When I typed that title I almost changed it. Remembering Les? I didn’t know him and I didn’t want this title to be a misleading invitation to some reader, eager for memories and anecdotes (there’s just one) but when I heard of Les Murray’s death this week I took a bit of time to remember what he meant to me as a poet over the years and also as an editor who supported my work.
When I discovered that poetry was still alive and real, and began reading and exploring poetry seriously for the first time, undertaking an MA at Monash University I soon discovered Les Murray. I wrote a minor thesis on the development of the long poem in Australia, from 1960 to 1980. It was an age of national re-evaluation and the study began with work like Captain Quiros by James McAuley and ended with Les Murray’s rollicking narrative of sonnets, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral. I read a lot, including all of Murray, and grew to love his breath-verse, his gorgeous verve with words with favourites like the early Driving through Sawmill Towns andThe Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle and one of my very favourites: The Broad-Bean Sermon.
Murray is often described as the ‘bard of the bush’ kind of writer but more precisely I think he’s a fine poet of place, and was a big influence on me opening my eyes to ways of seeing the very particular. His sense of locale, of the landscape and history of the place, a strange conservative environmentalist (like another distinctive Australian voice: Eric Rolls?) I loved his inventiveness, his wit and his way of turning the familiar into this wonderful surprising thing (almost) trapped in language.
From the late 1980s as I was working hard towards the publication of my first book of poetry, I was writing furiously and sending poems out to all corners, lot of times without success. Murray had begun as poetry editor of the conservative magazine Quadrant in 1991 and was receptive to my work, as I was hugely admiring of his. I copped a little flak from publishing in that journal from some quarters, but Murray’s endorsement as poetry editor trumped any concerns I might have had about the politics of that journal. Murray published seventeen poems of mine over the next few years and I was always grateful for that support and endorsement. One of the poems of mine he published was this one:
NORTHERLY IN EARLY SPRING
Outside, the wind in the trees sounds like the sea, but warm; a northerly uncomfortable among the grey still bare brooms of poplars that line the rim of this paddock. The wind is a warm liquid, unsettling, visible in waves along the yellow-green grass, flattening like a helicopter does or a flipper of a diver brushing away the fine silt of legend.
Some crows, ink spots in the high light, are swimming like exotic fish, suspended in it, sliding. Their black fins, ragged, torn along the edges, as if something has been eating at them.
The one small anecdote? I was lucky enough to see Murray read his work several times over the years, at book launches and festivals. Once, while I was doing my Masters at Monash University, Murray did a reading for staff and students. Of course I went along and Les signed my copy of The Vernacular Republic (Poems 1961-1891) Afterwards, my supervisor suggested I join a few of the English Department teachers for a Chinese meal at a restaurant nearby: Les was coming along.
It was winter, dark, cold and I wanted to get home. I was tired, teaching full-time and trying to study and write. It was going to be a slow 45 minute drive home. So I didn’t go. I’ve always regretted it. Dinner with Les Murray. But, oddly enough, I really I didn’t, even then, feel a compelling need to meet the person because I knew so much through the poetry.
Luckily we’ll always have that.
Top: River Red Gums Above: My copy of The Vernacular Republic, from the A&R Modern Poets series with the famously brittlely blued spines!, signed by Les Murray Below: The broad, majestic Murray, near Mildura
Last week I walked down to the evocatively named Fossil Beach, not far from my house, and walked beyond the track and the sea-wall over a litter of sharp and chaotic rocks to where they dig for fossils.
Above: The work of fossil hunters
Fossil Beach is renowned in scientific circles for the fossils that have been found there over the years and I soon saw evidence of places where people had been tapping away, cracking open the rocks, looking for evidence of the ancient past.
But what struck me, once again, even before I reached the fossils was the layer of shells by the path, the edge of a midden in the process of being revealed.
This was a place where Aboriginal people, the Bunurong people, lived and ate and died, for thousands of years. These shells are remnants of their meals and their community.
It reminded me of a poem that I wrote ages ago when I first realised that the beach I thought of as my own, belonged to someone else, originally.
Maybe it’s worth re-sharing this Australia Day weekend.
At the end of my street
blackened mussel shells
layered under earth
on the track to my beach
I read Gwen Harwood
about Oyster Bay
is this what dispossession is?
You can read more about Aboriginal middens HERE and HERE and about indigenous Australians on the Mornington Peninsula HERE
I saw her again this morning. I wrote a poem about her over twenty years ago. I hadn’t seen her for years and I was astounded to see that familiar hunched figure ride by me on my walk this morning. She’s older now, obviously, but I recognised her immediately, the too-big helmet lopsided on the head, and especially the hunched figure pedalling by. Here’s the poem, unpublished and forgotten, until I saw her again today.
In bulbous headgear they are riding,
or walking the darkened streets
In the flat suburbs away from the bay
they are waking and running
In morning mist in autumn
they are silvery wraiths.
By mid-morning they have disappeared
into TV worlds
more real than the ghosts of the washing
luminous in the back yard
or the wind across the unmown lawn.
Around the cold streets she rides
helmeted head too big for a body
wasted by the long pedalling to nowhere,
thin legs and chest
a hunched haunted look.
She rides the daylight hours,
through the path and passage of her dreaming,
rides till she is light and flighty,
always some destination in mind
that is never quite here.
I was sad this week to hear of the passing of Roger Bannister, the English athlete who famously broke the four minute mile in 1954. I grew up a little after that, in the shadow of World War II, the British Empire’s last gasps, the ascent of Everest and the four minute mile.
Bannister, boyish looking, amateur athlete, running around the track at Oxford, represented a particular Englishness for me, partly because my father was a runner and told me these stories too. I remembered this week that I’d written a poem that included Bannister a few years ago, so I thought I’d include it here, now.
Child of the Empire
I was born under
The Illusion of Progress,
raised on the outskirts
of a great empire, believing
built things endure.
I was schooled in
The Great Tradition
near an airport
where the bright silver vehicles
of the future
descended from the blue.
I was coached in the exploits
of Roger Bannister and Baden Powell
and the self-determination of
Look and Learn
or the steady resolve of Churchill
in the Blitz.
All that certainty unravels slowly
and tangles as it does,
things change before you know them,
a stone, nestled beneath the tongue,
wont get you through all this.
I was delighted to attend this week the short film festival Flickerfest in Melbourne featuring a range of short films focused on Melbourne, or by Melbourne film-makers.
One such film was Nicholas Denton’s film, The Pillars, set in Mt Martha and featuring a poem of mine as part of the script. The film was well made, well acted and beautifully lit. And it was nice to hear the poem read by an actor, and really interesting to see it in a new and different context.
It’s rare for a poet to have their work transformed in another medium, so it was a privilege to see my poem in this new light.