Les Murray – A Study by Steven Matthews

The following cover notes and extract are taken from Les Murray, the recent study by Steven Matthews. The book was published by the Manchester University Press in August 2001 as part of the Contemporary World Writers series (ISBN 0-7190-5448-6).

Cover Notes

Les Murray is amongst the most gifted poets writing today. His multi-faceted talents have received high praise both in his native Australia and beyond. But he has also proved a controversial figure, whose poetry strays across the boundaries of political and cultural debate. His version of republicanism has caused heated argument about the future direction of his country, as it moves out of the shadow of its colonial past.

In this, the only full critical study of Murray's work available, Steven Matthews provides a complete picture of his career to date, from its early parables of national emergence to the working man's epic encounter with the major events of the twentieth century, Fredy Neptune. Matthews provides detailed readings of key poems, as well as literary and cultural contexts for the rapid shifts in style and subject matter Murray has made from collection to collection. He also gives an overview of Murray's place within Australian literature and national thought. Written in a way that engages academics working in the field and students or general readers new to Murray's poetry, this study offers a striking take on one of the most significant figures in world literature today.


The Presence Poems

The impulse for each poem in the sequence 'Presence' from Translations from the Natural World remains essentially the same – the expression of plenitude and variousness through the attempt to make present the nature of its particular subject. The poem on the seemingly least, but actually most powerful, part of life, ‘Cell DNA’, establishes these themes, allowing both for individuality and also freedom within it. ‘I am the singular / in free fall’, the poem begins, but later acknowledges that this is itself due to unique happenstance. The ‘rote’ which DNA would seem to dictate to life was once, it tells us, a ‘miscue’, ‘Presence and freedom // re-wording, rebeading / strains on a strand’. In consequence, difference has entered the world, difference which goes beyond the constraints DNA would seem to be able to manage.

  ‘Cell DNA’ would seem, in expressing its own subject, concerned to bring the over-riding forces in the whole sequence up against each other. The attempts to establish control and separation from the rest of creation stands over and against the sense that that separation itself depends upon ‘Presence and freedom’, which are not self-generated. Here is individuated ‘sprawl’ in extreme miniature.

What seems most remarkable about the sequence is the variety of styles Murray manages to achieve in seeking to celebrate its central embodiments. Picking up on some of the techniques learned in his earlier sustained exploration of creatureliness, ‘Walking to the Cattle Place’, he deploys here a range of technical vocabulary. But, more often, there is a breaking with normative terms and syntax, in order to establish our distance from the subjects, and the fact that the various creatures’ ‘voices’ are received through the difficult process of translation. The peculiar sonnet for (or is it from?) ‘Echidna’ begins:

Crumpled in a coign I was milk-tufted with my suckling
till he prickled. 
He entered the earth pouch then
and learned ant-ribbon,
the gloss we put like lightening on the brimming ones.

The essence of the sequence is, then, a form of defamiliarisation, one in which our presumed perspectives upon the world are undermined. Murray’s own perspectives here are not solely ecological or religious, it would seem, but a furtherance of his persistent historical concern for the ways in which Australia has altered ways of seeing and saying. What is interesting within this is the growing sense across the sequence that, amid its welter of brilliantly-realised voices, true presence in fact resides in the unsayable, in all that lies beyond even the achieved poem’s reach. The experience of Australian difference is once again cast as the unfinishable Adamic process of naming its natural abundance.

The paired poems which end the work, ‘From Where We Live On Presence’ and ‘Possum’s Nocturnal Day’, draw out that feeling to its fullest. The former begins with what seems an expression of human superiority, but rapidly changes towards a different sense of expectation:

 A human is a comet streamed in language far down time; no other
living is like it. Beetlehood itself was my expression.
It was said in fluted burnish, in jaw-tools, spanned running, lidded shields

To this extent, humanity’s ‘comet’ might seem an isolation from the world of different embodiment in which it finds itself. A mere beetle defeats that expressiveness, and offers instead a presence which is defiant of appropriation (unlike for humans, ‘I remain the true word for me’). The concluding sonnet, ‘Possum’s Nocturnal Day’, would seem to make a similar point but, as its title suggests, from an opposite side. In concluding, it suggests that the non-verbal is in fact what guarantees presence, since it represents the whole from which individuality marks a fall from grace:

 .. I curl up in my charcoal trunk of night
and dream a welling pictureless encouragement
that tides from afar but is in arrival me
and my world, since nothing is apart enough for language.

The unexpectedness of the syntax of the last line carries the compact pivot upon which the sequence depends. ‘Me’ and ‘my world’ are themselves expressive of a creativity which is of the nature of presence itself. In its closing lines, Murray’s sequence becomes haunted by the possibility that language itself marks humanity’s fallen state. In other words, that the Manichean loss of creatureliness/creativity is a mark of our own apartness and lack of freedom and presence. What had seemed a concertedly Adamic enterprise, giving voice to the native flora and fauna of this land as the first settlers had sought to do, despite their impediments, turns back towards the end upon itself. The limitation and presumption of the trope of translation, which gives the sequence its own peculiar nature, is held to the fore. Subjects are returned to their otherworld, but in ways which suggest that humans have gone astray, both from an unarticulated religious possibility, and from a fruitful representation of the New World, which the past continues to haunt. Humanity’s isolation in this might, however, be taken to mirror something of Murray’s own feelings, as many of the ideals he had earlier held to were being overtaken by what he sees as corrupted versions of them in contemporary Australian life.


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