Learning Human

Les A. Murray, Author
Les A. Murray, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-374-26073-6
Reviewed on: 01/03/2000
Release date: 01/01/2000
Paperback - 230 pages - 978-0-374-52723-5
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Murray's 35 years of work have made him certainly Australia's most famous poet and one of its best; only in the past 10 years, however, has he found an American audience. Murray follows his superb 1999 novel in verse, Fredy Neptune (a PW Best Book) with an ample cull of short poems, the first issuing from his 1965 debut, the last 12 from a new volume (Conscious and Verbal) not available in the U.S. Murray's range is startlingly wide: among his best poems are stories from memory, comic verse, discursive speculation (""First Essay on Interest""), pure landscape (""Nests of golden porridge shattered in the silky-oak trees""), modernized folk-balladry (The Chimes of Neverwhere), among other kinds. He's especially good when describing animals and rural life; his syncopations and mouthfuls of phrases follow the lines of his sight and touch. At night on a dairy farm, Murray views ""the strainers sleeping in their fractions,/ vats/ and the mixing plunger, that dwarf ski-stock, hung."" Murray's aims are always (if sometimes obliquely) political and religious. Arguing against Enlightenment secularism, urban domination of rural life and restrictive political correctness in favor of Catholic belief and agrarian populism, he can either sound mean and one-sided or friendly and welcoming--or both--depending on with whom readers identify: a recent satire begins ""Some of us primary producers, us farmers and authors/ are going round to watch them evict a banker."" Among the new poems are polemical epigrams, an onomatopoetic tour-de-force about motorcycles, a moving epithalamion, and a rather forced ode to libraries. Even at his shrill worst, Murray conveys a welcome belief that poetry can change our minds, and his language could never be taken for anyone else's; at his best, in all his kinds of poems, Murray gives us a broad, attentive, deeply felt, morally-charged view of his world, which often looks a lot like our own. (Jan.)
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