Posts Tagged ‘Les Murray’

Les Murray, Elena Ferrante on Poverty

June 19, 2015

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.


a favourite Les Murray Poem

March 9, 2015

The Day I Slept Like a Dolphin

The day I slept like a dolphin
I’d flown the Atlantic twice over
and come down in snow-rimmed Denver.
There I filled in both entry papers
and got called back: Hey! You, Buddy!
You didn’t fill these out right!
It was true.  Only the right hand
side of the Immigration form
and of the Customs form had writing.
I could explain that to you, I marvelled,
as he impatiently did not,
he of La Migra.  But I’d bore you,
I added, and filled in the left questions.
Under an Atlantic of fatigue
one half of my brain had been sleeping
as the other kept watch and rose to breathe.
Next time, I’ll peep, and get
a second, waking view of my dreams.

from Conscious and Verbal (1999)

a little more from Les Murray

February 18, 2015

Choosing and transcribing these poems by Les Murray makes me very happy.  There will be more.  (The collection is called Conscious and Verbal.)

from Five Postcards

Having run herself up out of
plush, the white-cheeked wallaby
sits between her haunches
like an old country tailor behind
her outstretched last yard, her tail,
and hems it with black fingers.


The kitchens of this 18th century
Oxford college are ten metres high
by the squinch-eyed cooks basting
tan birds spiked in hundreds all over
the iron griddle before hellfire.
Below high lozengy church windows
others flour, fill, pluck. And this too
was the present once, that absolute of fools.

a poem by Les Murray

February 16, 2015

         Drought Dust on the Crockery

Things were not better
when I was young:
things were poorer and harsher,
drought dust on the crockery,
and I was young.

Saturday 26th February and Wednesday 28th April

July 30, 2010

Ruth and Heather, abounding in generosity and hospitality and high-riding in a 4×4 beast, drop me off at Federation Square in the middle of Melbourne: ‘it’s on our way to the coast’.  Suddenly I feel safe – art galleries, coffee shops and Flinders Street station to take me ‘home’ to Clifton Hill.  I fall serendipitously out of the car into a moment of delight.  Wonderfully, there are second-hand book stalls opening up for business under the atrium – expensive, as books always are in Australia  – but such books!  Intelligent, wide-ranging titles.  Familiar old writers and utterly modern ones; completeness; collections of books in subjects I would never consider reading.  Stalls full of books in Russian, Chinese; copious travel writing, sciences, poetry, philosophy.  Books of photographs and art works – both old and bang up-to-date experimental.  But books weigh heavy on a plane, and I’m watching the cash: I keep myself to Les Murray and a Jeanette Turner Hospital novel – two books I might not see back in the UK.   Two ways of holding on to the day.

The NGV – stands for National Gallery of Victoria – I can’t remember three-letter acronyms any more, and this worries me.  It exposes me as not-native: if you can talk the language you might be more acceptable, blend into the lanscape, seem like a local.  There was a time when I fitted in to new places effortlessly – now it’s hard work, if it works at all.  It’s all about re-assuring myself: first, then, coffee on the first floor. Intrusive piped music and only one size of coffee. I’ve been here before and the cafe was vaguely unsatisfactory then, too.  Last time it was sunny – but I recall the same narrow view between city buildings to a heart-stopping glimpse of river and gum trees, fragmented by the punctured-metal heat-shields.  I assume they are heat-shields, to make a glass-walled building liveable in hot sunshine.  Illuminated glass panels in a black wall – rich sunset colours speak of the desert heartland in metamorphoses of red/orange/yellow.  It’s gorgeous and evocative, a wonderful effect at first, but also self-consciously crossover, as decor that screams:  ‘I am a coffee shop in an art gallery’.   I am fizzing, fizzing with ideas – everything feeds the teaching – ideas about bricolage and lesson plans pelt in: what has done this?  the coffee? intellectual excitement? reading our Les? – a heady brew.

The temporary exhibition is Ricky Swallow’s carvings, sculptures and watercolours – somehow they fail to move me.  I thought they would (wood) but the technical excellence has a self-regarding coldness.  I go round again and look more carefully.  Still nothing. Next door is Contemporary Australian Art.  The falling sheep in ‘Hard Slide’ –   by Les Kossatz (another Les) – could make you weep.  They have a poignant helplessness, as hope becomes resistance, becomes an out-of-control fall, becomes a vanishing into the earth.  And yet it is overtly art: the metal hooves and horns so precisely rendered, so beautiful.  It discovers to us a universality of the human (the lived) condition. Ahhh, mammals! 

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