Ten poems by Les Murray:
1. “The Broad Bean Sermon”
2. “Flowering Eucalypt in Autumn”
3. “A Verb Agreement”
4. “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”
5. “Dog Fox Field”
6. “It Allows A Portrait In Line Scan At Fifteen”
7. “The Cows on Killing Day”
8. “Cotton Flannelette”
9. “The Beneficiaries
10. “The Mitchells” – with a critique by Geoff Page
Read more Les Murray poems on this website at:
The Broad Bean Sermon
Beanstalks, in any breeze, are a slack church parade
without belief, saying trespass against us in unison,
recruits in mint Air Force dacron, with unbuttoned leaves.
Upright with water like men, square in stem-section
they grow to great lengths, drink rain, keel over all ways,
kink down and grow up afresh, with proffered new greenstuff.
Above the cat-and-mouse floor of a thin bean forest
snails hang rapt in their food, ants hurry through Escher’s three worlds,
spiders tense and sag like little black flags in cordage.
Going out to pick beans with the sun high as fence-tops, you find
plenty, and fetch them. An hour or a cloud later
you find shirtfulls more. At every hour of daylight
appear more that you missed: ripe, knobbly ones, fleshy-sided,
thin-straight, thin-crescent, frown-shaped, bird-shouldered, boat-keeled ones,
beans knuckled and single-bulged, minute green dolphins at suck,
beans upright like lecturing, outstretched like blessing fingers
in the incident light, and more still, oblique to your notice
that the noon glare or cloud-light or afternoon slants will uncover
till you ask yourself Could I have overlooked so many, or
do they form in an hour? unfolding into reality
like templates for subtly broad grins, like unique caught expressions,
like edible meanings, each sealed around with a string
and affixed to its moment, an unceasing colloquial assembly,
the portly, the stiff, and those lolling in pointed green slippers …
Wondering who’ll take the spare bagfulls, you grin with happiness
—it is your health—you vow to pick them all
even the last few, weeks off yet, misshapen as toes.
from Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic
© Les Murray
Flowering Eucalypt in Autumn
That slim creek out of the sky
the dried-blood western gum tree
is all stir in its high reaches:
its strung haze-blue foliage is dancing
points down in breezy mobs, swapping
pace and place in an all-over sway
retarded en masse by crimson blossom.
Bees still at work up there tack
around their exploded furry likeness
and the lawn underneath’s a napped rug
of eyelash drift, of blooms flared
like a sneeze in a redhaired nostril,
minute urns, pinch-sized rockets
knocked down by winds, by night-creaking
fig-squirting bats, or the daily
parrot gang with green pocketknife wings.
Bristling food tough delicate
raucous life, each flower comes
as a spray in its own turned vase,
a taut starbust, honeyed model
of the tree’s fragrance crisping in your head.
When the Japanese plum tree
was shedding in spring, we speculated
there among the drizzling petals
what kind of exquisitely precious
artistic bloom might be gendered
in a pure ethereal compost
of petals potted as they fell.
From unpetalled gun-debris
we know what is grown continually,
a tower of fabulous swish tatters,
a map hoisted upright, a crusted
riverbed with up-country show towns.
from The People’s Otherworld
© Les Murray
A Verb Agreement
After a windstorm, the first man
aloft in our broad silky-oak tree
was Andrew Lansdown the poet,
bearded and supple, nimbly
disinvolving wrecked branches
up where I couldn’t clamber.
He asked for our chainsaw, but I
couldn’t let him hazard an iamb or
a dactyl, nor far worse his
perched body of value and verses;
showering rubies were an image to terrify
even about an imagist so spry.
So, above my scattered choppings, he
hawked with a handsaw west-and-southerly
and went home to Susan with our thanks,
God-spared from caesuras or endstoppings.
The tree has twice since become
a Scala of ginger balconies, a palladium
as it does every October.
Birds with skin heads like the thumb
on a black hand interrogate its bloom
with dulcet commentary till it’s sober
but, bat-nipped gold or greening out blue,
it glories like the kingdom within Andrew.
© Les Murray
from Conscious and Verbal
An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow
The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can’t stop him.
The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There’s a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.
The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly—yet the dignity of his weeping
holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.
Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us
trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgements of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.
Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit—
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping;
as many as follow her also receive it
and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body
not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea—
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.
Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.
from The Weatherboard Cathedral
© Les Murray
Dog Fox Field
The test for feeblemindedness was, they had to make up
a sentence using the words dog, fox and field.
Judgement at Nuremberg
These were no leaders, but they were first
into the dark on Dog Fox Field:
Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big and yet giggled small,
Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.
Hunted with needles, exposed, unfed,
this time in their thousands they bore sad cuts
for having gazed, and shuffled, and failed
to field the lore of prey and hound
they then had to thump and cry in the vans
that ran while stopped in Dog Fox Field.
Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end,
they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.
from Dog Fox Field
© Les Murray
It Allows a Portrait in Line-Scan at Fifteen
He retains a slight ‘Martian’ accent, from the years of single phrases.
He no longer hugs to disarm. It is gradually allowing him affection.
It does not allow proportion. Distress is absolute, shrieking, and runs him at frantic speed through crashing doors.
He likes Cyborgs. Their taciturn power, their intonation.
It still runs him around the house, alone in the dark, cooing and laughing.
He can read about soils, populations and New Zealand. On neutral topics he’s illiterate.
Arnie Schwarzenegger is an actor. He isn’t a cyborg really, is he, Dad?
He lives on forty acres, with animals and trees, and used to draw it continually.
He knows the map of Earth’s fertile soils, and can draw it freehand.
He can only lie in a panicked shout SorrySorryIdidn’tdoit! warding off conflict with others and himself.
When he ran away constantly it was to the greengrocers to worship stacked fruit.
His favourite country was the Ukraine: it is nearly all deep fertile soil.
Giggling, he climbed all over the dim Freudian psychiatrist who told us how autism resulted from ‘refrigerator’ parents.
When asked to smile, he photographs a rictus-smile on his face.
It long forbade all naturalistic films. They were Adult movies.
If they (that is, he) are bad the police will put them in hospital.
He sometimes drew the farm amid Chinese or Balinese rice terraces.
When a runaway, he made uproar in the police station, playing at three times adult speed.
Only animated films were proper. Who Framed Roger Rabbit then authorised the rest.
Phrases spoken to him he would take as teaching, and repeat.
When he worshipped fruit, he screamed as if poisoned when it was fed to him.
A one-word first conversation: Blane. – Yes! Plane, that’s right, baby! – Blane.
He has forgotten nothing, and remembers the precise quality of experiences.
It requires rulings: Is stealing very playing up, as bad as murder?
He counts at a glance, not looking. And he has never been lost.
When he ate only nuts and dried fruit, words were for dire emergencies.
He knows all the breeds of fowls, and the counties of Ireland.
He’d begun to talk, then resumed to babble, and silence. It withdrew speech for years.
When he took your hand, it was to work it, as a multi-purpose tool.
He is anger’s mirror, and magnifies any near him, raging it down.
It still won’t allow him fresh fruit, or orange juice with bits in.
He swam in the midwinter dam at night. It had no rules about cold.
He was terrified of thunder and finally cried as if in explanation It – angry!
He grilled an egg he’d broken into bread. Exchanges of soil-knowledge are called landtalking.
He lives in objectivity. I was sure Bell’s palsy would leave my face only when he said it had begun to.
Don’t say word! when he was eight forbade the word ‘autistic’ in his presence.
Bantering questions about girlfriends cause a terrified look and blocked ears.
He sometimes centred the farm in a furrowed American Midwest.
Eye contact, Mum! means he truly wants attention. It dislikes I-contact.
He is equitable and kind, and only ever a little jealous. It was a relief when that little arrived.
He surfs, bowls, walks for miles. For many years he hasn’t trailed his left arm while running.
I gotta get smart! looking terrified into the years. I gotta get smart!
from New Selected Poems
© Les Murray
The Cows on Killing Day
All me are standing on feed. The sky is shining.
All me have just been milked. Tits are tingling still
from that dry toothless sucking by the chilly mouths
that gasp loudly in in in, and never breathe out.
All me standing on feed, move the feed inside me.
One me smells of needing the bull, that heavy urgent me,
the back-climber, who leaves me humped, straining, but light
and peaceful again, with crystalline moving inside me.
Standing on wet rock, being milked, assuages the calf-sorrow in me.
Now the me who needs mounts on me, hopping, to signal the bull.
The tractor comes trotting in its grumble; the heifer human
bounces on top of it, and cud comes with the tractor,
big rolls of tight dry feed: lucerne, clovers, buttercup, grass,
that’s been bitten but never swallowed, yet is cud.
She walks up over the tractor and down it comes, roll on roll
and all me following, eating it, and dropping the good pats.
The heifer human smells of needing the bull human
and is angry. All me look nervously at her
as she chases the dog me dream of horning dead: our enemy
of the light loose tongue. Me’d jam him in his squeals.
Me, facing every way, spreading out over feed.
One me is still in the yard, the place skinned of feed.
Me, old and sore-boned, little milk in that me now,
licks at the wood. The oldest bull human is coming.
Me in the peed yard. A stick goes out from the human
and cracks, like the whip. Me shivers and falls down
with the terrible, the blood of me, coming out of an ear.
Me, that other me, down and dreaming in the bare yard.
All me come running. It’s like the Hot Part of the sky
that’s hard to look at, this that now happens behind wood
in the raw yard. A shining leaf, like off the bitter gum tree
is with the human. It works in the neck of me
and the terrible floods out, swamped and frothy. All me make the Roar,
some leaping stiff-kneed, trying to horn that worst horror.
The wolf-at-the-calves is the bull human. Horn the bull human!
But the dog and the heifer human drive away all me.
Looking back, the glistening leaf is still moving.
All of dry old me is crumpled, like the hills of feed,
And a slick me like a huge calf is coming out of me.
The carrion-stinking dog, who is calf of human and wolf,
is chasing and eating little blood things the humans scatter
and all me run away, over smells, toward the sky.
from New Selected Poems
© Les Murray
Shake the bed, the blackened child whimpers,
O shake the bed! Through beak lips that never
will come unwry. And wearily the iron-
framed mattress, with nodding crockery bulbs,
jinks on its way.
Her brothers and sister take
shifts with the terrible glued-together baby
when their unsleeping absolute mother
reels out to snatch an hour, back to stop
the rocking and wring pale blue soap-water
over nude bladders and blood-webbed chars.
Even their cranky evasive father
is awed to stand watches rocking the bed.
Lids frogged shut, O please shake the bed,
her contour whorls and braille tattoos
from where, in her nightdress, she flared
out of hearth-drowse to a marrow shriek
pedalling full tilt firesleeves in mid air,
are grainier with repair
than when the doctor, crying Dear God, woman!
No one can save that child. Let her go!
spared her the treatments of the day.
Shake the bed. Like: count phone poles, rhyme,
classify realities, bang the head, any
iteration that will bring, in the brain’s forks,
the melting molecules of relief,
and bring them again.
O rock the bed!
Nibble water with bared teeth, make lymph
like arrowroot gruel, as your mother grips you
for weeks in the untrained perfect language,
till the doctor relents. Salves and wraps you
in dressings that will be the fire again,
ripping anguish off agony,
and will confirm
the ploughland ridges in your woman’s skin
for the sixty more years your family weaves you
on devotion’s loom, rick-racking the bed
as you yourself, six years old, instruct them.
from New Selected Poems
© Les Murray
never praise Auschwitz.
Most ungenerous. Most odd,
when they claim it’s what finally
won them their centuries-
long war against God.
from New Selected Poems
© Les Murray
I am seeing this: two men are sitting on a pole
they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise
I think for wires. Water boils in a prune tin.
Bees hum their shift in unthinning mists of white
bursaria blossom, under the noon of wattles.
The men eat big meat sandwiches out of a styrofoam
box with a handle. One is overheard saying:
drought that year. Yes. Like trying to farm the road.
The first man, if asked, would say I’m one of the Mitchells.
The other would gaze for a while, dried leaves in his palm,
and looking up, with pain and subtle amusement,
say I’m one of the Mitchells. Of the pair, one has been rich
but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat. Nearly everything
they say is ritual. Sometimes the scene is an avenue.
A Critique of “The Mitchells” by Geoff Page
Les Murray’s ‘The Mitchells’ is a masterpiece of the laconic. It is about a particular Australian style, originating in the bush, but also to be found in the city (though perhaps less often now than when the poem was first published in the mid ‘70s). Murray is famous for having asserted that the only class is those who speak of class and this poem is a perfect illustration of his argument.
Of the two Mitchells, one has been rich but ‘never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat’. The other, by implication, is and has been poor. They are both working uncomplainingly at this manual but reasonably skilled task — and neither of them makes any fuss about which one of them has been rich. It is irrelevant (though pleasant enough at the time, presumably). One of them declares ‘I’m one of the Mitchells’ but so does the other one, ‘looking up with pain and subtle amusement’. The pain would seem to be at his having been asked at all, rather than from any recall of a past differential — which generates only ‘subtle amusement’ anyway.
The poem, however, is no mere piece of sociologising. Murray has closely observed the men’s behaviour (and the values it implies) — and then proceeds to render it exactly. Their ‘dinner’ is, in fact, what most of us now call ‘lunch’. They boil water in a ‘prune tin’, not because they can’t afford an aluminium billy, but because a prune tin is good enough for the job so why waste money? They eat ‘big meat sandwiches’ rather than, say, delicate cucumber or asparagus ones. And they have kept them cool in a ‘styrofoam / box with a handle’ — not an ‘Esky’ as a reviewer once berated Murray for not saying.
Right throughout, Murray resists any temptation to simplify his protagonists. The ‘prune tin’ could have been a ‘billy’, much loved by the balladists. The ‘yes’ in line eight would have been, in most other hands, a self-consciously ocker ‘yeah’. Murray observes, truthfully enough, that ‘Nearly everything they say is ritual’ but note that it is only ‘nearly’ and not ‘everything’. They are also capable of quoting, if not themselves inventing, a forcefully poetic phrase: ‘like trying to farm the road’. This is the sort of vernacular poetry to which men like the Mitchells can effortlessly rise. These are people of some sophistication, capable of ‘subtle amusement’ and able to appreciate a ‘noon of wattles’ and ‘the unthinning mists of white // bursaria blossom’ even though they are unlikely to use such language to describe them. This sort of beauty, for them, would normally remain unspoken but would be no less appreciated for that. Some might think Murray is just showing off his lyrical talent but the ‘unthinning mists of white / bursaria blossom’ have, one could argue, a much deeper and more generous purpose.
Murray neatly avoids any sense of his simply barracking for his ‘home team’ (what some would call the ‘rural working class’) by leaving us with the reminder that ‘Sometimes the scene is an avenue’. In other words, the Australian laconic is not only to be found in the country, where it almost certainly originated, but also in the cities where most Australians live. The ‘avenue’ phrase works well, too, as a framing device. The poem begins with ‘I am seeing this’ and ends with the assertion that the scene can be replicated throughout the whole nation. A measure of just how Australian this poem is can be seen by trying to re-imagine it written by an English or American poet. Indeed, there is a great William Carlos Williams poem about two workers having lunch called ‘Fine Work with Pitch and Copper’ but it is nothing at all like Murray’s.
It is perhaps another mark of Murray’s respect for the Mitchells that he has taken the trouble to write their poem so well. This is not just a passing photograph to illustrate some sociological theory. It is a well-constructed, well-finished artefact, in much the same way as the pole the two men are about to raise will be well-cut and solidly placed.
For a start, Murray has written his account of the Mitchells as a sonnet, a form which has an 800-year-old history. It uses the Petrarchan stanza arrangement of two stanzas of four lines followed by two stanzas of three lines — though it doesn’t have the rhyme scheme normally associated with the convention. It does, however, have quite a deal of rhyme, if we extend our definition of rhyme to include half-rhyme and assonance. In the first stanza, for instance, where there seems to be no rhyme at all, we have the important internal rhyme of ‘pole’ and ‘hole’ plus a whole run of assonances, beginning with ‘dinner’ in the second line and culminating in the phrase ‘shift in unthinning mists’. In the second stanza we have the end half-rhymes ‘foam’ and ‘road’ and then the half-rhymes that link the last lines of the second last and final stanzas ‘amusement’ / avenue’. An even more relevant example is the assonance in the two key words ‘rich’ and ‘ritual’ which leaps across a distance of three lines. The rhyme is there but it’s part of the texture, part of the argument, rather than being something we can count off as aa bb etc.
Something similar can be said for the poem’s rhythm too. Murray’s sense of rhythm is certainly idiosyncratic but no less real for that. In a sonnet, of course, we expect the iambic pentameter but Murray rarely, if ever, gives us that satisfaction. The second line, for instance, has thirteen rather than ten syllables but we can still sense the pentameter’s five stresses in it: ‘they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise’. The same use of unstressed syllables can be seen in the line ‘(and) look/(ing) up/, (with) pain/ (and) subt/(le) (a)muse(ment)’ — though one could see the first four feet as being purely iambic, of course. One might also argue that, despite the highly poetic nature of his ‘bursaria blossom’ image, Murray is producing his own version of the Mitchell’s vernacular where an irregular number of unstressed syllables serves to emphasise the stress when it comes, rather in the manner of the irregular four-stress lines in the Anglo-Saxon tradition from which poetry in English derives.
Because it was written only thirty years ago, it may be premature to call ‘The Mitchells’ a ‘classic’ but it is surely unlikely that anyone will ever better define and illustrate the essence of at least one important Australian style, the laconic. Paradoxically, one can’t imagine the Mitchells making such a large claim for themselves though. They just go on yarning and slowly eating their lunch (sorry, ‘dinner’).
This essay by Geoff Page is from his book 80 Great Poems from Chaucer to Now (University of New South Wales Press, 2006) and is reproduced on andrewlansdown.com by kind permission of the author.
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