Les Murray, Elena Ferrante on Poverty

Sometimes a kind of theme starts to emerge within one’s reading and thinking experiences.  One of the great puzzles of the recent general election is the manifest tendency of disadvantaged people to vote for a party which will not look after them: which will, if anything, thrust them deeper into poverty.

Les Murray talks about his dirt-poor Australian childhood in numerous poems.  I think that this one is nearly as wonderful as the others I have posted – but in a couple of places it is trying too hard; it poeticises.  But I have to forgive it for that: it’s still an amazing achievement.

Lately, I’ve been reading the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, who also talks about poverty, about escape and about a return, about the hold that one’s place of origins has, no matter how far one may have travelled.

I said there was a theme – is it a theme?  or just one of those moments when everything appears to tend in the same direction.  I’ve been reading about Napoleon with renewed interest, and listening to the BBC radio series about him, too.  (I was a great fan as a teenager: studied his battles with relish.  Not much empathy in me then, I’m sorry to admit.)  He didn’t move from poverty, but from obscurity at least, and his return, again, was to a kind of deprived luxury.  Yet the arc of his narrative, from one little island to another through a time of glowing success, seems to have something of that same quality: the instability, whether one leaves or returns. The inevitable return of the past.  That’s what both Murray and Ferrante know, and what they tell us about.

 

The Tin Wash Dish

Lank poverty, dank poverty,
its pants wear through at fork and knee.
It warms its hands over burning shames,
refers to its fate as Them and He
and delights in things by their hard names:
rag and toejam, feed and paw –
don’t guts that down, there ain’t no more!
Dank poverty, rank poverty,
it hums with a grim fidelity
like wood-rot with a hint of orifice,
wet newspaper jammed in the gaps of artifice,
and disgusts us into fierce loyalty.
It’s never the fault of those you love:
poverty comes down from above.
Let it dance chairs and smash the door,
it arises from all that went before
and every outsider’s the enemy –
Jesus Christ turned this over with his stick
and knights and philosophers turned it back.
Rank poverty, lank poverty,
chafe in its crotch and sores in its hair,
still a window’s clean if it’s made of air,
not webby silver like a sleeve.
Watch out if this does well at school
and has to leave and longs to leave:
someone, sometime, will have to pay.
Shave with toilet soap, run to flesh,
astound the nation, rule the army,
still you wait for the day you’ll be sent back
where books or toys on the floor are rubbish
and no one’s allowed to come and play
because home calls itself a shack
and hot water crinkles in the tin wash dish.

 

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