A fad-averse contrarian, Murray has made his career writing poems about the poor, rural backwaters in New South Wales, where he was born and where he still lives. His usual fixations—with aboriginal culture, with farms, with his painful childhood (he was mercilessly teased for being fat; his mother died unexpectedly)—here give way to a more philosophical exploration of the illustrative power of words, producing poetry concerned with "international sign-code," "pictographs," and "speech balloons." These poems are brief enough to suggest that a word is worth a thousand photographs, and yield some of Murray's most lasting pastoral images: "Sheep are like legal wigs / the colour of fissured cement." At Iguassu Falls, "a bolt of live tan water / is continuously tugged / off miles of table / by thunderous white claws." Murray's punchy polemical side is in evidence, too. "I feel no need to interpret it / as if it were art," he writes of an empty but beautiful landscape. "Too much / of poetry is criticism now." "In a Time of Cuisine" is a mere four lines long: "A fact the gourmet / euphemism can't silence: / vegetarians eat sex, / carnivores eat violence."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
In his eleventh book, renowned Australian poet Murray concentrates his muscular style, passion for landscape, and satirical humor into short and pithy poems. Tightly framed, most can be taken in at a glance, and yet, like developing photographs, they fully disclose their finer details and nuances more slowly. Murray begins with a mischievous tribute to the "new hieroglyphics," the international symbols of airports and restaurants, pictographs of the forbidden and the required. The contrasts between words and images intrigue Murray and inform his sly, sometimes startling, always colorful and animated lyrics, yarns, and epigrams. Murray relishes the Australian vernacular and displays a fondness for shade and shadows, a delight in lightning, a love for trees, and a mix of admiration for and fear of sheer rocky cliffs and the boiling sea. Irony surfaces in brief glimpses into colonialism, politics, and war, while complex memories of life before electricity, let alone electronics, are conveyed in remarkably expressive poetic shorthand. In sum, Murray's antipodal voice is droll, foxy, and delectable. Donna Seaman
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