Essays Review: Reading Diary: Les Murray’s ‘Waiting for the Past’

About two weeks ago I had a premonition that Les Murray would win the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. As you will know, that didn’t happen. It’s important to mention this, because usually the only premonitions we hear about are those that actually came true. It’s interesting to hear that Richard III had a tormented, sleepless night full of visions before Bosworth Field, and it was right that he had a night like that, but his is not a representative case. What about all the bullshit premonitions, everyone?!

This is a strangely timed piece of writing on Waiting for the Past (Black Inc., 2015), as the book was published in Australia in April and has already won a big-money prize (the Judith Wright Calanthe Award). What is there left to say? On the other hand, it won’t appear in the U.S., from FSG, until April 2016. So perhaps the in-between-ness of this diary reflects my own in-between-ness as a person from one hemisphere living in the other.

Speaking of the Nobel, the poem ‘The Canonisation’ explicitly deals with fixing a person’s place in a pantheon. The subject is St Mary MacKillop of the Cross, who was made a saint on 17 October 2010 (Murray’s seventy-second birthday). It begins:

Mary MacKillop, born 1842,
what are the clergy giving you
on my birthday, Mother Mary?

Sainthood? So long after God did?
Independence? But you’re your own Scot.
The job of Australian icon?

Well yes. . . .

It is easy to read down this checklist and apply the questions to Murray, as well. Sainthood? Remember, this is a poet who dedicates every one of his books ‘To the glory of God.’ Independence? Murray has written about his own Scottishness on and off for decades. Apparently his relations spoke Scots for two generations after emigrating to Australia. The job of Australian icon? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Murray is just modest enough not to say, ‘That’s right; I am an Australian icon,’ but not falsely modest enough to believe that he isn’t. He may be one of Australia’s 100 National Living Treasures, but he didn’t become one by telling people what they wanted to hear (about Aboriginal recognition, for example), just as Mary MacKillop wasn’t briefly excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1871 (for insubordination) for telling people what they wanted to hear.

Murray is playing a sly game of identification here, allowing him to imply what he cannot in good taste claim.

The author photo Murray uses on the jacket of this book is his most direct visual statement yet on the theme of ‘I am a very large man’:

Waiting for the Past

Previously, he has opted to say this metaphorically, as on the cover of his Collected Poems (2006), where an elephant stands in for the poet:

Collected Poems

Or the statement has been mediated, as on the cover of his last collection, Taller When Prone (2010). Here the author is represented by a pear-shaped shadow (which is even wearing a shadow bush hat):

Taller When Prone

Two poems in the book do the work of correction and what I will call anti-correction. In the pert lyric ‘I Wrote a Little Haiku,’ Murray issues a notice explaining just what he meant by the ‘little haiku’ called ‘The Springfields’ that appeared in his last book. He reproduces it within this poem (meaning that he has now published it twice):

Lead drips out of
a burning farm rail.
Their Civil War.

He notes that ‘critics didn’t like it, / said it was obscure.’ He tells us that the Springfield was the rifle used by both the Union and the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, and that the lead refers to Minié balls, ‘which tore / / often wet with blood and sera / into the farmyard timbers / and forests of that era.’ Even now, Murray continues, if you were to burn a log with a bullet in it, silvery molten lead might run out, like ‘wasted semen / it had annulled before.’ As is the case with Ezra Pound’s imagist poem ‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance,’ the clarification is much more comprehensible and rewarding than the poem that prompted it.

To anyone who has ever advised poets not to respond to their critics: are you reconsidering?

In ‘High Speed Trap Space,’ on the other hand, a situation that has gone miraculously right is reimagined as having gone wrong, as perhaps it should have done. In the poem the speaker is ‘speeding home from town / in the rainy dark’ in a narrow lane that is pressed by trees hard on both sides. A bull’s head and neck appear in the headlamps. This isn’t going to be good, we think.

No dive down off my seat would get me low
enough to escape the crane-swing of that head

and its imminence of butchery and glass.
But it was gone.
The monster jaw must have recoiled
in one gulp to give me my survival.
My brain was still full of the blubber lip,

the dribbling cud. In all but reality
the bomb stroke had happened.

But reality for Murray is not defined only by what happens.

Murray has often spoken (here, for example) of his theory that we have three minds: the waking consciousness, the dreaming consciousness, and the body. Together they are supposed to check and balance one another, and each provides an input that the other two cannot. It is not often that Murray has written a poem that develops this idea explicitly, but ‘Self and Dream Self’ seems to be such a poem. It opens:

Routines of decaying time
fade, and your waking life
gets laborious as science.

You huddle in, becoming
the deathless younger self
who will survive your dreams
and vanish in surviving.

The distinction between who we are when we are awake and who we are when we are dreaming is intuitive and strongly drawn. The dream self is magnificently resilient (it can ‘survive crucial episodes’), but it is not free to do whatever it likes. In dreams, the problems of the present—‘urgencies from your time’—mingle with ruminations on the past, represented by ‘browner suits / walking those arcades with you,’ (a phrase that recalls Larkin’s ‘dark-clothed children at play / Called after kings and queens’ and perhaps Bishop’s ‘grown-up people, / arctics and overcoats’ ‘under the lamps’).

The body is not ignored. The dimensions of the body seem to change depending on which state one is in: in dreams you are ‘small enough to see yourself,’ whereas your larger ‘waking size’ is ‘summon[ed] . . . out through shreds of story.’ In other words, the smaller dream-self is hardy and resourceful, but it is incomplete. The dream-work assembles the full self from various unconscious components. This is what Murray has been trying to tell us all along, but never so plainly.

‘Big Rabbit at the Verandah,’ ‘Eating from the Dictionary,’ and ‘Dog Skills’ all reflect on the changing demographics of the farmyard. Brutal progress is the name of the game; in two of the three poems, this progress is identified with mass death—only the working cattle dogs seem to have bettered their lot by upskilling. (A rural metaphor for capitalism?) The hordes of rabbits of ‘Big Rabbit at the Verandah’ were struck down with myxomatosis ‘to tremble blind on dung-stony hills,’ and the factory-farmed chickens of ‘Eating from the Dictionary’ (distinct from the well-treated small-farm chooks) spread a plague of spinal worm that killed all of Murray’s birds. On the other side of these holocausts emerge a few survivors, now pet-like, individualised, and poem-worthy.

As the title Waiting for the Past hints, the past is the major subject of this book, far more than it was in Taller When Prone. And not just the historical past, but Murray’s personal past. Is this to be expected now that Murray is in his late, not his early, seventies? His health is not what it was.

It seems fair that he should be doing a bit of late-stage Eriksonian stock-taking. Especially when, in the present, things like the episode described in ‘Vertigo’ are happening to him:

Last time I fell in a shower room
I bled like a tumbril dandy
and the hotel longed to be rid of me.
Taken to the town clinic, I
described how I tripped on a steel
rim and found my head in the wardrobe.
Scalp-sewn and knotted and flagged
I thanked the Frau Doktor and fled,
wishing the grab-bar of age might
be bolted to all civilisation . . .

Last time I fell,’ of course. Not the time, not the only time. But Murray will never be just another agèd relative as long as he compares his cut on the head to the rather severer cut inflicted by the guillotine (on a ‘tumbril dandy’) during the Reign of Terror. That’s how you make a simile.

But at least Murray has time for a fond reminiscence or two. ‘Up to the Greek Club,’ about the Hellenic Club on Hyde Park, in Sydney, is a slight piece, but it has taken a lifetime to write it: ‘Fifty-five years I’ve been coming here,’ he tells us.

Of a thousand Australian Greek cafes
back then, almost none served Greek food.
This, though, was tzatzikí and panórama

yet steadier than chefdom:
souvlaki was on every day
and intellect rose to it from suburbs,
making friends and moves . . .

Here is one place where little has changed for decades except the paint (‘now sea-cave blue’) and the clientele (‘double-breasted paratroop-shooters’ are gone, as they’d have to be). Perhaps most importantly for Murray, given that this restaurant seems to have stood for culinary-intellectual rigour, it is still the case that ‘odd metaphors rev on the torrid street below.’

Earlier I asked, ‘What is there left to say?’ Well, there’s this to say again:

Waiting for the Past

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