The book’s lead poem, “The Inland Food Bowl,” reports from the interior, from quarters of agriculture and industry — “the still uncrowded / heartland once of steamboats and drawl.” Murray manages, as ever, persuasive modulations of sound: the logjammed fricatives in “forest and furrow, towards an outfall wash”; the sly Keatsian affect of “still uncrowded heartland.” But the poem’s controlling image, the (excruciatingly apt) Murray River falling from its headwaters to the Indian Ocean, shuttles like an aircraft down to Earth: “the Murray descends its seven thousand / feet off the Pilot, zigzags over the plains.” The continent tapers into a horizon “as snow wind chills the saltbush / down from seven thousand feet.”
The river meets people along the way:
Having monstered tribesfolk,
dressed POWs in maroon,
it now flickers dials, or pipes experienced water
onto rice, onto cotton, on to Adelaide
This conflation of the social and sartorial, of product and population — water, rice, cotton, suddenly Adelaide — means a shift in verbal quality, in established order, as “experienced” water “monster[s]” — not ministers? — the “tribesfolk.” Here, as often occurs in Murray’s poems, words change in relation to the people and creatures they affect; one of the wonderful things about the perfect tense in English is that it corrals a present part of speech — “having” — to the past — “monstered,” “experienced,” “dressed” — suggesting the continuity of a past action. Language is a social tool with a social life: these things happen and have happened to people, which is much of Murray’s interest.
Yet there are also simpler, shaggier poems like “Tropical Hand Food” that spark with earned certainty:
this lady of New Britain
told me it could be eaten,
the root and the jube,
the pithy stems and tube.
green fruit of tapioca,
irradiate leaves and tremor,
wise lady of New Britain.
There’s a folk knowledge here that can only be Murray’s; he’s the “wise lady of New Britain” more than anyone else. I’m thrilled by these little rhythms, their low-key coast-bungalow rhymes — simple, ascetic, almost pat. Rhyme is often little more than sharing letters, and think how many letters these rhymes share — tube, jube, mandioca, tapioca. This has the effect of a conversation with oneself, or repeating oneself to be understood. These spare, unfurnished poems achieve a solemn dignity.
This is a recurring — and probably conscious — affect: “Trimming Plumbago” ends still unfinished, without a period:
while the old-shaped
blade acquires a white edge
fresh and narrow as cotton
retouched with the stone
“Fresh,” “retouched,” that present-tense “acquires” — again there’s the sense, however uneasy, of recurrence, of things going on, which may explain why many of these poems open with participles: “Sliding into bed,” “Seeing dumpy soil,” “Big man leaving.” Poems like these, drafty, almost unfinished, close to the carpenter’s awl, exist so fully at the level of craft that that their strangeness asserts itself slowly. In reading, there are moments of misprision — mine and Murray’s. Words hunker under others: in “Trimming Plumbago,” “musical gasps” can be read as “musical gaps.” I see more of these sublimated puns like unmarked footnotes in “Bingham’s Ghost,” such as “silenced whole carloads of revellers,” which yields “revolvers” and bears on the first stanza’s “till his title devolved” — or revolved — “on his son.”
More than anything is the predominance of triplets, three- or six-line stanzas, notional poems with little interest in symmetry, as in a group just beyond the book’s midpoint, “Azolla” to “Cherokee Rose.” The first describes a kind of duckweed native to Western Australia and begins with a run of off-kilter genitives:
Moist red of green,
flat green of russet
spread over the swamps,
blanket of stillness
injured softly by ducks
This is description in the negative, in impossibility: what’s green about red? Murray assumes inverse or seasonal relation at best; my spring was his fall, my winter his summer. But all of this sets up a masterfully agonized line — “injured softly by ducks” — which extends its thin consonants over the length of longer vowels, a permeable surface due to crack under featherweights. The next stanza replicates this effect, fuzzing out the corners with a kind of sibilant nattering: “Azolla. Earth squash / arising as islets.” Startlingly accurate, as ever; what’s a marsh fern if not “earth squash”?
“Waiting for the Past” begins more remittingly:
Waiting for the past
You were unrehearsed
And the moment passed
Memory is a lot of things — Robert Lowell called it “genius” — but what’s left of genius when memory fails? The speaker gestures toward an answer — unmeasured regret, referencing “all the strappy wars / you aren’t forgiven for.” “Strappy wars” is a nonstarter and very nearly bathetic except in how it anticipates — half anagrammatically — “receding star” below:
waiting for the past
and the receding star
burns through flesh afresh
I’m skeptical at first of “flesh afresh” — it smacks affectedly of Hopkins. But Murray’s in earnest. This historical conscience — if not consciousness — lingers in the next poem, “Cherokee Rose,” which sees its title flower, invasive to the States, as either a bottleneck of signifiers or a dead letter:
Cherokee from ancient China,
white, in unshaven Spanish,
buttony, mid-centre gold
but decaying thickly
into a second week
of ashy soda.
This poem — like all poems, we’re told — operates on paradox, things in the wrong place at the right time. And what a determined adverb! “Thickly into” accelerates to ash: short i-vowels expand into o’s and a’s. “Ashy soda” has purchase on the tongue but hardly resolves at the level of sense: isn’t it “soda ash”? These inversions of word-form remind me that words occupy “the unenviable middle place […] between thing and thought,” to crib William Gass. “Ashy soda” may smack of diminished capacity, but it feels instead like the language rewiring itself, like Murray reconfiguring the distance between words and our experience of them.
“Dateline” does this more explicitly, speaking in headlines:
Sportsfolk misusing pharmacy face
ruin. Arts folk talking drugs boast of it.
Slapped mud makes Saharan cities cool
but this week HIV spared an infant.
Asteroids sped above the fried milk of Canton
but this very week HIV quit an infant.
This haptic, sensational language with its queasy doubles — “slapped mud,” “fried milk of Canton” — maps little more — or less — than the range of weather forecasts on a warming planet: “We are hearing Tornado and Tsunami // at home, words unknown in teapot times.” But its final lines prove that the things most worth mentioning are the things that bear repeating: “[B]ut this week, HIV spared an infant […] but this very week HIV quit an infant.” The thin, maybe fatal line between “spared” and “quit” and the almost-doggerel jangle between “quit” and the first syllable of “infant” is more than a question of proximity, but a seminar in meaningful distinctions. The child didn’t die. It bears repeating.
“Happy Family Birds” makes a portrait of the artist in old age. Here, in his default mode, Murray pilfers the immediate landscape, which in this case may be a nature doc or a backyard feeder: “Common babbler, fussy, Happy Jack the jumper […] working the ground, turnover of leaf litter.” Murray prefers the moments before flight, the feeding, the grooming, the “heaping” of “big nests.” Remember — not one bird, but a family of birds:
Wee-oo, at play together, flash-tail striper
co-op breeder in gangs of a dozen, mum
with predators around, noisy at grass play
fledglings squeal begging, wee-ink while resting.
Another catalog with gleefully competing connotations. First, a communal repose in “play together,” “co-op breeder,” “gangs,” “mum,” “play” again, “resting.” Then the not-all-unwelcome threats of outdoor living, including “predators, “noisy,” “squeal,” “begging.” And finally “wee-ink,” which is another word for poem.
Spencer Hupp is a poet and critic from Little Rock, Arkansas.