Dogs and horses, it’s said, can tell when an earthquake is coming. Through some extra sensitivity in their animal consciousness, they feel the tremors before their owners do. Poets often have a similar gift: They start barking before the rest of us have noticed what’s going on. Whenever the online mob picks some new target to destroy, I am reminded that the sharpest description of such campaigns appears in a poem first published in 1996.
Superhuman with accusation,
you would conscript me to a world
of people spat on, people hiding
ahead of oncoming poetry.
The word “conscript,” in these lines from Les Murray’s “Demo,” is spot-on: It’s easy, even profitable, to join the baying crowd. So the poem begins by steeling itself: “No. Not from me. Never.” The trouble with mobs, Murray acknowledges, is that they sometimes have a point, or half a point. They can gesture at a plausible excuse for their hatred. But even then, the poem says, you should conscientiously object: “Nothing a mob does is clean.”
Murray, who died on April 29 in New South Wales at the age of eighty, has justly been remembered as a kind and gentle man. The anger went into his astonishing poems. Within the mob Murray saw the same instinct that had killed millions in the twentieth century: The wish to create a class of the “subhuman” and use it as a scapegoat. This was not only the habit of totalitarian states, but also of Western pop culture, which established its own merciless hierarchy of physical attractiveness. The weak and the ugly were viciously excluded, just as Murray had been by his schoolmates. “The beautiful Nazis, why are they so cruel?” That may sound hysterical, but it contains a dark truth. And when Murray’s poems exaggerate, it is in order to surprise the reader into a new perception, whether about history or, more often, about the natural world. What animal is this, for instance? “A huge Beatles haircut / raises an alert periscope.” An emu, of course—but we needed Murray’s eyes to see it.
The most helpful observation I ever heard about Murray’s poetry was one of the first. A teacher introduced our class to “Shower,” and drew attention to these words: “awakening / the tacky soap to blossom and ripe autumn, releasing the squeezed gardens…”
It’s a memorable image of how the scents of shower gel, those lemons or peppermints or jasmines—gardens squeezed into a bottle—are released by contact with water. But it’s also, our teacher observed, what Murray’s poems do. They pack an impossible amount of meaning into a short phrase. Take a line like “As bees summarise the garden.”
Sorry, bees do what? Is it just that “summarise” sounds a bit like the hum and buzz they make? No, there’s something else: the bees are taking pollen from one flower to the next, removing the DNA of the plants as they go: they are getting the gist of the garden. And in so doing—yes, there’s a bad pun here, too—they bring the garden to fruition: They summer-ize it. That’s how much Murray can get out of a single word. His Collected Poems offers the reader the emotional sweep and range of Tchaikovsky, combined with the intellectual satisfaction of a cryptic crossword.
Some of us are not very good at cryptic crosswords, and Murray’s poems can be baffling. There are sizeable portions of his work from which I have retreated in bewilderment or slight annoyance. Yet I know that if I keep going, the squeezed gardens will be released. I might even find the answer to a question that has nagged at me: What exactly links the sublime descriptive poetry of Translations from the Natural World with his polemics against beautiful Nazis, enlightened intellectuals, and the rest? I can start to see how these two sides of Murray’s work come together, but it remains something of a mystery. It will be a pleasure to look into it for the rest of my life.
And perhaps the next life, too. Murray didn’t hesitate to bring the next life into his poems. He addressed St. Vincent de Paul in heaven, speculated about what kind of self would survive death, and looked forward to the possibility of reunion. The best response, on hearing of Les Murray’s death, is to pray that he finds what he hoped for.
The hopefulness of his writing is no small achievement, given how much of Murray’s work drew on his mental illness. He wrote in one poem of “the misery cord,” the unavoidable duty to drag around the heavy burden of existence, and he gave no guarantee that everything would be OK. His cousin’s story, as he told it in the same poem, could seem a hopeless episode, a tale of someone being crushed—by unkindness, by endless hard work for little reward, and then by death. But there was something more to say:
Just one man has snapped the misery cord
And lived. He said once was enough.
A poem is an afterlife on earth:
Christ grant us the other half.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.