‘Home is the first / and final poem’

Les Murray, On Bunyah

Carcanet, 160pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781784104986

reviewed by Alex Assaly

The rural home of poet, editor, and critic Les Murray lies around three hundred kilometres north-east of Sydney, Australia. The area known as Bunyah – a native word meaning ‘bark’ – is a hilly landscape with dense forests, expansive paddocks and farmland. Bunyah Creek, which becomes the Wang Wauk River before reaching the Pacific Ocean, cuts across this landscape and sources many of the sandy lakes characteristic of the area. The place Murray calls his ‘spirit country’ is unquestionably ‘the bush’: an area wild, undeveloped, remote, and isolated – only one gravel road runs from the Pacific Highway to Bunyah. The 82 poems and 29 photographs collected in On Bunyah give readers special access to this isolated area and makes clear its biographical and historical significances. The collection, made up of a selection of poems spanning Murray’s entire career, reveals just how Bunyah has provided the poet with the essential material of his verse for over 50 years. While On Bunyah does confirm what Murray writes in ‘Home Suite’ (originally published in 1992’s Translations from the Natural World) – ‘Home is the first / and final poem / and every poem between / has this mum home seam’ – it also does these poems an immense disservice: it presents them in a manner too careless to be worthy of their particular expressiveness and craft.

Many of the collection’s most enthralling poems represent the natural life – the flora and fauna – of Bunyah. The most well-known of these nature poems is ‘The Broad Bean Sermon’ from Lunch and Counter Lunch (1974). The poem opens with the description of a field of ripe broad bean plants. A kind of playful energy runs through these opening lines as the speaker personifies the field’s countless beanstalks:

Beanstalks, in any breeze, are a slack church parade
without belief, saying trespass against us in unison,
recruits in sunburnt gingham, with unbuttoned leaves.

Upright with water like men, square in stem section
they grow to great lengths, drink rain, keel over all ways,
kink down and grow up afresh, with proffered new greenstuff.

Just as the speaker’s metaphors pile up – which they continue to do throughout the poem – so too do the fruit of the broad bean plants. The speaker, collecting the hanging fruit, persistently notices that beans still hang from stalks he has already passed and picked:

Going out to pick beans with the sun high as fencetops, you find
plenty, and fetch them. An hour or a cloud later
you find shirtfulls more. At every hour of daylight

appear more that you missed: ripe, knobbly ones, fleshy-sided
thin-straight, thin-crescent, frown-shaped, bird-shouldered, boat-keeled ones,
beans knuckled and single-bulged, minute green dolphins at suck,

In spite of the speaker’s efforts, these plants produce an inexhaustible amount of fruit. Murray sensitively and sensually represents their fecundity, bounty, and diversity in this poem and, doing so, reveals Bunyah to be a land flowing with milk and honey.

It was in this sylvan region of New South Wales that the Murray family settled nearly one hundred and fifty years ago. Les Murray’s great-great-grandfather, Hugh Murray, arrived in Australia in 1848. The Scotsman quickly prospered in this new country and began buying land in Kimbriki – where he lived and worked – and further south in Bunyah. Hugh never cultivated the land he owned in Bunyah; but, in 1870, his son John and his daughter-in-law Isabella moved to the area and became its first white settlers. ‘Bunyah Johnnie,’ as he would come to be known, found himself in possession of thousands of acres of his father’s land and so sold portions of it to family members and other early pioneering families like the Petersons. Now inhabited, a rural way of life began to emerge in Bunyah: dairy farming and timber as its industries; Scottish Calvinism as its religion; dancing and music as its entertainments; and a mix of Border Scots, northern English, and the local Kattangal as its vernacular. Les Murray’s grandfather, John Allen, grew up in Bunyah. Unlike his father, John Allen was inhospitable and violent. His children – Les Murray’s father, Cecil, one of them – frequently received beatings for not doing their chores to their father's standards: feeding and milking the calves and, in their teenage years, driving the bullocks and cutting trees for timber – the same chores Les would do a few decades later. The hegemony of John Allen continued into his son’s adulthood. After Cecil married Miriam Arnall, the two of them moved into a rundown shack owned by Cecil’s father. John Allen refused to sell the shack and the land it sat on to the young couple and, instead, charged them £60 a month to live their. Les Murray was born into his parent’s poverty in 1938 and was raised by them in the small shack owned by his grandfather.

On the one hand, Murray’s poor, rural upbringing encouraged him to develop a deep sympathy for the natural life of Bunyah. Murray’s sympathetic relationship to nature lies at the thematic centre of ‘The Broad Bean Sermon’. As the speaker notices the apparent inexhaustibility of the broad bean plants, he – as a result of the sheer abundance of their fruit – begins to examine them with greater attention. The reader follows the poem as its speaker moves from metaphors of collectivity – the beanstalks as a church ‘parade’ or a military ‘section’ – to particularised observations of the different sizes, shapes, and textures of the hanging beans: ‘ripe, knobbly ones, fleshy-sided / thin-straight, thin-crescent, frown-shaped, bird-shouldered, boat-keeled ones, / beans knuckled and single-bulged, minute green dolphins at suck.’ The careful observation of nature in ‘The Broad Bean Sermon’, like those in ‘Dead Trees in the Dam’ (from Subhuman Redneck Poems, 1996), ‘The Cowladder Stanzas’ (from Taller When Prone, 2010), and ‘Two Rains’ (from Dog Fox Field, 1990), reveal a sensitive knowledge and connection to Bunyah’s pastoral character – to its flowing milk and honey. This sympathetic connection reaches its most profound in the few poems taken from Translations from the Natural World (1992). In ‘Lyrebird’, ‘Cockspur Bush’, ‘Two Dogs’, ‘Layers of Pregnancy’, and ‘The Cows on Killing Day’, sympathy becomes empathy. Murray writes these poems from the perspectives of a bird, a bush, a dog, a kangaroo and a cow and translates the perceptions and ‘languages’ of these flora and fauna into poetic English.

On the other hand, Murray’s upbringing involved being witness to various kinds of violence and loss. Murray figures this aspect of his childhood in poems like ‘The Cows on Killing Day’. In the poem, the speaker – a cow – witnesses the brutal death of another cow: ‘A stick goes out from the human / and cracks, like the whip. Me shivers and falls down / with the terrible, the blood of men, coming out behind an ear.’ Such violence and loss is part and parcel of rural life and always has been. In ‘The China Pear Trees’ (from The Daylight Moon, 1987), Murray captures the inevitability of loss involved in both establishing and continuing the culture at Bunyah. The poem opens with a description of three China pear trees that seem to have a ‘power’ to attract settlers to the area. These trees soon witness various changes done to the land by a number of settlers from across a number of generations: ‘another house, electrified and steaming’, ‘a dam’, ‘a wire fence’. Eventually, the three trees themselves become victim to this perpetual change: the settlers cut the trees down to replace them with young ‘water-leaved trees.’ Murray does not pass judgements on the nature of these changes and loses – he simply takes note of them. In ‘1960 Brought the Electric’ (from Waiting for the Past, 2015) and ‘Free Kirk Cemetery’ (from Ethnic Radio, 1977), for example, he notes the changes brought about by the introduction of electricity and, in turn, electric lighting and electric kitchen appliances; in ‘The Milk Lorry’ (from The Daylight Moon, 1987), he describes the ‘polished submarine’ of a milk lorry that has replaced the old ‘high-tyres barn of crisp mornings’ lorry. Although Murray does accept these changes as an inescapable aspect of rural life, he does occasionally write of the loss that accompanies these changes with some sense of melancholy. In ‘The Kettle’s Bubble-Making Floor’ from Poems the Size of Photographs (2002), the speaker asks: ‘Who remembers the bitter / smell of smoke still in the house / the sunny next afternoon, / So recently smoke was everyday. / Who remembers the woolly / pink inside a burning peat?’ His questions go unanswered.

On Bunyah features an incredible number of moving and evocative poems. Many of them really do confirm that Murray is one of the greatest living poets – not simply for their content, but also for their controlled and very subtle artifice. The marriage of content and craft appears most vividly in Murray’s personal poems – poems for which artifice seems least fitting: ‘The Tin Wash Dish’ (from Dog Fox Field, 1990), ‘The Holy Show’ (from Conscious and Verbal, 1999), or ‘The Sleepout’ (from The Daylight Moon, 1987). ‘Weights’, from The People’s Otherworld (1983), may be the most poignant of these personal poems. Its first stanza reads:

Not owning a cart, my father
in the drought years was a bowing
green hut of cattle feed moving,
or gasping under cream cans. No weight
would he let my mother carry.

and its last:

I did not know back then
not for many years what it was
after me, she could not carry.

The poem’s content – the intensive labour and poverty of rural life; the difficulties experienced during the drought years; and, finally, his mother’s inability to ‘carry’ another baby after complications with her first and only child (not to mention the pun in the title, a psychological 'weight' Murray has carried since being bullied for his size in school) – is intensely difficult to read. However the poem’s subtle form keeps it from caving in under its emotional pressures: the consonantal chiming of /k/ in ‘cart’, ‘cattle’, and ‘carry’, the repetition of the present participles ‘owing’, ‘bowing’, ‘moving’, and ‘gasping’, the repetition of ‘not’ in the second stanza, the near-consistent eight-syllable lines; the speech-like rhythms, and the added syllable in line four to match the terminal word ‘weight’. Murray gives artifice to the personal and, as a result, communicates it with an incredible directness.

On Bunyah as a complete collection, however, is deeply flawed. Its presentation of Murray’s poems does little to contribute to their worth and, in fact, often does the exact opposite. Firstly, On Bunyah makes almost no attempt – but for a brief mention in Murray’s preface – to announce that it is largely a ‘selected poems’. The original publication sources for these poems, important information to anyone interested in reading Murray beyond the bed or toilet, are entirely missing. (I have taken care to include a few of these sources in this review as a corrective). Even the handful of poems that appear new have actually already been published in a collection called Waiting for the Past, which Black Inc. Books and Carcanet released only a few months prior to the original publication of On Bunyah in 2015. Secondly, On Bunyah makes no effort to organise these poems in an interesting manner: they do not appear chronologically, nor do they appear – at least explicitly – in any thematic order.

Thirdly, On Bunyah is completely inconsistent with its titling. The poem called ‘A Shrine House’ is actually a portion of the poem ‘Crankshaft’ of which another portion is published – almost one hundred pages later – without a new title, simply as ‘from Crankshaft.’ Variations of this problem occur repeatedly. On Bunyah gives the ‘June’ section of ‘The Idyll Wheel: Cycle of a Year at Bunyah’ the new title of ‘The Iron Kitchen’, but keeps ‘December: Infant among Cattle’, ‘July: Midwinter Haircut,’ ‘February: Feb.’ Similarly, three of the four sections of “Pastoral Sketches” appear in various places in On Bunyah, two with new titles and one as ‘from Pastoral Sketches.’ Fourthly, the 29 photos included in the collection do little to add to the artistry of Murray’s poems. While the older photos possess some historical interest, other photos – a burnt stump, for example – give the reader almost no insight into Bunyah’s unique environment – as, I assume, the photos were meant to do. Lastly, the presentation of ‘Persistence of the Reformation’ and ‘Widower’s House 1950s-60s’ strays from its originally formatting (in 2015’s Waiting for the Past and – as part of the poem, ‘The Lake Surnames’ – 1987’s The Daylight Moon respectively) to the detriment of both of these poems: it publishes the quotation marks – either double quotes (“”) or single quotes (‘’) – as two angled brackets (<<>>) ultimately drawing undue attention to the bracketed words. In poetry, such details matter. And where the individual poems deal with details with sensitivity and care, On Bunyah, as a collection, leaves them almost entirely unattended.