Instant Archaeology

Les Murray, Continuous Creation: Last Poems

Carcanet Press, 96pp, £11.99, ISBN 9781800171749

reviewed by Erik Kennedy

I typically approach a posthumous book of poems with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, especially if it’s by a poet whose work I have long admired. On the one hand, it’s great to get the chance to hear a final statement from an important voice. On the other, the conditions of the production of a posthumous book are often complicated, with semi-finished work jockeying for inclusion with more polished pieces, and with no author around to issue a definitive judgement on what belongs or on how everything should fit together.

The late Australian poet Les Murray’s Continuous Creation is defined by this tension, and by this difficult birthing process. The book’s editor, Jamie Grant, informs us that there was only three quarters of a manuscript, which has been supplemented by the ‘latest and best’ versions of handwritten drafts. Grant also writes that Murray’s ‘usual mental acuity was in decline’ near the end in 2018 and 2019, and Grant wasn’t sure that a book ‘really existed’ at all. Murray’s final years were characterised by poor health and invalidism, and I get the sense that there was a narrowing of his literary world, too. Murray’s tendency towards writing shorter poems with shorter lines, which definitely became noticeable to me in the last book he published when he was alive, 2015’s Waiting for the Past, becomes unignorable here. (Poems the Size of Photographs, from 2002, was basically all short poems, but it was a different, ludic sort of a book.) This combination of a slightly sketched-out line-up of poems and terser engagement with his subject matter lends Continuous Creation an unusually thin flavour by the standards of this poet.

But am I being fair? I usually prefer to write a criticism driven by description of the work at hand, rather than my judgements on what should be there. (It’s hard enough to write your own poems without insisting you know how to write other people’s, too.) Is there anything surprising about a poet who was ill writing shorter, simpler poems in the years leading up to his death? I’m not sure that there is. Anyway, we are not in Elephants Can Remember territory. (This is the late Agatha Christie book that corpus studies have shown has a significantly reduced vocabulary and restricted semantic complexity, and is also itself a book about mental decline.) And one could make a reasonable argument that many poems (by everyone, not particularly by Murray) are too long anyway . . .

There is still certainly some vintage Murray here. We get poems about members of his breathtakingly large cast of ancestors (‘Frederick Arnall’), about old bush characters whom life was cruel to so Murray is kind to (‘Bingham’s Ghost’), a strong family guilt poem (‘The Mystery’), an observation about autism (‘Polo Solved’), forays into the obscurer corners of European history (‘Balz’s Fosterling’), a few bushfire poems, and raising-them-to-noteworthiness looks at ordinary events (‘Metal Birth’, about a ‘big man leaving a small car’). The ending of ‘The Invention of Pigs’ is both haunting and very strange, when one circles back and thinks of what the aftermath of the poem’s events means in relation to the poem’s title:

One horse baked in a tin shed,
naked poultry lay about dead
having been plucked in mid flight

but where pigs had huddled
only fuzzy white hoofprints led
upwind over black, B B B
and none stayed feral in our region.

‘Invention’. What a Murrayesque word to have used to describe the creation-by-disaster of a new order in the local ecosystem. Any reader of Murray’s previous work will find familiar tics and fancies, bits of generative thinking that draw one in magnetically. There is a reason why John Clegg referred to Murray, in a piece for Wild Court, as ‘a poet who manufactures partisans’.

But I still catch myself having doubts about the collection. Would the earlier Murray have used the infamous self / shelf rhyme, as he does in ‘The Estuary Walk’? Answer: maybe? The words rhyme in ‘The Glory and Decline of Bread’ in Waiting for the Past and in ‘Incunabular’ in Conscious and Verbal (1999), but never as a face-smacking couplet, as here. There are quite a few pieces that feel like they are stanzas in search of a full poem. ‘Testing the Chainsaws’ or ‘Trimming Plumbago’, for example. These succeed in reproducing a momentary insight for the reader, but without going into elucidating detail or fully bringing the thought-altering magic of that insight to the surface. Here is all of ‘Trimming Plumbago’:

With musical gasps
the cane knife comes
shaving the swollen
skirts of the hedgerow
and the falling stalk tips
cover ground with shallow
masses of sky blue
while the old-shaped
blade acquires a white edge
fresh and narrow as cotton
retouched with stone

We could compare this to another, earlier short Murray poem that also proposes a very specific metaphor for a single action — and also uses the word ‘shallow’ — ‘Iguassu’, from 2002, about Iguazú Falls on the Argentina–Brazil border:

Shallow at brinks
with pouring tussocks
a bolt of live tan water
is continuously tugged
off miles of table
by thunderous white claws.

It’s obvious why ‘Iguassu’ is a self-contained piece of work, and the imagery is clear and arresting. It’s less obvious to me why ‘Trimming Plumbago’ doesn’t go on for longer, or why ‘cotton retouched with stone’ is a mic-dropping last image. This is not the only time a reader of Continuous Creation is likely to feel this way.

But even some of the handwritten, unedited poems are great. (The last seventeen poems of the book are the ones that Murray never finalised.) ‘Lightning Strike by Phone’, for example, apart from showing off the poet’s uncanny titling knack, manages to re-enchant inanimate objects, just as lightning coursing through a body makes it twitch:

a ball of lightning formed out along

the verandah, came snorting and strumming
to the door, and sucked inside
straight into the video, which came on
and displayed all it knew, its numbers,

all its jittering pathetic ruined numbers
that would never sing again, or tell a story.
A black cloud imprinted round the phone
marked it, too, as instant archaeology.

That the video player’s display is ‘pathetic’ is heartbreaking, like something out of a rural New South Wales WALL-E. Add to this Murray’s power to seemingly bring an entire field of study to bear on a small event (it’s ‘instant archaeology’!) and you’ve got a memorable poem.

Sometimes Murray’s ability to baffle is the drawcard. ‘On Bushfire Warning Day’ opens with a series of questions:

What would we take?
fridge stuff, money cards,
clothing, Clare’s albums,
my Jenny Compton sweater.

Where would the cat go?
Bush. Where would we go?
Newcastle, at best,
or else as roads were open.

I need more information. Why can’t the cat go to Newcastle, too?! I think to myself, seething a little. Hard to round up in a pinch, I suppose? I certainly hope that’s the reason. We never find out. What we do find out is that the family would come back after the fire ‘if the house survived’, ‘even if all remaining were / tiles and fuselage metal’. I am not an architect, but I am not sure that I would describe such a house as ‘surviving’. But Murray is confident: ‘Erasure might be / a sort of rebirthing’, he muses, granting to fire, as he has in the past, a regenerative quality. Fire as a subject for Murray is not new (as he wrote in 1983’s ‘The Grassfire Stanzas’, ‘Humans found the fire here. It is inherent. They learn, / wave after wave of them, how to touch the country’), but I’m struck by how strong the presence of fire is in this book. Maybe because climate change–exacerbated bushfires are of a different order and kind than the fires of the past. Maybe this is what Murray is getting across to us this time out.

Even though none of us are making it out alive, the hope is that our homes somehow endure. ‘Weebill’, one of the best poems in the book, makes this plain. Murray has accidentally gathered a weebill, Australia’s smallest bird, in his car’s grille and transported it far from its nest. The bird is uninjured, but now in danger (‘If it couldn’t home it would likely perish’). What can Murray do?

I braked, and said a line of words.

All wasted. Its cohort would supply
its brood with forage, if it should die.
If not, it would announce its own homecoming
relearning how to slow and sing.

The bird may die, but its ‘cohort’ will be all right. ‘A line of words’ (prayer, presumably, but the phrase is suggestive of poetry) may be useless, ‘wasted’, but Murray doesn’t indicate that he regrets uttering it.

Erik Kennedy 's latest book of poems is Another Beautiful Day Indoors.