Australian Laureate Murray Meditates on Nature and Dialect

In his 1999 poem “The Instruments,” Australian poet Les Murray wrote, “Poetry is read by lovers of poetry / and heard by some more they coax to the café / or the district library for a bifocal reading. / Lovers of poetry may total a million people / on the whole planet. Fewer than the players of skat.” Despite his somewhat negative outlook on the demand for poetry in the world, however, Murray has continued to be an impressively prolific poet. “Taller When Prone” is his twelfth collection of poetry. Written in simple, accessible verse, this latest collection showcases the poet’s penchant for wordplay, his sense of humor, and most importantly, his deep connection with the landscape and language of Australia.

Murray is, after all, at his best when he confronts the natural landscape, particularly that of his native country. The Australia that appears in his poems is a rough, rural place, full of unexpected moments of beauty. In “Southern Hemisphere Gardens,” one of the most evocative poems in the collection, Murray describes the land as an autumnal garden, lovely even its bareness: “This autumn grove, in the half world / that has no fall season, shows a mauve / haze all through its twig-sheaves / and over a rich spangled round / of Persian leaves.” The construction “twig-sheaves” is typical of Murray’s language, which is full of inventive wordplay.

As he renders the landscape of the Australian countryside, Murray demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the flora found there. In “The Cowladder Stanzas,” his speaker describes a certain flower found on the rural farms: “Kniphofia flowers / overlapping many scarlet jubes / form rockets on a stick. / Ignition’s mimed by yellow petticoats.” In moments such as this one, Murray shows a naturalist’s understanding of the environment accompanied by a consistent ability to find fresh ways of expressing his observations.

In addition to his detailed portrayal of Australia’s landscape, Murray is also fastidious in his representation of the linguistic particularities of his country. In a note to Bluelookout Mountain, he writes, “the spelling Bluelookout as one word with the accent on the first syllable reflects local pronunciation.” As Murray’s speaker in “The Cowladder Stanzas” considers a series of names for his farm, he evokes both the linguistic and physical landscape of the countryside: “High Wallet, / Cow Terraces, Fogsheep, / Rainside, Helmet Brush, / Tipcamber, Dingo Leap.” At least for an American readership, there is little else more suggestive of Australia than the mention of a “Dingo.”

The variation of the English language is itself often the subject of Murray’s poems. In “The Drizzle of Chef’s Knives,” he describes the development of Australian English: “All of English was once forest / but it sailed to the lagoons. / Now our southern bush needs pipeline / to drink from the monsoons.” Throughout poems such as “The Drizzle of Chef’s Knives,” “A Frequent Flyer Proposes a Name,” and “Infinite Anthology,” Murray shows a complex understanding of the subtleties of language development, particularly with regards to the Australian vernacular.

In “Infinite Anthology,” Murray catalogs expressions with the care of a linguist, but he does not hide his own particular brand of humor. Examples from his catalogue include “bunny boiler – one who kills her offspring” and “shart – a non-dry fart.” Alongside these light-hearted entries, however, are his own enthusiastic pronouncements on the splendor of linguistic evolution: “Individual words, with their trains of definition loosening around them, allow us to visit the oracular and sense its renewing dance.”

Murray’s fascination with language mingles well with his interest in landscape. In his poem “The Farm Terraces,” Murray remarks on the similarities between the cultivation of land and the creation of poetry; he describes the terraces in the farmland as “Levels eyed up to rhyme / copied from grazing animals / round the steeps of the earth, / balconies filtering water / down stage to stage of drop.”

Even in the poems that do not expressly discuss the flexibility and wonder of language, the careful consideration that Murray pays to wording often leads to surprising, creative use of form and rhyme. In “The Death of Isaac Nathan, 1864,” for example, Murray manages to rhyme a phrase in Hebrew, “Melech ha-olam” with “Miss Havisham,” the name of a famed Dickens character.

Murray’s attention to form is evident especially in the short, almost haiku-like poems that appear sporadically throughout the collection. Four lines at most, these brief, evocative poems exemplify Murray’s propensity for spare, expressive language. In Croc, he likens a police car to a crocodile, “a long-jawed / flat dog beside the traffic stream”; “Cattle-Hoof Hardpan” he compares “Trees from modern times” unfavorably with “the old China pear / still standing in the soil.”

When Murray turns away from his focus on the landscape and language of Australia, his poetry does not always reach the same level of inventiveness and charm. Murray’s verses are filled with color, but while his characterizations of the colors of the Australian landscapes are quite striking—the smoke from burning grass is a “web across the sun / and it ignites cut-glass rosé / goblets and pitchers”—his descriptions of, for example, the Italian landscape are less original. Poems such as “Midi,” which dwells on the lavender color of the Italian sky, and “Visiting Geneva” do not ring quite as true as those that focus on his native country.

There is, however, much to be admired in Murray’s latest collection, which cunningly captures the Australian tongue and terrain. Although in “The Instruments” Murray remarks on the rarity of poetry lovers, this collection is one of those that might even manage to coax the uninitiated into listening to the poet’s accessible voice and buoyant verse.

—Staff writer Rachel A. Burns can be reached at rburns@fas.harvard.edu.

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