Passacaglia in G Minor (After Les Murray’s “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”)

For those who have not encountered Les Murray’s poetry before, his work always strikes me with the way in which it blends profundity with earthiness. One of his most beautiful poems for me is his “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”, a description of a man crying in the middle of Sydney’s city centre, his tears somehow a rebuke and a gift to those around him. I’ve tried to capture some of this in my own poem, which is also inspired by a magnificent piece of music which I heard performed for the first time at the Brunswick Beethoven Festival last week, Biber’s “Passacaglia in G Minor”. This recording doesn’t quite capture how it sounded and felt last week, but it might help you imagine what I’m expressing through the poem.

Passacaglia in G Minor (After “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”)


In the paddocks and the laneways,
over hills and silos and Sydney Road cafés,
the strains carry, in 40-degree-pain,
as the waiting place, expecting change, mourns and gathers
hay-bales, dust and tumbleweed – a man plays violin and speaks
with four bass notes, weaving in and out, attuned with tears.

It catches first commuters’ ears. The 19 Tram is locked by cars;
stopped at Albert Street, their minds slow to receive the faint
refrain. Some turn their heads, others stay
motionless, as though they’ve not heard. The wind
blows their papers, rustling; neighbours feel the tension
within the cushioned, vinyl seats. All have surely heard.

Some halt in the street. Walking here, there, shopping bags
poised inside inattentive hands, they pause. Where, they ask,
their eyes adance, is that tune? As though caught somehow
within the breeze – here lifting, there drooping, catching all
at traffic lights and crossing roads. Moving in and out,
the tune intrigues, now familiar, now new. What does it

mean, this unexpected crying violin? Children stop,
their parents’ hands tugged to sudden standstill: babies cry
and mothers gasp. Silent as the heart, the street pulsates,
attenuated evening mood drifting over tram-lines
as somehow the violence of this violin declares
the night into unexpected submission.

It gathers too across V-Line tracks and over hills,
this shouting, whispering, crying violin. Suited men stop
where they left their keys and wait; in the fields, the workers
wipe the sweat from brows and think, no sound to hear
yet pulsing through the earth, the cracks, the gaps, the fissures
and the hopefulness of the heat-waves’ final day.

And far into the earth’s dry heart, the strains now drift,
now mine, now desecrate the well-trained patience of
the stoic afternoon. Deep into the ear it goes
and pierces where the soul is still, and cries and cries.
The noise is war! And still on Sydney Road it plays
and men and woman stop their tracks to hear,

silent tears gathering in the twilight of their minds.

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