CONSCIOUS AND VERBAL
With armloads of international awards, over a dozen collections of poems and essays, and the spectacular verse-novel Fredy Neptune (1999) to his name, the plainspoken and combative Murray is by most reckonings Australia's leading poet. This book follows last year's new-and-selected Learning Human (2000) and takes its title and its center of gravity from the life-threatening stroke Murray suffered in 1996: that frightening experience, and his subsequent recovery, forms the plot of "Travels with John Hunter," whose vivid if talky quatrains derive their title from the hospital where the poet recovered: "Was I// not renewed as we are in Heaven?" Other short poems return to concerns long familiar to Murray's admirers. Vigorous, rough verses explore the immanence of God in the natural world, the shirtsleeves integrity of the Australian character, local and foreign landscapes (Oxford, Rotterdam, the imagined space he calls "Sunraysia"), geology, ecology, painful childhood memories and the bloodshed of "that monster called the Twentieth Century." Murray's fierce antiracism—and his equally fierce opposition to anything he considers trendy—remain in evidence here, as does his general tendency to moralize: "Only completed art/ free of obedience to its time can pirouette you/ through and athwart the larger poems you are in." Such awkward declamations—always a Murray signature—here mar more poems than they improve; worse yet, Murray's famous gift for landscape description and his brilliant feel for animals mark fewer poems here than fans might expect. Readers who admire the poet already will be glad to see further evidence of his prodigious and continuing gifts; readers not acquainted with Murray would be well advised to start almost anywhere else. (Oct.)
Forecast:While Fredy got glowing reviews, Murray's lack of a sustained presence on these shores has prevented him from enjoying the name recognition of, say, FSG stablemate Paul Muldoon. The provocatively titled Subhuman Redneck Poems (1997) continues to be Murray's strongest seller; this book will not change its standing.