In 1999 Les Murray published Fredy Neptune
, a verse narrative of such propulsive power that you had to wonder whether the author wasn't truly a closet novelist. But Learning Human
, a selection of the poet's work dating back to 1965, should put that idea to rest. To be sure, Murray has never confined himself to the bite-size lyric, and this collection contains several longish excerpts from his calendrical sequence "The Idyll Wheel," including a wonderfully atmospheric entry for July:
Now the world has stopped, doors could be left open.
Only one fly came awake to the kitchen heater
this breakfast time, and supped on a rice bubble sluggishly.
No more will come inside out of the frost-crimped grass now.
Crime, too, sits in faraway cars. Phone lines drop at the horizon.
Above all else, however, Learning Human
showcases Murray's mastery of the short form. He has a remarkable gift for compressing philosophical insight into elegant and economic verse. In "Poetry and Religion," for example, he manages a no-muss, no-fuss comparison of our two favorite anodynes: "There'll always be religion around while there is poetry / or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent, / as the action of those birds--crested pigeon, rosella parrot-- / who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut." And like an antipodean Seamus Heaney
, he can reproduce the texture of country life with a blunt, nearly monosyllabic directness. Witness this snapshot of a rainwater tank, which puts a novel spin on the concept of trickle-down economics:
From the puddle that the tank has dripped
hens peck glimmerings and uptilt
their heads to shape the quickness down;
petunias live on what gets spilt.
It's hard, in fact, to recall an artist more eloquently attuned to the natural world yet so resistant to knee-jerk bucolics. In one early poem, "József," Murray writes: "I don't think Nature speaks English." Learning Human
suggests that it does indeed, and with an astonishing and very Australian fluency. --James Marcus
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From Publishers Weekly
Murray's 35 years of work have made him certainly Australia's most famous poet and one of its best; only in the past 10 years, however, has he found an American audience. Murray follows his superb 1999 novel in verse, Fredy Neptune (a PW Best Book) with an ample cull of short poems, the first issuing from his 1965 debut, the last 12 from a new volume (Conscious and Verbal) not available in the U.S. Murray's range is startlingly wide: among his best poems are stories from memory, comic verse, discursive speculation ("First Essay on Interest"), pure landscape ("Nests of golden porridge shattered in the silky-oak trees"), modernized folk-balladry (The Chimes of Neverwhere), among other kinds. He's especially good when describing animals and rural life; his syncopations and mouthfuls of phrases follow the lines of his sight and touch. At night on a dairy farm, Murray views "the strainers sleeping in their fractions,/ vats/ and the mixing plunger, that dwarf ski-stock, hung." Murray's aims are always (if sometimes obliquely) political and religious. Arguing against Enlightenment secularism, urban domination of rural life and restrictive political correctness in favor of Catholic belief and agrarian populism, he can either sound mean and one-sided or friendly and welcoming--or both--depending on with whom readers identify: a recent satire begins "Some of us primary producers, us farmers and authors/ are going round to watch them evict a banker." Among the new poems are polemical epigrams, an onomatopoetic tour-de-force about motorcycles, a moving epithalamion, and a rather forced ode to libraries. Even at his shrill worst, Murray conveys a welcome belief that poetry can change our minds, and his language could never be taken for anyone else's; at his best, in all his kinds of poems, Murray gives us a broad, attentive, deeply felt, morally-charged view of his world, which often looks a lot like our own. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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