When the great Australian poet Les Murray died in April 2019, he left an incomplete volume of new work in his desk drawer. Murray preferred the typewriter and avoided email, so COVID-19 locked down the manuscript at his home in Bunyah, New South Wales (population: 143). Continuous Creation: Last Poems, published last month, is a farewell to the most important Australian poet since Banjo Paterson.
It is a too-slim volume from a fat genius. Murray’s incarnational poems are not filled with airy abstractions, but with souls joined to bodies. His own body is not always a perfect fit. In “Metal Birth,” Murray is a heavyweight choreographer:
Big man leaving a small car
turns over, lies across his seat
grips the steering wheel and throws
out a pair of trampling feet
sleekly to the asphalt. He then
dips his face from under
the dash, up into view,
grinning at the end of an eclipse
and writhes upright, balancing, complete.
In “Steam Bath World,” Murray creates another unforgettable metaphor, describing Iceland, Russia, and Finland as “a rank culture-headband round the Earth's high forehead.” He invites laughter as readers imagine him, bald, plump, and six feet tall, escaping from a sauna:
red-faced humans tip
buckets on scorching rock
under hides or timber
and burst out, nude and limber,
rolling in birch-tree shock.
Murray fidgets in insecure adolescence. In “Boarding in Town for School,” he shrugs away the memory of
Those days when boys called you
names that rarely impressed
the girls, who danced, calling you
like Hinder and Posterio . . .
But he feels hot-cheeked shame remembering his best friend’s sister, who was kinder than he deserved:
a year older than you,
quiet touch in her face,
city ahead, and your lies
to dismiss her so undue.
As an adult with a valid claim to fame, he is amused when the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team avoids him in a hotel elevator. Unrecognized, Murray imagines they are suspicious of his accent and see in him a sweaty, scammy stockbroker: “Am I offering shares?”
His eyes play tricks on him in “Windfall”:
ahead on the road turns out
to be twigs and leaves.
In “Speed,” he admires, and perhaps envies, an awkward giraffe “in towering flight / from the blackbeard lion,” capable of summoning unexpected speed and strength as a victorious “mighty galloper.”
Paterson fought his rival Henry Lawson in a poetic battle for Australian identity. Lawson rolled his eyes at Paterson’s romantic view of bush life. Murray, in his modern country life, survives a bushfire, something that would earn respect from both men. The aftermath:
One horse baked in a tin shed,
naked poultry lay about dead
having been plucked in mid flight . . .
But Lawson would crack a wry smile at Murray’s middlebrow catalogue of a country bookshop:
This is the culture:
no history but the Allied,
nothing strange. No poetry.
All's preserved slow TV
selling no local memoirs,
no spirit, no religion,
no theory, little foreign . . .
As a young man, Murray joined the Catholic Church, whose “steep walls of claim” sheltered Murray the Misfit. He shared with Aquinas, another fat genius, a devotion to the Unmoved Mover and dedicated each of his thirty books to the greater glory of God. He was not a voice crying out in the wilderness. Les Murray was a poet sweating out in the bush. R.I.P.
Stephen Schmalhofer is the author of Delightful People.
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Photo by Audrey Attwood via Creative Commons. Image cropped.