POETRY APRIL 26, 2011
by Les Murray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
LES MURRAY IS BOTH Australia’s strongest neo-bush poet and a poetic iconoclast, with his rough-mannered political conservatism, his sprawling rural idiom, and his belief in a Christian Creator (several of his books bear the dedication “To the glory of God”) whom he unabashedly and deliriously pits against his own powers of poetic creation. “I adore the Creator because I made myself,” Murray writes in “Corniche,” one of the ‘Black Dog Poems’ in which he treats the clinical depressions of his “twenty horror years.” Here the poet assumes the Creator’s genial powers by claiming to have made himself, and yet he mocks those powers as insufficient to the task of saving Murray the man, who had “been coming apart all year,/ weeping, incoherent.” But this contradiction, we learn through re-reading, resolves itself as a paradox central to Murray’s poetics: the flawed poet-creator must resign himself to a state of createdness, both to retreat from the edge of self-destructive determinisms and to create a constructive vernacular for experience.
In Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression (first published in 1997 and recently reprinted with a new afterword and an expanded anthology), Murray dwells on his sociological and biological createdness, chronicling significant biographical episodes as reflected in his poetry. He follows the paw prints of the Black Dog back to “matricidal guilt and … two years of daily sexual rejection” (Murray’s father apparently blamed his wife’s death on Murray), and he muses on the values and the limitations of “strict poetic analysis” as a form of “personal therapy.” We are inspired by the courage Murray demonstrates in these pages, and what he has to say about his poetry illuminates the anthology that follows the memoir.
For instance, Murray tells us in his new afterword that “aphorism has helped me to clarify some things, including my relations with the political culture of my time and country.” And indeed, in “An Era”, Murray aphoristically manages his dejection “about the immutably anti-rural bias of Australian intellectual culture”:
The poor were fat and the rich were lean.
Nearly all could preach, very few could sing.
The fashionable were all one age, and to them
a church picnic was the very worst thing.
We probably would have seen that “An Era” works by means of aphorism even if Murray hadn’t told us so, but what we learn from Murray is that he intended aphorism to have a clarifying effect, and this knowledge in turn enables us both to judge the poem as Murray would and to understand more fully the procedures of Murray’s poetic mind. For one, we understand that that mind fortifies itself against the rage characteristic of the ‘Black Dog Poems’ with a Popean brevity that serves to abstract the poet to a point from which he may securely manipulate his volatile materials. This self-abstraction channels rage away from the poem (which would otherwise collapse into self-pity and despair, as so many of the ‘Black Dog’ poems do) and toward its aphoristically clarified object: the anti-rural leftist elite whom Murray condemns as enemies to Australian traditions and values.
But I find Murray in his memoir to be both self-absorbed and irresponsible. Most perniciously, he errs in misunderstanding, or in misrepresenting, clinical depression and its course. After “a liver abscess … came within a hair of killing [him]” and he received “public affirmation” through “cards, letters, flowers and phone calls,” Murray claims to have “discovered that the Black Dog had left [him].” Murray’s account of his recovery is too tidy: “magic” is his word for it, as if mental illness disappears once and for all with the utterance of “urgent spells” and the wave of a wand. What’s perhaps worse, Murray chiefly structures the account of his recovery to sneer at his detractors—the leftists, the feminists, the Australian literary world. In his new afterword, though, Murray recants his claim that the Black Dog was killed, a correction that comes eleven years too late, but at least amends have been made.
The ‘Black Dog Poems’ themselves—with the exception of “An Era” and the gentle, moving “A Reticence”—are not among Murray’s better work: they are brutal in the nakedness of their disclosure, narrow in their emotional range, and technically either flat or violent. Angsty lines like “Sex is a Nazi,” and “Most culture has been an East German plastic bag/ pulled over our heads” rely on cheap shock value. And at times Murray’s verse even veers toward doggerel: “Where humans can’t leave and mustn’t complain/ there some will emerge who enjoy giving pain,” where the anapests in the second line smack of the comic as they recall the cognitive music of Edward Lear and, more distinctly to my ear, Dr. Seuss. But that music only serves to ridicule the bitterly earnest critique of “the true curriculum of schools” that Murray mounts in the poem. Murray himself acknowledges that much of what he wrote out of depression is “knotted [and] unclear,” “bad stuff” as he called it in an interview with The Paris Review. Killing the Black Dog, then, remains primarily of autobiographical interest, and what is perhaps most astonishing about Murray’s career is his recovery from earlier coarseness in his brilliant Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse (1999) and his subsequent books of poetry.
His latest book, the decidedly minor Taller When Prone, testifies to Murray’s full poetic recovery, and also to a kind of liberation from the anxieties of createdness. The poet uproots himself from a staunch Australian nationalism—from farmland, from Bunyah, from homeland—and capaciously, capriciously, travels the world of a benevolent Creator; he strides on the wind from the Taj Mahal to Bluelookout Mountain to Soho to the undiscovered country, always returning to his homeland afterward to enrich its cognitive soil with the data and wisdom and rounded soul of the worldly. If Murray subtly alludes to the Ascension of Christ in “Midi”, in which “Muscles and torsoes of cloud/ Ascended over the mountains,” he also declares that we imaginatively generate our benevolent God, that thinking makes God so. So the relationship between the created and the Creator becomes tautological: God made me, Murray thinks, and I made God what He is, and therefore I made myself what I am. And so I am what I am.
The question becomes, then, who am I? If the poet is not fettered to a sociologically or biologically determined identity—to being the Australian “subhuman redneck”, as Murray ironically calls himself, or the bullied teenager, or the Black-Dog-brained matricide—then he must become himself by freely creating himself. Consequently, the poet, though he enjoys new liberties, necessarily suffers new anxieties, namely the anxiety of being empty, of being nobody, expressed lightly but powerfully in “Fame”:
We were at dinner in Soho
and the couple at the next table
rose to go. The woman paused to say
to me: I just wanted you to know
I have got all your cook books
and I swear by them!
to answer her: Ma’am
they’ve done you nothing but good!
which was perhaps immodest
of whoever I am.
The poem works by anticipating our expectations, offering us time at the line breaks to develop those expectations, and then altogether evading expectations. For instance, when the speaker (who can only be Murray) manages to answer the woman in the poem, we expect him to correct her: “Ma’am/ I don’t write cook books. I write poetry. You must have confused me with someone else.” But instead, to our surprise, he plays along: “they’ve done you nothing but good!” Murray is really enacting self-surprise on us—self-surprise that is a byproduct of self-creation, of becoming ‘whomever’ whenever. But the rhyme on “Ma’am” and “I am” suggests that external influences yet threaten to infiltrate and change identity.
Perhaps that is why Murray mostly dispenses with human presences other than his own in Taller When Prone. This is not a book about people; it is a book about inventing people, about how people shape themselves from the dust of what Murray would call ‘sense-data.’ It doesn’t matter so much to Murray what is illuminated by the light of the moon, but it does matter that he can look up and divine the names, “rotting Satsuma-plum moon … a burnt-sugar/ apparition with clouds of its own.” Murray even uses the Adamic anthology as a poetic form to name and render idiosyncratic experience in the experimental “Infinite Anthology”. A few of the entries: “daylight—second placegetter when winner is very superior to field”; “bunny boiler—one who kills her offspring”; “shart—a non-dry fart.” And if some of what we read in Taller When Prone is too idiosyncratic or bizarre, like “Horse-penis helicopters are watery TV/ but unblocked roads and straight volunteers/ are lifesaving spume spray,” we excuse the poet because he is bushwhacking through new territory, and because his linguistic fireworks sometimes shine brilliantly, as in the sonnet “Ovoids,” about a swimming pool:
Moist black sago pearls
in white Chinese tea
heads of women lovingly
watch babies grabbing
like unsteady moons
in a wading pool full
of cherry balloons.
Cushions and knees
and round toes in grass
under tropic leaves
the scented sweet
skin glazed in sweat—
all snapped from above in
the aqueous ovarian.
Yet what is really at the heart of Murray’s surprises and his renaming and his idiosyncrasies and his pleasures is the claim made in “The Conversations” (the poem from which Murray derives the title of the collection): “A fact is a small compact faith,/ a sense-datum to beasts, a power to man/ even if true, even while true.” Murray is saying that what we perceive and establish as fact (like the “bloc hail” of the Taj Mahal or the sensation of a “shart” or “the scented sweet/ [of] skin glazed in sweat”) is a belief, a belief in our perceptual powers and in the stability of referents. And it is because a belief cannot be proven or disproven that it empowers people, as a belief in God empowered Murray to reshape himself, or as a belief in poetry yields experiences we would not otherwise have observed, feelings we wouldn’t have otherwise felt.
There are critics who claim that Murray is among the three or four best poets working in the language. I can name at least four poets who surpass Murray, both in cognitive power and aesthetic efficacy. That being said, Murray is perhaps at the most pregnant point in his career. Through much suffering and colossal exertions of energy and faith, he has freed his mind and he has individuated his voice. He has indeed become a master of his craft. But if he is to be a master of living, as all of our great poets are, Murray must touch the universal through the particular. He must make his idiosyncratic lexicon serve the great inclusive middle voice.
Joshua Wilson is a student at Harvard College, and a former literary intern at The New Republic.