Sheer poetic brilliance from Australian giant of verse

Immense talent

There isn’t a thing that Les Murray, the poet who was received into the Church when he married, can’t do better than almost any other living poet. His latest effort is a brilliant collection which reminds us of the strangeness of time.

Waiting for the Past, by Les Murray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

- Reviewed by Anthony Domestico for Commonweal

Les Murray is a poet of immensity. First, there’s the immensity of his output. Born in 1938 in rural Australia, Murray has published more than 30 collections of poetry, many of them rapturously received: he has won the TS Eliot Prize, the Premio Mondello, and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, among many other awards.

Then there’s the immensity of Murray’s life. Tall, bald, and of Falstaffian girth, Murray looks like someone you’d avoid in a rugby scrum or outside a pub. He’s worked farms, post offices, and railways; he’s suffered from crippling bouts of depression and from congenital crankiness. His colourful life seems the stuff of legends.

The biographer Peter Alexander tells us that for a period in the 1960s, Murray, depressed and lacking funds, slept in unfinished buildings “on a plastic sheet and a blanket, emerging in the morning to slap the cement dust off himself as the builders arrived.”

While working for the State Railways around the same time, Murray “surreptitiously ate a turkey prepared for the New South Wales Railways Commissioner, picking the flesh away from the inside so that later when an attempt was made to carve it, the shell collapsed with a sigh.” In 1996, he almost died when a chicken bone perforated his gut. As I said, the stuff of legends.

But what is most remarkable is the immensity of Murray’s poetic gifts. Describe landscape? Take these lines from All of Half Way, which features the volcano-produced coast of Northern Ireland:

the Giant’s columns // massing on out, a basalt grandstand / of rain-cup pillars, crimped like Rubiks / from cooling out of their rock floor / all of half way from America

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