Posts Tagged ‘poem’

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.

Finger Painting

October 11, 2013

Finger Painting

Painted long before you travelled into heat;
before you could write much or read at all
when you chattered and sang the days bright for us. 
Before we were struck into silence.

A bright red comet splashes, burning alarm
across the bluest of skies.  The sun,
hard, spiky yellow, top left, is blurring to green
where you tried so hard for a perfect match
with the edge of the sky.
And the stick people on the ground?  ‘That’s Daddy and Mummy.
Daddy is coming to make the comet go away.’
Black letters below, struggling to shape your name.



Beasts of the forest and city – Auckland again

April 7, 2011

Auckland: Friday Feb 18th  
Between Green Bay and the alternative atmosphere of Titirangi (charming coffee shops and galleries, and an endlessly interesting community noticeboard) lies a wild green space: the Rahui Kahika Reserve.   It looks forested but the word ‘Reserve’ suggests that it is cared for, and paths roam through it.  The walk up to Titirangi lies beside a busy road, so walking through the Reserve looks like a good option.   The first path leads along the backs of houses, where a council employee is mowing vigorously, wheeling to and fro and flinging curves of chopped green grass through the air.  A little further on is another clipped green path, access to Godfrey Road – still no wilderness – just a cluster of teenagers in school uniform, sitting convivially on the grass and drinking sober cans of pop.  Friday afternoon in Green Bay.  Mowing is everywhere – someone else is mowing in his back yard.  Eventually the path curves deeper into the Reserve, across a little stream and past steeper cliffs, into quiet shaded darkness.  It peters out into something that looks like the tracks you made in the bush when you were twelve, and the last thing you ever wanted to do was to get to a destination. It starts to bend back in an almost imperceptible  way and clearly there is going to be no way through to Titirangi Road, now well above us.  Our map didn’t show contour lines.
We turn back, and edge along the little stream through the eerie shadows of tall trees. A huge, sudden movement just next to me and a little behind – big soft golden-brown wings flap in the undergrowth and an impossibly large bird lifts low across the path, to land on a branch – so close -.  For a moment I thought it was some kind of bat – maybe a flying fox – but no.  It sat patiently, waiting us out, while I stepped gently back to take photos.

Bird in the underbrush

I wish I could show you how he glowed golden-brown in the beam of sun.  I fell in love with him, perched there so calm and quietly still.  It was hard to believe he was in the right place.  How could he live there – the canopy is dense – how could he ever possibly fly up through all that?  Perhaps we needed to phone the animal protection people.  Could it be a young one? or lost?  Surely big birds need lots of space?  And he sat on, waiting.

he seems to be watching, too

Watching something so fine and large (‘Being earth-brown, earth-golden’) makes me think of D H Lawrence’s poem, ‘Snake’.  It ends:  
And so
I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life
And I have something to expiate:
 A pettiness.
My littleness is to creep close, and submit him to being photographed.  What an insult.  Perhaps my concern for his wellbeing just masks desire for control?  We looked him up later in the bird book: like every other bird I spot, the Australasian Harrier Hawk is classed as ‘common’.  Well, the breed may be common, but the experience of seeing one was extraordinary.

It wouldn’t really be fair to call the Auckland Choral Society a ‘beast of the city’ – but maybe it fits if you think of the criteria: that it has many heads, is exceptionally long-lived and produces a very rich, musical call.  Anyway, we went to their free ‘taster’ concert: excerpts from programmes to be performed later in the year.  Great fun, especially the singalong. 

The ‘taster’ had ended early in the evening, and failed to satisfy actual physical hunger, but luckily that was the day of the Lantern Festival, celebrating Chinese New Year.  There were crowds and crowds of people filling Albert Park to overflowing and surging down into the little streets nearby: who would have thought Auckland could hold so many?   A party atmosphere filled the bright darkness with hurly-burly, and strange inflatable beasts of the city imaged Chineseness and New Zealand life.

scarlet lanterns welcome the New Year

These are just a few of the displays, and there had been fireworks earlier.

a dragon gateway seems to bring luck to all who pass underneath

I’m not sure what that circle is on the top – maybe a lucky coin? Maybe the moon, or the sun?  I suspect it’s the coin, though, as Chinese good luck seems to be mostly about good health and cash.

Bok Choi, snails and distressingly humanoid chickens

– oh yes – and food.  Eating well is a big part of the Lantern Festival, as we found in the populous side-street of multifarious food stalls.  Not just Chinese food, either, but all kinds of Asian dishes abounded.

Chinese-New Zealand multi-culturalism

I guess these beasts count as edibles along with the other inflated lantern tableaux, but they also symbolise much more.  Chinese techniques and conventions representing iconic New Zealandness.  The medium is the message.

animals in public life

November 14, 2010

A friend’s blog post mentioning the Lake George zebras made me think of various other animal installations that I have encountered.  (It is    So far I know of the travelling cows that went through various European cities in 2006, and the toads in Hull this year.  I would love to hear of more. 

I am calling them ‘installations’ because they are not quite sculptures: they don’t have that feeling of permanence and marmoreality.  Instead they are engaged with reality in a different way – they address our experience of the animal, and our human myth-making about the animal.  Often, too, they are playful, but not in a naff or whimsical way – once one gets into the kittens-and-puppies-and-pink-bows area, one has left this category far behind.  On the other hand, not everyone has a taste for this kind of art.  The zebras, after all, attracted vandalism of a quite nasty nature, reminiscent of the attacks on horses in Peter Shaffer’s Equus. 

Here are the fibreglass zebras in their original habitat:

Zebras and cloud at Lake George

The toads in Hull were rather different – very much an official civic installation, celebrating Hull’s famous citizen and poet, Philip Larkin. 

Summary toad

Psychedelic toad

There is a marvellously detailed description, with pictures of the toads and their locations, at:

 But isn’t there something quietly ironic taking place when the Council uses an image from a disgruntled, rebellious and ultimately rather sadly resigned poem?  As so often, only the first two lines are widely known, and they certainly sound strong and angry enough to give any city mayor pause.  Nevertheless, perhaps we should admire their courage –

Why should I let the toad work
  Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
  And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
  With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
  That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
  Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
  They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
  With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
  they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
  Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets – and yet
  No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
  To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
  That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
  Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
  And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
  My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
  All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other
  One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
  When you have both.


The first time I saw one of these animal installations was in Budapest, in 2006.  There, the city of Pest was dotted with large – full-size, really – statues of cows.  Each one was differently painted and I think some had rather different stances.  They were enchanting and enigmatic, just standing on pavements here and there throughout the city, surprising and challenging interpretation.  It turned out that they were a travelling show – being moved from one city in Europe to another throughout the summer – and so there was also some kind of statement about pan-Europeanism to be found in their presence.  They had a past, and a vagabond-like casualness, that their clean obstinacy of form quite hid. Also, each cow would seem differrent in different locations (or at least I suspect so).  A mad desire to follow them around from country to country swept into my mind.  Alas – impossible – but Pest was amply enough, really.

cow near the Danube 2006

same cow - front view


More pictures can be seen at: and in looking for those, I’ve just found an explanation of the whole deal.  If you would rather not see a slightly mundane/worthy website, avoid this one, but if you are curious, here it is: 

Just to finish off, here is Big Blue – yet another clever, fine piece that causes art and humour to teeter into a complex alignment.  I love the way the smooth curves of the animal blur the sharp almost cruel linearity of the building:

a bear in Denver, USA

poem by Fleur Adcock

August 15, 2010

Robert Harington, 1558

Get you, with your almain rivetts (latest
fad from Germany), and your corselet,
and your two coats of plate! How much harness

does a man need?  None, when he’s in his grave.
Your sons may have it, together with your
damask and satin gowns to show off in;

while you go to lie down in Witham church,
and the most armour I’ve seen in a will
rusts or turns ridiculous in this world.

(published in the TLS 13th August 2010)



and – now that you’re here – a wonderful comment on music by Eric Griffiths, also from that TLS:

“After all, some pieces of music . . . by virtue of what Samuel Beckett called ‘the beautiful convention of the da capo ‘. . . seem to have a point of vantage on time, not because they escape it, but because they undergo it, how resolutely, with what forbearance.”

%d bloggers like this: