THERE is a text of about sixty propositions dating from 1988 by Australian poet Les Murray, entitled ‘The Suspect Captivity of the Fisher King’. In some moods I’d be inclined to sacrifice this review entirely to quoting that text. Murray interprets the Fisher King from the legend of Parsifal as personifying poetry. Now that the aristocracy is finished as a source of patronage, the Fisher King goes instead to academia, and in the process shoots himself in the foot, “knowing that highbrows can’t truly love anything that is whole”. Les Murray has been for some forty years part of the rather heroic Australian generation that refused academia and “tramped the road with proletarian balladeers”, as he puts it. Whereas some of his contemporaries, notably Peter Porter, expatriated themselves and wandered in Europe, Murray has resolutely remained in Australia.
Murray has for a long time conceived of himself as writing in the Dante-esque vocation of creating a “vernacular republic” of Australia. This would be both a political gesture, in breaking with the British Crown, but more importantly a poetic transformation in asserting the independence of Australian English. This vocation has increasingly led to the consideration of history in his poems.
The Biplane Houses is notable because it contains several poems in which the poet returns to Great Britain, and the English civil war, Guy Fawkes and the Scottish wars of independence are all important themes in the collection. In one poem, ‘The Succession’, these historical subjects condense with a consideration of the impact of the Australian vernacular in the UK:
There the climate spared them, and Guy Fawkes
dotted on for weeks, pop, Somme and flare,
as if the wars of tabloid against Crown
were swelling up to a bitter day in Whitehall –
but battle never burst out from under the horizon.
The poem ends with the resonating question: “When the media are king, will only fear be civil?”
Murray’s vernacular betrays an antipodean taste for punning, and this collection also features some extremely adroit linguistic and conceptual experimentation: stanzas of poems written to exemplify by their use of verbs different national cuisines (‘The Kitchen Grammars’), poems imitating hail (‘Early summer Hail with Rhymes in O’), poems in which sci-fi-style time-travel takes place. From his earliest verses Murray has had an inventive and intense relationship with the landscape. There is an extraordinary poem in which a landscape seems to be interpreted as the inside of a nose, and an excellent composition called ‘A Levitation of Land’, in which an ‘echo-Australia’ is invoked by weaving together various images in a syncopated chant. It is pleasing to see some of this generous flamboyance in the collection, because there was a moment when Murray’s poetry looked set to become limited to increasingly shrill social criticism. Take these lines, for example, from the 1996 TS Eliot award-winning collection Subhuman Redneck Poems:
All of people’s Australia, its churches and lore
are gang-raped by satire self-righteous as war
and, from trawling fresh victims to set on the poor,
our mandarins now, in one more evasion
of love and themselves, declare us Asian…
Where Murray is socially critical in the new collection he mostly achieves a more munificent tone, but there is still, for my taste, a slightly sanctimonious undercurrent to many of the poems. Similarly, some of the writing here does not seem to attempt to become poetry at all. My only response was to groan on encountering, for example, ‘The Test’: “How good is their best? / And how good is their rest? / The first is a question to be asked of an artist. / Both are questions to be asked of a culture”.
The tone and rhetoric of faith and the faithful is one of the great unconsidered poetic questions of the moment, above all in the Anglophone world. Murray’s Catholicism has always been very evident in his verse, even if it at first it was rather unacknowledged by the poet himself, and it seems to be getting stronger. It is a shame there are not enough sufficiently good poets writing from within a faith in English for Murray to counterpoise. Joseph Brodsky was one, and indeed this collection contains a forceful poem in memoriam called simply ‘Church’. Geoffrey Hill would be another. A religiously engaged poetic discourse is important for Murray’s project: as he himself has increasingly acknowledged, we all live with history, and our history is still religiously charged, as our religions remain historically charged.