Every generation seems to have an Australian poet who, alone of all Australian poets, attracts recognition across the world and possesses an easy entrée into the literary and publishing worlds of New York and London. In the generation of the early to mid-twentieth century, it was A. D. Hope (1907-2000); in the mid- to late twentieth century, Les A. Murray merits the distinction; for the generation of the late twentieth century to the early twenty-first century, it is shaping up, as of 2000, to be John Kinsella (1963-). Murray is arguably the most distinguished of these three, yet his work presents a paradox. Murray’s origins are rural and working-class. Brought up in Bunyah in northern New South Wales, he went off to university in the metropolis of Sydney, only to return to his home territory in midlife to settle there for good. His poems celebrate the vigor and character of the ordinary people with whom he shares his country life. Murray, though, is above all a dazzlingly erudite and resourceful poet, and the knowledge required to fully understand his poetry is possessed by few university professors, let alone ordinary country folk. This paradox, however, enhances Murray’s poetry rather than interferes with it. The title of this collection, Learning Human, can be seen as enacting this dichotomy between learning and humanity, knowledge and being. In the course of the book, the reader sees the split, if not necessarily resolved, at least brought into stunning verbal harmony.
Learning Human contains selections from most of Murray’s previous poetry books, excepting only his two verse novels, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1980) and Fredy Neptune (1998). The first four poems inLearning Human are among Murray’s most famous. “The Burning Truck” starts out as a vivid pictorial description of a truck in flames, reeling on a path of destruction through a small village. By the end of the poem, though, the truck has been metaphorically transfigured into a terrifying vehicle (in all senses of the word) of religious awe, with the townspeople who watch it being its “disciples.” “Driving Through Sawmill Towns” is animated by a contrast between speed and stasis, perspective and containment. The narrator is driving through a series of working-class, rural towns, his only contact with the “locals” being to ask for directions. It would be easy for the narrator to patronize the townspeople as lacking his opportunities in life (not least of which is his ability to leave), but instead, at the end, the old men of the town are seen “thinking of the future”; there is a possibility for them beyond the assumed superiority of the traveler. “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow,” in many respects Murray’s signature poem, begins amid the bustle of workaday, prosperous Sydney, filled with frenetic stock-trading and classy restaurants. In the middle of this hubbub there is a solitary man, weeping. No one knows why he is weeping, but the pure emotion he displays mesmerizes sophisticated Sydney out of its dynamic stupor. Murray could easily paint the weeping man as an angel who has come to redeem the contemporary city or as a saint who has come to rebuke it, but the poet insists that the weeping man is neither. His impact on the Sydney scene is like that of a rainbow after the storm, but it is not miraculous; the rainbow is, as the title of the poem indicates, “absolutely ordinary.” Murray’s readers will note that both “absolutely” and “ordinary” have other undertones of meaning: “absolute” as in “absolute truths” and “ordinary” as it relates to the idea of “order,” or rule. These undertones give the weeper a slightly more transcendental cast. On the poem’s narrative level he remains just a man weeping, asking no more from the world than the opportunity to weep. Like the burning truck, the weeping man attracts disciples, but he disdains them: “Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.”
“Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil” heralds what may be Murray’s most typical mode in the shorter poem. Merthyr Tydfil is an industrial city in south Wales. Vindaloo is a particularly spicy Indian curry. Stereotypically, the last place one would expect to eat vindaloo is in Merthyr Tydfil, and the last person one would expect to write about this conjunction would be an Australian poet. With humor and gusto, though, Murray takes on the challenge. The poet orders the hottest curry possible, partially as an act of arrogance, partially out of a kind of creative bravado. Though the spiciness of the food verges on causing physical pain, the poet persists, his folly in the end becoming an act of mad purity that gives this conjunction of Australian poet and Indian cuisine a distinctly Welsh cast after all.
“The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle” is a poem of...
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