YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Spinning rhyme into realities

May 04, 2003|Andrew Frisardi | Andrew Frisardi is the translator of "Selected Poems" by Giuseppe Ungaretti.

Poems the Size of Photographs

Les Murray

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 116 pp., $23


I'm a bit perplexed when I read in various essays by and about Les Murray that he dislikes the modernist poets so intensely. In Murray's poetry, there is a similar tendency toward obscurity, colloquial extroversion, irony and even the occasional taste for the surreal, which the modernists espoused and practiced in their various ways. Murray does differ notably from the high modernists in his strident rejection of cosmopolitanism in favor of the local and vernacular, his supposed anti-elitism, which is reflected in his style. A catch phrase for Murray's style could be "baroque folk"; he combines anti-poetic "low style" with quite an arsenal of sophisticated poetic technique.

Murray, who is the most acclaimed contemporary Australian poet and one of the foremost poets writing in English, is rightly admired for his inventive explorations of Australian idioms and culture. His recent collections published in the U.S. are "Conscious and Verbal" (2001), "Learning Human: New and Selected Poems" (2000) and his widely acclaimed verse novel, "Fredy Neptune" (1999), which is about 10,000 lines long.

"Poems the Size of Photographs," his 12th collection since he started out in the mid-1960s, has 94 poems, most of which are snapshot-size: 70 of them are fewer than 15 lines, and 10 are longish, more than a page. In most instances, the shorter length does not mean the poems are lightweight or easy. On the contrary, they are usually dense and are occasionally abstruse. Murray's poems usually explore challenging themes -- politics, religion and mythology and even the nature of consciousness -- with the conversational, ironic and off-the-cuff tone of an unsentimental realist.

He often uses long, sprawling, heavily accented lines, layered and folded into correspondingly long sentences. This can create an impression like one given by a man trying to say something fast and all at once, before he forgets what he meant to say or before his listener has a chance to turn elsewhere. In this collection, this style translates at times into entire poems that come in single, extended breaths. Here's an example of a one-sentence snapshot-size poem, "To Dye For":

A razor whetting silt and alluvium

off a neck in a mirror-doubled room

of soak and frizz and conversation

piling curlers and the hush-hush spray

and with the wide canny old shop broom

the work-experience schoolgirl hourly

angles and felts together

the one uncontentious human flag,

grey ginger lilac buff

black blonde and coherent brown.

Concreteness in Murray is a rhetorical device. He communicates poetic meaning with a rush of imagery and dense language, sneaking in, as it were, a phrase or line that makes the poem transparent to metaphor: in this case, "the one uncontentious human flag" of hair clippings. And Murray often uses an idiosyncratic sentence structure; many short pieces are less sequential than the above example, as is this passage from "History of the Enlightenment":

Mountains got moved by money or the lash

and we started to insult faith

as if it might be piqued and after all

kick in that sacred phase-shift

where cancers vanish, and the

golden brown in their antique clothes

enlarge from photograph size, walking

toward us, all welcoming, with secrets

the day it is Dreamtime in our streets.

It isn't clear until the end of this sentence (another short sentence precedes it) that the "sacred phase-shift" that uproots cancer and animates collective memory takes place "the day it is Dreamtime" -- by means, that is, of the mythological thinking that was put to sleep by the Enlightenment. We're told first what its effects are, then what form it takes.

There is plenty of Murray's familiar satirical mode in this book as well. He is rather notorious for his invective against political correctness, the exploitation of rural communities by urban politicians and planners (Murray grew up on a dairy farm in New South Wales and moved back there, after a few decades in the city, in the mid-1980s) and the dehumanizing effects of compulsory secularism and neoliberal, global economics. The message can get a bit repetitive at times, but as long as the tone of a poem is consistently satirical -- and witty, as Murray can be -- it is often effective and funny. The best piece in this mode in the present volume is a longish poem called "The Engineer Formerly Known as Strangelove":

Mein Fuhrer, they called me Doctor Strangelove

in the 1960s. This now they'd dare not do.

Right and Left then thought in Perverts, like you

but now it's Doctor Preference,

Doctor Paralimbic --

This sort of material is a problem only when it seems gratuitous, when its addition doesn't fit the mood or atmosphere of the rest of the poem. I don't see the point of spoiling a quasi-contemplative passage with a line such as "it makes even the thought-police hum," which occurs in an otherwise fine poem in this volume.

Los Angeles Times Articles