually any human being. In “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever,” Murray composes an unpretentious and highly accessible poem that encapsulates Everyman’s dream of freedom in a kind of woodland utopia:
To go home and wear shorts foreverin the enormous paddocks, in that warm climate, adding a sweater when winter soaks the grass,to camp out along the river tendsfor good, wearing shorts, with a pocketknife, a fishing line and matches,or there where the hills are all down, below the plain, to sit around in shorts at eveningon the plank verandah. . .
In “Midsummer Ice” he evokes the vivid impressions of childhood, symbolized for him by the characteristic gesture of carrying a block of ice for his mother:
I loved to eat the ice,chip it out with the butcher knife’s grey steel.It stopped good things rottingand it had a strange comb at its heart,a splintered horizon rife with zero pearls.
These “genre poems” include three memorable portraits, one of his mother, one of his Uncle Sandy, and even a ruthlessly accurate self-portrait. In “Weights” he recalls the burdens that his mother carried during her lifetime:
she wielded handlesin the kitchen and dairy, singing often,gave saucepan-boiled injectionswith her ward-sister skill, nursed neighbours, scorned gossips, ran committees.
Clearly, he admires his mother’s charitable instincts, as well as her improvisational skills, just as he admires the sheer grit and perseverance of his Uncle Sandy in “Relics of Sandy”:
He used to swim his horsethrough the flooded riverswith bags tied on the saddlewhen he was the mailman;he’d hang on to its tail:he couldn’t swim at all.
The point here is not the individual heroism of these characters but the way they ennoble the entire species. All mothers and all uncles are somehow honored in these poems, just as Murray celebrates every person who has ever agonized over those inevitable imperfections in a snapshot. In “Self-Portrait from a Photograph,” he unashamedly lists all the flaws dramatized by the pitiless lense of the camera:
The chins are firm and...
(The entire section is 1992 words.)