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Review: The Biplane Houses, by Les Murray

Black Inc. 2006

This collection is Murray’s first new book since publication of 2002’s Poems the Size of Photographs. Murray has been translated into sixteen languages, and published thirty books in Australia. He was awarded the T. S. Eliot Prize in 1996, the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1999 and in 2004 received the Mondello Prize. A small and subdued photograph of Murray appears on the back cover and is positioned just underneath the unaccredited blurb. Was there really nobody who could provide a few quotable words for the back cover of this new collection? Perhaps it is a matter of the poet’s or publisher’s choice. It seems a little strange though, given his prominence in Australia and internationally. Acknowledgements of many publications where poems in this collection first appeared include some of the usual suspects; the Age, Adelaide Review, Quadrant, Southerly, but also include; The New Yorker, Poetry Chicago, Times Literary Supplement, Harvard Review, and the Manhattan Review.

The cover blurb includes the statement… ‘Murray’s evocation of the natural world is unparalleled in its inventiveness and virtuosity.’ It would be easy to classify Murray as the poet of the natural world (at least the Murray natural world) even though much of his work travels more than just the natural environment and sustains ideas that are sometimes a little idiosyncratic, or considered politically incorrect. Murray’s work is almost always original. He is also a mature and gifted poet who expertly crafts language to match his vision. ‘The air has states, not places. / On the outer of Earth, the / sky above darkens to blue matter.’… ‘Here be carbons, screamed up / by the djinn of blue kohl highways / that have the whish of the world / for this scorch of A.D.’,(Airscapes).

Australia is suffering the worst period of drought in living memory, in his poem (A Levitation of Land) Murray captures the spiritual loss that pervades in many rural communities, (and increasingly now) in towns and cities closer to the coast. ‘Haze went from smoke-blue to beige / gradually, after midday. / The Inland was passing over / high up, and between the trees. / The north hills and the south hills / lost focus and faded away.’ The poet as witness to the shifting landscape ‘This finest skim of drought particles // formed a lens, fuzzy with grind,’ offers the vision as, ‘A dustbowl inverted in the sky’. As the Inland moves towards the coast with, ‘A sense of brown snake in the air’ Murray charts the loss, observes ‘an echo-Australia gathered out on the ocean / having once more scattered itself from its urn.’

On a first reading this poem is engaging, but it also allows for a broader interpretation, perhaps a moment to ponder the crowding of coastal land by the ‘sea-changers’ uprooting and heading towards the coastal towns. A sense of displacement pervades. The spilling out of those, (like the inland lifted up) who are blown ‘echo-Australia(ns)’ towards the ocean, lending a startling significance to the lines ‘lost focus and faded away.’ Many of Murray’s poems court a variety of meanings, open to individual interpretation. With a poet of Murray’s stature and expertise, some of the difficulties in coming to grips with his work, can resolve with repeated readings. Sometimes there is no resolution. His poems ‘The Domain of the Octopus’, ‘Church’, ‘Panic Attack’, ‘Recognising the Derision as Fear’, and ‘Ripe in the Arbours of the Nose’ are difficult to pin down, offering small additional rewards after multiple readings.

A third of the way through the collection is a poetry sequence that is a strange and interesting example of the way Murray can play a number of possibilities for a poem, by presenting open ended commonalities, differences and ideas in gathered groupings. In this instance, all things olfactory. Some lines from this remarkable sequence, and Murray at his best.

Trees register the dog

and the dog receives the forest
as it trots toward the trees
What seem to be her rich gowns
are quotations from plants and animals
modulating her tucked, demure
but central olfactory heart
The kingdom of ghosts
has two nostril doors
like the McDonalds’s symbol
Mammal self-portraits
are everywhere, rubbed on
or sprayed on in an instant.
If my daddy isn’t gone
and I smell his strength and care
I won’t grow my secret hair
till a few years later on
on Tasmania. Down there.
Mars having come nearest our planet
the spacecraft Beagle Two went
to probe and sniff and scan it
for life’s irrefutable scent,

(The Nostril Songs)

Many of the poems in this collection are poems of place, poems that explore people in the suburbs and towns and those that engage with Murray’s travel outside Australia as well as his ironic takes on a variety of other subjects . This collection is less visceral than the 1996 collection, Subhuman Redneck Poems and is perhaps a more even collection, the poet mellowed and less introspective, although Les Murray as subject is often in evidence. The first poem in the collection, delivers a Murray we might have guessed at, ‘The one whose eyes / do not meet yours / is alone at heart / and looks where the dead look / for an ally in his cause.’, (The Averted). Not too far along we get it again, more up close and personal with this tracing; ‘Asperges me hyssopo / the snatch of plainsong went, / Thou sprinklest me with hyssop / was the clerical intent, / not Asparagus with hiccups / and never autistic savant. // Asperger, mais. Asperg is me. / The coin took years to drop: // Lectures instead of chat. The want / of people skills. The need for Rules. / Never towing a line from the Ship of Fools. / The avoided eyes. Great memory. / Horror not seeming to perturb - / Hyssop can be a bitter herb.’; (The Tune on Your Mind).

I was just starting to read these poems, (skimming rather than reading) when I had the opportunity to fly from Regional Queensland into Brisbane. During the early morning flight which took less than an hour, I gave myself over to gazing out the window. The particular resonance of the title of this collection really hit home during the approach from the northern Brisbane suburbs closest to the coast. The rooftops of most houses were T shapes and L Shapes, some of the gables H shapes. Many of them still under construction. The front cover of the collection features a skeleton house, upside-down above the collection’s title. Houses viewed from the air or the particulars of perspective, do look like planes.

Murray is guiding his readers through travel and other places in his title as much as he is pointing us towards the growing suburbs extending into what once was pastoral land. He is also suggesting something more fundamental. From the poem which includes the collection’s title in its closing line;

Having tacked loose tin panels
of the car shed together
Peter the carpenter walks straight up
the ladder, no hands,
and buttons down lapels of the roof.

Now his light weight is on the house
overhead, and then he’s back down
bearing long straps of a wiry green
Alpine grass, root-woven, fine as fur
that has grown in our metal rain gutters.

Bird-seeded, or fetched by the wind
it has had twenty years up there
being nourished on cloud-dust, on washings
of radiant iron, on nesting debris
in which pinch-sized trees had also sprouted.

Now it tangles on the ground. And the laundry
drips jowls of colored weight
below one walking stucco stucco
up and down overlaps, to fix
the biplane houses of Australia.

(The Shining Slopes and Planes)

In another sequence titled (Twelve Poems) Murray uses two and three line snapshots to provide a range of diverse observations; ‘Lying back so smugly / phallic, the ampersand / in the deckchair of itself.’… ‘Tired from understanding / life, the animals approach man / to be mystified.’ … ‘Filling in a form / the simple man asks his mother / Mum, what sex are we?’. The ideas here are fresh and interesting, Murray could write more of these, more often and I hope he does. He does not appear to be a poet who embraces the notions of many of the post-avants. It would be surprising to think he would google sculpt, or select lines by chance, or participate in other processes which are becoming a legitimate extension of poetic practice. It would be foolish, however, to dismiss his awareness of these directions in poetry.

Reminiscent of some ideas he approached in Subhuman Redneck Poems the poem (The Hoaxist) starts, ‘Whatever sanctifies itself draws me. / Whether I come by bus or Net, / rage and fun are strapped around my body.’, as the poem develops he discusses ‘The media, who are Columbine’, talks of ‘prom queens and jocks’, muses that the owners of the Herald would want to sell to the Baptist church and concludes, ‘Sometimes my cord has to be pulled / for me by others. Or I cut it off. / A buried hoax can be a career, a literature - // Ah Koepenick! Oh Malley! My Ossianic Celts / brought us the Romantic Era, / my Piltdown can resurge as stars!’.

Les Murray is a masterful poet, his tongue often in his cheek and sometimes bitter. His work is hard to position against the work of many other poets. A similar situation, I think, to the poetry of the late Judith Wright or the poetry of the prolific John Kinsella. Some poets are always themselves, are originals, exploring ideas and writing well, for as long as they are able. In this new collection Les Murray is doing what he does best. Hopefully he will continue to do so for a long time yet.