Les Murray, the most celebrated poet of Australia, belongs to a select company of postmodern writers who have extended the range and potency of the English language, even though their native country is not Great Britain. Such writers include the distinguished novelists Nadine Gordimer, V. S. Naipaul, and Kazuo Ishiguro, and the poets Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. Like these award-winning authors, Les Murray brings a keen and unbiased eye to the events of the postcolonial world, a curiously international milieu in which high technology allows the daily mixing of American English, Oxfordian English, journalese, rock-and-roll lyrics, business English, and the vernacular expressions of former colonial subjects. To read these authors is to appreciate that the global spread of English may well be the most important political event of the twentieth century, for English has the phenomenal ability to absorb and domesticate any foreign words.
It is not surprising, then, to hear Les Murray proclaim in one of his poems (“Employment for the Castes in Abeyance”) that “we are a language species.” Indeed, the whole of The Rabbiter’s Bounty amounts to a cornucopia of language, not merely the special artistic language of metaphors, puns, and rhymes but literal words of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, French, Hungarian, Gaelic, and German, to say nothing of the various Australian slang terms and aboriginal words Murray freely employs. Having grown up on a dairy farm in the rural fastness of New South Wales, Murray is the proud possessor of many levels of discourse. He creates his own language at times, and he regularly uses a kind of meta-English that taps the entire spectrum of the language, from academic and technical nomenclature to “Aussie” tavern slang. In “Elegy for Angus Macdonald of Cnoclinn” (Murray’s Gaelic tutor), the poet insists, “I am not European. Nor is my English.”
The American reader of Murray’s poetry should be prepared for purely British words such as “pannikin,” “kirk,” and “lorry,” and Australian terms such as “dingo,” “billabong,” and “bandicoot.” Murray also manages American slang quite fluently, as suggested by his use of words such as “freak” and “zap.”
Les Murray is, quite simply, a world-class poet. He is adept at manipulating all manner of languages and poetic forms. One finds ballads, haiku, epigrams, sonnets, verse-letters, and syllabic poems inThe Rabbiter’s Bounty. All of these technical and formal accomplishments would be meaningless if Murray were not also an intensely readable and accessible poet, an artist who focuses on the memorable moments of life. His poems about childhood, natural disasters, unforgettable relatives, and personal failings will appeal to virtually any reader. Murray can be tender, lyrical, nostalgic, and powerfully humorous. He is a man forever in love with language and with the joy of existing from moment to moment.
Thus, many of the poems in The Rabbiter’s Bounty are portrait poems, descriptions of people whose lives touched Murray deeply (such as the Hungarian immigrant Mórelli József Károly, or Max Fabre, the inventor of Australian racing yachts). Many of these poems are about members of his immediate family, especially his mother, father, and uncle. Quite a few of the poems are autobiographical, such as “Self-Portrait from a Photograph,” which contains an unsparingly accurate description of the balding, overweight poet:
The hair no longer meets across the head
and the back and sides are clipped ancestrally
Puritan-short. The chins are firm and deep
respectively. In point of freckling
the bare and shaven skin is just over
halfway between childhood ginger
and the nutmeg and plastic death-mottle
of great age.
This kind of self-deprecating humor is, in fact, typical of all his autobiographical poems, even the most philosophical ones. There is a healthy lightness in this poet, a refusal to take himself too seriously. This tendency is apparent in his elegy entitled “Quintets for Robert Morley,” which is actually a poem in praise of fat people, “the Stone Age aristocracy” among whose numbers he includes himself. The lazy, fat people had their place, jokes Murray, because they had time for all sorts of cultural pursuits:
It’s likely we also invented some of love,
much of fertility (see the Willensdorf Venus)
parts of theology (divine feasting, Unmoved Movers)
likewise complexity, stateliness, the ox-cart
Some of that extra weight probably derived from a memorable Indian curry dish that Murray writes about in another self-deprecating poem, “Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil”: “I spooned the chicken of Hell/ In a sauce of rich yellow...
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