I’m still pawing through a summer’s worth of half read New Yorker magazines. (My friend Lesli calls this perpetual battle with The Stack as the “tyranny of the unread”.) And to follow on yesterday’s posting that included an excerpt from an interview with poet/essayist Dan Chiasson, I found a June issue with an effervescent and insightful review of Les Murray’s latest book of poetry written by Chiasson.

Les Murray. Cantankerous, angry, pissed off “bush bard” from Down Under, whose poetry can oscillate from irritating to transcendent in a single poem. He’s a complex character, especially for my Australian friends who have their own love/hate relationship thing going on with him and his work for a long time. But I continue to read his poems and pay attention to what snags him.

Chiasson captures some of Murray’s whimsy and wordsmithing gift–a reference to an ampersand as “smugly/phallic…/in the deskchair of itself”; a bucket of fish waving “their helpless fan feet”; a spider that walks “in circles…celebrating/the birthday of logic.” This passage from the review, referencing poems from Murray’s latest volume, The Biplane Houses, was particularly poignant:

The most impressive thing about the new poems is their capacity, writing “with a whole heart,” to find the pathos in unlikely subjects. Keats once imagined that a billiard ball gets “a sense of delight” from its own “roundness, smoothness, volubility & the rapidity of its motion,” and there is something Keatsian about Murray’s ability to locate the precise affect in image after image. “Lateral Dimensions” might have been called “Afterlives,” since the poem imagines a series of alternatives, most of them bad, for a poet’s posthumous fate. Which of these two sorry creatures would you rather be?:

rodeo bull
he wins every time
then back on the truck

only one car
of your amber necklace
holds a once-living passenger.

The destiny of poets is to be, like the rodeo bull, triumphant over and over at the same rote act (Matthew Arnold is always a winner when we read “Dover Beach”!) and, like the insect in amber, a primal speck, once alive, now merely a “passenger” in the history of culture. The alternatives in Murray are not pleasing—but perhaps you would prefer to be like the “newspapers soaked in rain / before they are read”?

No, I wouldn’t.

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Poet Les Murray

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