Book Review: Waiting for the Past
Waiting for the Past is the latest slim volume of poetry from Australian poet Les Murray, who wrote a delightful novel-in-verse titled Fredy Neptune back in 1999 and whose name might be familiar to 2016 readers because of an excellent and just slightly appalling recent Atlantic article by James Parker titled “The Greatest Poet Alive” in which, right before he compares Murray to a hulking halfwitted character in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, he asserts “I say he’s our greatest living English-language poet.”
As if this weren’t rough enough handling for any innocent poet, Parker then goes the extra mile by adding a layer of redolent sheep-dip throughout with lines like “You know that this is the poet’s job, in the end: to remind you—oh, the cheesiness, but oh, the urgency—how to be alive.” (Italics, needless to say, present in the original)
And yet despite such falafel about how to be alive, the poetry of Les Murray has always been hugely enjoyable, and Waiting for the Past is as playful, inventive, and heartfelt as are very few books written by authors quickly approaching 80. The poet’s advancing age is in fact nearly omnipresent throughout the 64 poems in the book, usually presented as an occasion for Murray to do one of his favorite things: have some nimble fun at the expense of all his characters, including himself, as in the opening of “Vertigo”:
Last time I fell in a shower-room
I bled like a tumbril dandy
and the hotel longed to be rid of me.
Taken to the town clinic, I
described how I tripped on a steel
rim and found my head in the wardrobe.
Scalp-sewn and knotted and flagged
I thanked the Frau Doktor and fled,
wishing the grab-bar of age might
be bolted to all civilisation
and thinking of Rome’s eighth hill
heaped up out of broken amphorae.
And as hazardous as it is to admit in this instance, Parker is right about one thing: the polysymphonic wordplay is one of the main joys of almost any Les Murray poem (Parker calls it “deliriously arcane,” but then, he would, wouldn’t he?). So many of his poems, like “Floodtime Night Shelter” in this current collection, urge the reader to say them out loud:
No mattress for the last levee shoveller,
estates of damp clothing rather
and groceries and crises on the netball
squeak floor, within sidelong of the river.
Roped curtain to let underpants be shed,
mulch of blankets half dry, and how
to keep four cushions in line
underback, with clay and shift-off
as of islands in continental drift-off.
Discreet knees up for sex or
to check the infiltering depth of water
far off houses colliding in main stream.
These were many nights of that year.
The flat-handed slap of the final line is also characteristic of Les Murray’s poetry: he may spin the language of his verses into thin and fantastic elaborations, but he’s a stubbornly earthen poet, regularly though never pedantically bringing his readers back to yarded-out pragmatics. It’s a thoroughly welcome and bracing poetic voice, and every new book of it is a happy occasion.