Taller When Prone : Poemsby: Les Murray
AS FAR AS MOST American poetry readers are concerned, “Down Under” might as well be synonymous with “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.” The most recent edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, for example, includes approximately 130 authors from the United States and nearly 50 from the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In contrast, Australia, a country with a vibrant, well developed, two-centuries-long tradition of English-language verse, is represented by a mere three names: A. D. Hope, Judith Wright, and Les Murray.
This list is bizarrely truncated. It omits a slew of major figures, from modernists such as Christopher Brennan, R. D. FitzGerald, and Kenneth Slessor to contemporaries such as Ali Alizadeh, Pam Brown, John Forbes, and John Tranter. One will look in vain, too, for such influential Aboriginal poets as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Kevin Gilbert, and Lionel Fogarty. “Globalization” might have been a rallying cry in intellectual circles for over a decade, but the Norton’s forty-to-one bias in favor of the United States over Australia is sadly suggestive of America’s ongoing parochialism when it comes to what is taught in the classroom and what is sold in bookstores. We’ll happily import Fosters beer and Crocodile Hunter, but poetry? Do Aussies have time to write the stuff between barbecuing, playing didgeridoos, and chasing wombats around the Outback?
The American publication of Les Murray’s Taller When Prone (now in paperback) is a rare and welcome breach in the Kangaroo Curtain. Murray continues to write in the same vigorous, vivid, peculiar style for which he has been known since 1965’s The Ilex Tree, and this new collection can serve as a good introduction to his poetics. He delights in off-rhymes and odd rhymes that hover between inspired and silly (“Melech ha-olam / Miss Havisham,” “dado / fado,” “lorgnette / born yet,” “beetles / foetals,”). When he opts for regular meter, it is generally rough-to-jagged, as in these tetrameter lines about a corpse found in a river: “After three months, he could only / generalise, and had started smiling.”
His imagery can be condensed, clotted, or otherwise perplexing, as when he labels the Taj Mahal a “bloc hail,” that is, a mass of sparkling hailstones, or when he compares the Milky Way to “sugarbag [a kind of honey] / in a char [burnt?] branch / fronted by chinning [chattering?] bees.” Why not “block of hail” instead of “bloc hail,” or “charred branch” instead of “char branch”? When reading Murray, you eventually cease to ask such questions. You simply know that he is going to spring surprise after surprise on you, wild metaphors such as “black cockatoos … unflapping as Blériot monoplanes” and “ocean cliffs / stacked high as a British address.” He is an eccentric and an original who belongs to no movement or tendency; you must accept him as he is, he implies, or move along pronto.