Sensitive listening

This selection is described as a collection of those poems that Les Murray considers his most successfully realised. The accumulated sense of the poems is of a grand rumination in which not only the poet speaks, but also the voices of family, friends, neighbours, yarning farmers and blokes at the pub are heard, finding their own eloquence.

It is fitting that the cover photograph is of a delicate ear—a child’s ear—it is Murray’s aural sensitivity that evokes  geography, history and myth: a dialect of time and place. That voice is heard intimately in ‘The last helloes’, a poem about his father’s death in which pared down language takes on a cadence of parting, the son watchful and silent until he utters the beautiful valediction, ‘I wish you God’. The voice is also present in ‘The hearing impairment’, a poem about the misunderstandings and funny accidents of words, and in the wry delight of ‘Letters to a winner’, in which a lottery winner pores over a stack of begging letters before committing them to the fire. The letters are by turn pathetic and hilarious,  enthusiastic not accurate, full of craft and hot deals.

I’m wearing my birthday suit/With the right man I could share this infallible system.

Many of Murray’s most telling poems are about those who are hurt or disenfranchised. Some might suggest that Murray leaves nothing out but restraint. Of the 200 poems here, many of which are of considerable girth, the reader encounters the vitality of discourse, elaboration, mythic cattle, dead voices given life and a brilliant, indefatigable nag who is keen to secure, and enliven in words, just about everything. And there are moments of simple beauty:

Streaming, a hippo surfaces like the head of someone lifting, with still entranced eyes from a lake of stanza. Dreambabwe. 

Learning Human: Selected poems of Les Murray, Les Murray.
Duffy and Snellgrove, 2003. isbn 1 876631 78 3, rrp $22

Grant Fraser is a lawyer and poet. His book Some conclusion in the heart is published by Black Willow Press.

 

 

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