An Absolutely Ordinary Poet

Image from http://www.clivejames.com
Image from http://www.clivejames.com

February now over, it is time to offer one final celebration of Les Murray’s poetry, before moving onto our next – and final – poet in the 12 Poets Project. Here is a short reflection on some of the qualities I value most in Murray’s work. I hope it is a fitting conclusion to our month spent in his work.

Les Murray – An Absolutely Ordinary Poet

And as March gets under way, it will soon be time for us to open up the work of a quite unexpected poet: former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, the Welsh-born theologian and writer Rowan Williams. I first encountered Williams’ affinity with poetry through his translations of his eighteenth-century countrywoman Ann Griffiths’ work, only to find that he had written much of his own. I am looking forward to sharing it, and my responses to it, with you this month.

Sprawl: For Les Murray (and Bach)

Kopie vonThomaskirche Leipzig

February is a short month, and so sadly I am having to speed up our journey through Les Murray’s poetry. My final poem for the month is an original work written in response to this interview with Murray from Image (Winter 2009-10) as well as Murray’s own description, in a personal letter, of his visit to a Lutheran church in Leipzig. My poem also draws on a number of Murray’s own poems. I’ll leave the eagle-eyed to find which ones, but the direct quotes from Murray are all in italics, to show they aren’t my own words. All in all, it’s a tribute to a man whose philosophy I do not wholly agree with yet always find compelling.

Sprawl: For Les Murray

God, at the end of prose,
somehow be our poem –
(Les Murray, “You Find You Can Leave It All”)

No pinched-arse Puritan, you could walk, I 
                              suppose,
into the church in Leipzig with J.S. Bach 
                              thundering away,
differing perhaps in dogma yet relishing the 
                              plenitude of song.

What did you hear that day in St. Thomas’?
Some mighty Cantata? The gospel set to words, to
                              music,
set to heart again? The world, you said once,

reverberates with Muzak and Prozac. The mind 
                              craves
some analgesic sound to cool the air; yet souls 
                              desire organs.
Yours that day resounded with the thump and hum 
                              of what,

when Reformations raged, was controversy:
the heavens, all seemed to agree, will roar with
                           voice and instrument,
yet some still debate where earthly Temple-lines
                              are drawn.

Heaven invades earth as molecules of grace; yet 
                              to you
the Presence has always been Real: enacted in 
                              bread
passed hand to hand, and in sprawl

of shirtsleeve nobility, giving with no thought 
                              of reprise,
no heed of destiny. Whispered in poetic diction,
felt, danced and dreamed, God breaks the banks

of hearts sunk enough to receive Him, who
enter church, not to proclaim what’s already 
                              known,
but in desperate, grateful hopes of being wrong.

Schoolyard Grace (After Les Murray’s “Equanimity”)

It is with slight trepidation that I tackle Les Murray’s masterful poem “Equanimity”. For one thing, it is my girlfriend’s favourite Murray poem, so I would hate to destroy it for her. It is also a very complex poem, with a challenging style to imitate. But the central idea – the beauties of common grace – is one which is important to me, so I’ve done my best to reflect that, taking as the context for the poem what, for me as a teacher, is the very everyday scene of a schoolyard.

Schoolyard Grace (After "Equanimity")

The unequivocal rustling of leaves declares the wind,
a relief where sun has scorched for days and grass lies
                             dead and thin.
Rain having fallen, in its way, on righteous and 
                             unrighteous alike,
we pause, not quite content, but fewer weights surrounding,
the heat like harness for now at least gone
and the heart somehow able to rest.
Yet does it rest? The day continues with its obligations;
doors open still, still shut, and corridors and boardwalks 
                            bustle
with children carrying books and truths
sometimes contained in books, some not.
And still the papers rustle, achieving the task at hand;
and still the bustle goes and goes, with lessons to learn,
and days to earn the approval of met expectations.
Grace like a silent spectator sits: grace in moment,
grace in movement. Hands move, attentive, yet
time contains the hope that now, this moment, is not All,
                              that days
pass nonetheless beneath the gaze of one who knows and 
                              holds.

First Things Last (After “Incorrigible Grace”)

For my next response to Les Murray’s poetry, I’ve chosen a deceptively simple four-line poem as my starting point. I suspect Murray’s poem speaks for itself. I hope that mine does too.

First Things Last
(After “Incorrigible Grace”)

Saint Vincent de Paul, old friend,
my sometime tailor,
I daresay by now you are feeding
the rich in heaven.
(Les Murray, “Incorrigible Grace”)

 

Grace gives surprise, like sunshine reversing floods,

like the plenty of a crop we did not sow,

a brown trickle amidst faithless dirt,

or tears that wash unbelief to the ground;

 

like a home found, unexpectedly, on Samaritan turf,

a harvest of smiles when we have paid only in frowns,

the mercy of a hefty but finite price for carelessness,

of lessons learnt in coins, not in souls;

 

or like the men who wait at the platform, tablets poised

beneath their noses, soon to learn

from the woman in the beanie with

absolutely nothing to her name.

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.

Remembering and Introducing…

With January now gone and February just begun, it’s time to farewell Peter Steele and introduce our new poet for the month. Shortly after Father Steele’s death in 2012 I wrote an essay in memory of him, and, although I have read much more of his poetry since then and have come to appreciate it more, it still seems a fitting conclusion to our month of looking at his work here at The Consolations of Writing. So here it is, for those who did not read it at the time.

Also, it’s time for another poet – our second last, in fact. It’s hard to believe that my 12 Poets Project is nearly finished! This month’s poet is something of an Australian literary icon – Les Murray, most famous perhaps for his dorky bushman hat and the preamble he wrote for the Australian Constitution. But he is also a wonderful poet and I look forward to celebrating his work, and the way that his faith informs it, throughout February.