Prose from Poetry Magazine

Big Les!

Les Murray’s “black dog.”

by Michael Hofmann

Taller When Prone, by Les Murray.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $24.00.

Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression, by Les Murray.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $13.00.

In the beginning was speed, celerity, swiftness of thought. A poet who gabbled his poems like an auctioneer or a racing commentator, because that was the speed of his thought (how did his hand, taking dictation, keep up, even with the special make of pen my son likes to call an “autopilot”?). Adapting, as Joseph Brodsky liked to do, “bird” to “bard,” Murray truly is the original “High-speed Bard,” the pendant to the stunned—and stunning—kingfisher in his poem, with its “gold under-eye whiskers” and “beak closing in recovery.” We, listening, managed to follow between one- and three-fifths of the action. (It was enough, thanks, it was plenty.)

Speed begat range, sweep, domain. At the far end of range, there was still a full tank. A big and a great poem like “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever” arrives at the end of its rousingly unconventional new idyll without even breaking sweat:

Now that everyone who yearned to wear long pants
has essentially achieved them,
long pants, which have themselves been underwear
repeatedly, and underground more than once,
it is time perhaps to cherish the culture of shorts,

to moderate grim vigour
with the knobble of bare knees,
to cool bareknuckle feet in inland water,
slapping flies with a book on solar wind
or a patient bare hand, beneath the cadjiput trees,

to be walking meditatively
among green timber, through the grassy forest
towards a calm sea
and looking across to more of that great island
and the further topics.

Further topics, you think? (It’s not tropics, though you do the double-take each time.) At the end of eighty-two majestic and exhaustive lines on the cultural and historical implications of wearing shorts? Whatever next?

Connection-making. Will and imagination, two escaped convicts armed with machetes not much caring whether they followed the Queen’s Highway or yomped across country. A man who knows. A Continental poet. (The continent in question is “that great island,” Terra Australis.)

Then there were delicacy (“Roman Cage Cups” on the frailest and most improbably enduring of glass artifacts), whimsy (“Homage to the Launching-Place”: a poem about bed), silliness, the love of a giggle, a poem that was always ready to cross a busy street for a joke (“Lunch & Counter Lunch,” the title of a book—thanks, I’ll eat it here—from 1974). An absurdly small turning circle, the sixpence of yore. Writing that seemed not to care if it was followed or not. That made sense in its own mind. Even when (as he put it) “driving a pen,” Murray is still much faster and defter than the rest of us, unencumbered, reading him. (This is why, for all his pained noise to the contrary, he remains helplessly and unalterably an elitist; it is his mind that condemns him to that status. The author of “First Essay on Interest”—“Not usury, but interest”—isn’t about to be flavor of the month anywhere. Someone with a serious interest in interest?!)
Then there was coverage. He wrote a zoo (it was called Translations from the Natural World). He wrote a history of the first half of the twentieth century (it was a page-turner called Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse). He wrote anguished, eminently “confessional” auto-biography (it was called Subhuman Redneck Poems).

As befits a gifted, energetic, and sprawling poet now into his seventies, Murray has a publishing history to match, with at least three selected poems and two collecteds (any and all of them are worth snapping up when met with). Taller When Prone—both a good-humored “fat” joke and a sort of indomitably rebellious (and quasi-scriptural) Beatitude—is accounted his twelfth individual volume, but I don’t think anyone’s seriously counting. Killing the Black Dog is a sort of further “selected,” pairing a 1996 talk on the poet’s—on the face of it, highly surprising—struggle with depression and a cull of twenty-five of his previously published poems on or from or out of the subject. The books—the books in general—are maybe more à thèse than they were once, when they seemed to be just gloriously unpredictable and wildly compendious, anything and everything, prolific, equable, and dazzling encounters with city/country, narrative/image, sound/vision, past/present, domestic/abroad, personal/essayistic, experiential/speculative, but that’s at least in part because of late the poet has been alarmingly stalked by his subject matter: the “stormy” volume (his word) Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996) was “so called in honour of my social class,” a subject that roused again perhaps unexpectedly fierce passions in the poet; Conscious and Verbal (2001) related his terrifying brush with a near-fatal liver condition, described with Murray’s typical, cool, inimitable brio:

Some accident had released flora

who live in us and will eat us
when we stop feeding them the earth.
I’d rehearsed the private office of the grave,
ceased excreting, made corpse gases.
              —From “Travels with John Hunter”

Some of the subsequent books accordingly had something remedial, convalescent, narrow-gauge about them: Poems the Size of Photographs (2003), The Biplane Houses (2007). I wonder just how much this has to do with the forsaking of large-scale formats (perhaps a residual fatigue from Fredy Neptune), long, wide, sprawling poems, typically of two or three pages, a loping, accommodating rhythm; and the writing of shorter poems in shorter stanzas and shorter lines, often fussily rhymed, and rather sharper or even shriller in tone. The big books of the eighties—The Vernacular Republic, The People’s Otherworld, The Daylight Moon—offered one exuberant scintillating masterpiece after another in sequence in their tables of contents: for instance, “The Powerline Incarnation,” “The Returnees,” “Employment for the Castes in Abeyance,” and “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle.” Or: “1980 in a Street of Federation Houses,” “The Butter Factory,” “Bats’ Ultrasound,” and “Roman Cage Cups.” Or again: “The Quality of Sprawl,” “Shower,” “Two Poems in Memory of my Mother,” and “Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman.” (There is pleasure in merely quoting such idiosyncratic titles—like going through great historic team-sheets from memory—even without their evocative appeal to the instructed reader.) The inescapable and true conclusion is that for ten or twenty years around the turn of the millennium there was no better poet writing in English than Les Murray.

Murray remains a phenomenal poet, and if the new poems are less striking and maybe a tad less wonderful than the older ones, then it is either that we, his older readers, have long had it too good; or that he is writing smaller, though just as well; or that the new poems need a little time to unfurl in our minds before they can rival the status of their predecessors, simply because such bold and mannered things always take time to acquire resonance and familiarity—and probably all three. Contemporaries of G.M. Hopkins, reading his poems as they emerged, would have had cause to feel the same way. Certainly for new readers the imperative remains: start immediately, and start anywhere; and wonder, not where Murray has been—because for the last quarter century at least he has been waiting to be found, like an undiscovered continent—but where you have been, yourselves.

The thing about Murray is that he needs little or nothing to run on. He is a poetical perpetual motion machine. He doesn’t need, therefore, intense experience, or its mental/intellectual equivalent, something to prove—a bee in his bonnet—a cause—to write great poetry. He takes no ball, and runs with it. He doesn’t actually need the Taj Mahal (with which Taller When Prone begins—“From a Tourist Journal”), though there is of course no one one would rather have writing about it: “In a precinct of liver stone, high/on its dais, the Taj seems bloc hail.” It remains the case, though: the way there is just as good, or even a little better, “over honking roads/being built under us, past baby wheat/and undoomed beasts and walking people.” The smiling attentiveness, the respect for the blur of other beings and becomings, are pure, best Murray.

Taller When Prone is like a book of late Rilke, stray personal dedications, handwritten improvisations, travel notes, set topics, and young ladies’ poetry album poems (Albumblätter), but then tipped or armed or inflected with a memory of the reliable magic of the New Poems of 1907. It is indeed “further topics”: brown suits and bastardy (united in the person of the former Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke); an ancient pear tree that after more than a century continues to bear fruit; a pork sandwich, its paper wrapper scrunched up in—typical Murray-ism, two parts oxymoron to one of surrealism!—a “greaseproof rose”; another retelling of the tragedy of his father and his Uncle Archie; the poet’s strange mute cat.
The book celebrates “Cherries from Young”:

One lip-teased drupe
or whole sweet gallop
poured out of cardboard

and “Eucalypts in Exile”:

Their suits are neater abroad,
of denser drape, un-nibbled:
they’ve left their parasites at home.

It keeps a weather eye out for the police—always a bête bleu of Murray’s—(in “Croc”), and, in a splendid blizzard of estuary Saxon, proposes, Marianne Moore-style, an unlikely new name for London’s fourth airport: “so savour this name: London Sexburga Airport.” It hymns the new fast metaphysics of motorways (“I’ll ride a slow vehicle//before cars are slow/as country was slow”—the “slow vehicle” is Murray’s hearse-to-be), and recalls an ingenious way of getting across (boiling-hot) tarred roads relatively unscathed during “the barefoot age” (“The Filo Soles”).

Like the Neue Gedichte, the poems average out at around sonnet-length and sonnet-punch. The cobbler’s widow in “Winding Up at the Bootmaker’s” (“Kneeling up in Mediterranean black,/reaching down the numbered parcels/as if returning all their wedding gifts”) has something of Rilke’s notes on life at the Rodins’, or his Paris poem “The Blind Man,” where a blind beggar is described as extending his hand “almost formally, as if in marriage.” A poem like “The Suspect Corpse,” fourteen lines from

The dead man lay, nibbled, between
dark carriages of a rocky river,

a curled load of himself, in cheap
clothes crusted in dried water,

down to its denouement: “After three months, he could only/generalise, and had started smiling” seems to me to be very evidently in communion with Rilke’s “Washing the Corpse,” at the end of which “one without a name/lay there, bare and clean, and gave orders.” “Generalise”—a refusal to incriminate anyone or himself under the torture that is forensics—is unexpected and funny and canny, and “smiling”—the skull’s grin—is grimly sweet. Truly, in both cases, dead men talk.

As with Rilke, physical laws change direction, gestures and appearances acquire a different meaning, and power is vested in unexpected quarters. The delicate pastry makes an impermeable layering for tender feet in “The Filo Soles.” “Midi” begins with a cloudscape of exceptional firmness, “Muscles and torsoes of cloud/ascended over the mountains,” and ends (by agency of the blue herb, itself described as “a strange maize/deeply planted as mass javelins”) as an even more solid wonder: “sweet walling breath/under far-up gables of the lavender.” “The Farm Terraces” celebrates these wonders of (no pun intended) terrifying human persistence and anonymous, collective labor (“at the orders of hunger/or a pointing lord”), a form of planetary home improvement, visible, if I’m not mistaken, even from space, “baskets of rich made soil/boosted up poor by the poor.” Everywhere there are these little, or not so little, wonders, whether they meet with Murray’s approval or not: “A full moon always rises at sunset/and a person is taller when prone” and the drolly conservative musing “Soldiers now can get in the family way” are both taken from “The Conversations.” There is the blind man who says to the poet, over the phone, “I can hear you smiling,” or the mute cat, “A charcoal Russian/he opens his mouth like other cats/and mimes a greeting mew.”

The language knots, bulges, scintillates. Everywhere organic matter is being pressed to coal, or coal to diamonds. The effect can be silly (I can see and hear Murray’s cracked giggle)—“Raj-time uniforms,” “plum Crimean fig,” “the drunk heir-splitting/of working for parents”—but it is never arch, and it is sometimes sublime: “as bees summarise the garden,” or

Chefs’ knives peeled green islands
as the climate turned bohemian
over Woop Woop of the wind farms
and the bloodshot television

(I’ll confess I don’t understand the “bloodshot television”—perhaps the turbines interfere with the reception?). “Infinite Anthology” celebrates a sort of folk poetry close to Murray’s heart, wonderfully resourceful anonymous linguistic inventions that add, often slyly or disrespectfully, to the gaiety of things: “daylight—second placegetter when winner is very superior to field,” “dandruff acting—the stiffest kind of Thespian art,” “Baptist Boilermaker—coffee and soda (an imagined Puritan cocktail),” “limo—limousin cattle/proud—castrated but still interested.”

A surprise in Killing the Black Dog is Murray’s prose: he can really write it, and not like Lowell, say, in 91 Revere Street or Near the Unbalanced Aquarium, like the poetry, only more so—thicker impasto of adjectives, more proper names, the same furtive emblems, the same wounding, pivotal scenes—but as its own thing, with the clarity and good order and communicativeness of prose. Murray doesn’t affect to like prose—in this he is like Ted Hughes, who thought writing so much of it (the seven hundred pages of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being) was bad for him, and even ultimately hastened his death—but he is undeniably good at it—plain, brave sentences, descriptive, not overly luxuriant language, logical connections, purposeful paragraphs, effective pacing:

Every day, though, sometimes more than once a day, sometimes all day, a coppery taste in my mouth, which I termed intense insipidity, heralded a sense of helpless, bottomless misery in which I would lie curled in a foetal position on the sofa with tears leaking from my eyes, my brain boiling with a confusion of stuff not worth calling thought or imagery: it was more like shredded mental kelp marinaded in pure pain. During and after such attacks, I would be prostrate with inertia, as if all my energy had gone into a black hole.

Murray gives an impressively clear account of his condition, its sudden and unexpected onset—return, really—following “a well-attended poetry reading at the bowling club” in 1988, at the end of which one of the audience “cheerfully recalled to me one of the nicknames [a former schoolmate] had bestowed on me thirty-odd years previously, and within a day or two I began to come apart”; its roots in the physical and sexual humiliations he was daily offered at school (“erocide” is Murray’s term for it, “destruction of sexual morale”); and the early death of his mother and the guilt of the two grief-stricken survivors:

From just on puberty, I lived in funeral:
mother dead of miscarriage, father trying to be dead,
we’d boil sweat-brown cloth; cows repossessed the garden.
Lovemaking brought death, was the unuttered principle.
              From “Burning Want”

The boiling of the “sweat-brown cloth” is especially bleak: here are two monks, Brother Les and Brother Cecil, the last of an order.

Australia (the “tall poppy syndrome”), and Australian womanhood in particular, reflexive left-wing politics (encoded as “1968” or the culture of “the demo”), fashion, hippies, Nazism, “the Totalitarian Age” of privilege, atheism, feminism, cosmopolitan chic—all got whirled up together into a sort of enemy maelstrom of desire-to-hurt. Their presence as words is always a bad sign in Murray’s poems—Taller When Prone has a poem called “The 41st Year of 1968,” dedicated to the memory of the “173 dead in the Victorian fires of 2009”—because the reader knows he is in for a dull blast of stodgy fury. “The worst way to have chronic depression,” Murray writes in Killing the Black Dog, “is to have it unconsciously, to be in a burning rage and not know you are angry.”

Prose—not the prose here, other, more polemical, occasional prose—cops most of the blame, for being “more liable than poetry to be infiltrated with the colours of confusion and obsession,” but it is a strange and terrifying thing to see Murray the poet as well—a generous, charming, equable, and accommodating soul, who gives equal rights and equal time to nature as feather, flower, scale, and rock, (and to the human counterparts of these things as well)—become vicious, embattled, humorless, and vengeful. Perhaps none of the poems in Killing the Black Dog are really among Murray’s best: they are too “hot,” too emotional, too determinedly therapeutic. They let the dogs out. The effect is a little like having Charles Bukowski, say—some hero of Beat autobiography—re-written by Marianne Moore: it’s a waste of both of them, especially Moore. (Although I read them as proof that this too—the rawly personal—is among Murray’s gifts.) There are poems in which he writes about depression, rather as Lowell writes about mania, from outside, from memory, from afterward:

Those years trapped in a middling cream town
where full-grown children hold clear views
and can tell from his neck he’s really barefoot
though each day he endures shoes,

he’s what their parents escaped, the legend
of dogchained babies on Starve Gut Creek;
be friends with him and you will never
be shaved or uplifted, cool or chic.

He blusters shyly—poverty can’t afford instincts.
Nothing protects him, and no one.
He must be suppressed, for modernity,
for youth, for speed, for sexual fun.
         From “A Torturer’s Apprenticeship”

This is a disturbingly lucid account of bullying, and the potential for the further, downward transmission of more bullying (“this one might have made dark news”) that Murray found in himself. “A Hindenburg of vast rage/rots, though, above your life”—though “rots,” as if the thing had been not a blimp but a marrow, is terrifying—somehow still stacks up alongside Lowell’s coolly and amiably apologetic “when I have one head/again, not many, like a bunch of grapes.” “Performance” builds on Malcolm Lowry’s eight-liner “After Publication of Under the Volcano”:

I starred last night, I shone:
I was footwork and firework in one,

a rocket that wriggled up and shot
darkness with a parasol of brilliants
and a peewee descant on a flung bit;
I was busters of glitter-bombs expanding
to mantle and aurora from a crown,
I was fouettés, falls of blazing paint,
para-flares spot-welding cloudy heaven,
loose gold off fierce toeholds of white,
a finale red-tongued as a haka leap:
that too was a butt of all right!

As usual after any triumph, I was
of course inconsolable.

But I don’t know that I know anything like “Rock Music” (“Sex is a Nazi”) or “A Stage in Gentrification” (“Most Culture has been an East German plastic bag/pulled over our heads”) or “Demo”(“go choke on these quatrain tablets./I grant you no claim ever”)—or at least if I do, then, it’s like graffiti or heckles or green vitriol, unsigned.

These are poems Yeats might have theorized or promulgated in dreams but didn’t write, sour outbursts of loathing and unquenchable aggression. Writing not about but squarely out of his victimhood, Murray is too hard on others, too easy on himself. Poetry here shrivels to gifted labeling and sloganeering. Things normally played with and toyed with are here handled in deadly earnest, as weapons. All superiority disappears, except a desperate need to be superior in close combat. It was surely to punish and forestall just such writing that Yeats delivered his stricture on arguments with others making for “rhetoric.” The sense of the poet as embattled and opposed acquires an unhealthy prominence, a centrality even.

It was one part of Murray’s hope that he might be able to write “the dog” out of his system; another—as witness the title of the present volume—that it might have failed to survive its host’s near-fatal liver disorder in 1996. It was in that same year that he wrote the bulk of what was originally given as a talk, and with it, the sober makings of a happy ending:

My thinking is no longer jammed and sooty with resentment. I no longer wear only stretch-knit clothes and drawstring pants. I no longer come down with bouts of weeping or reasonless exhaustion.… If I have a regret, in the sudden youth and health of my mind in its fifty-eighth year, it is that I’ve got well so late in my life.

In a brief Afterword from 2009, Murray concedes he was over-optimistic: “I know now that you can’t kill the Dog, and that thus my earlier account has the wrong title: it should be called Learning the Black Dog.” Still, he sounds a little easier, on himself and with the rest of us, and with them (his real and imagined enemies). One feels for him, and with him, in his last sentence:

What I still do mourn is the terrible waste of energy the Dog has exacted from me, over my lifetime and especially in my twenty horror years, and how much more I might have achieved if I’d owned a single, healthy mind working on my side.

Poetry, in Murray’s admirable practice of it, has been a function of health, of wholesome excess, a margin of clear profit. He is not some sort of John Berryman, luridly and misguidedly asking for “the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him”; rather I see him as a grease monkey fiddling and tooling with language and perception, making idiosyncratic memorial word-machines. Murray’s crisis narrowed and crabbed his focus, and turned him in on himself—a shame in one who sees so levelly and far, and who writes so abundantly, and with such generosity and fullness. The poems and prose here are accordingly—cutely, aptly—dedicated, not like his other books, “to the glory of God,” but “to the need of God.” Murray has shown amazing, prodigious strength of character and discipline and bravery and faith, that he allowed neither himself nor his gift to be broken, but that they fought the Dog together, if not to victory—“wer spricht von Sieg,” says Rilke—at least to a standstill.

Originally Published: October 3, 2011


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This prose originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2011


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 Michael  Hofmann


Poet, translator, and essayist Michael Hofmann was born in Freiburg, Germany, and moved to the UK at age four. When his family returned to Germany, Hofmann stayed behind, first at boarding schools and later Magdalene College, Cambridge University, where he earned his BA and MA. His first book of poetry, Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983), earned him instant acclaim in Britain. Of his early work, written in verse blocks and . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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